Phonological history of English fricatives and affricates

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The phonological history of English fricatives and affricates is part of the phonological history of the English language in terms of changes in the phonology of fricative and affricate consonants.


H-dropping in the dialects of England (based on Upton and Widdowson, 2006). Dialects in the regions marked no /h/ feature (variable) H-dropping, while those in the regions marked /h/ generally do not. There is some local variation, however; for example, H-dropping is frequent in the city of Norwich, although it is generally absent from the surrounding dialects of East Anglia.[1]

H-dropping or aitch-dropping is the loss of /h/ as a phonemic consonant. It causes words like house, heat, and behind to be pronounced ouse, eat, and be-ind (though in some dialects an [h] may appear in behind to prevent hiatus – see below). H-dropping occurs (variably) in most of the English dialects of England and Wales, including Cockney, West Country English, West Midlands English (including Brummie), most Northern English (including Yorkshire and Lancashire), and South Wales English.[2] It also occurs in General Australian, most of Jamaica, and perhaps elsewhere in the West Indies (including some of the Bahamas). It is not generally found in North American English, although it has been reported in Newfoundland (outside the Avalon Peninsula). H-dropping in English is generally stigmatized and perceived by some as a sign of "poor" or uneducated speech.[3]

There is evidence of H-dropping in texts from the 13th century and later (including some puns in Elizabethan era dramas). It is suggested that the phenomenon probably spread from the middle to the lower orders of society, first taking hold in urban centers. It started to become stigmatized, being seen as a sign of poor education, in the 16th or 17th century.[4][5]

In H-dropping dialects, that is, in dialects without a phonemic /h/, the sound [h] may still occur but with uses other than distinguishing words. An epenthetic [h] may be used to avoid hiatus, so that for example the egg is pronounced the hegg. It may also be used when any vowel-initial word is emphasized, so that horse /ˈɔːs/ (assuming the dialect is also non-rhotic) and ass /ˈæs/ may be pronounced [ˈˈhɔːs] and [ˈˈhæs] in emphatic utterances. That is, [h] has become an allophone of the zero onset in these dialects.

Hypercorrection has resulted in an initial /h/ sound in words that did not originally have one. Examples are horrible, habit and harmony. All three words were passed into Middle English from French without an /h/ (orribel, abit, armonie), but all three derive from Latin words with an /h/ and would later acquire an /h/ in English as an etymological 'correction'.[6]

Sporadic cases of H-dropping occur in all English dialects in the weak forms of function words like he, him, her, his, had, and have; and, in most dialects, in all forms of the pronoun it – the older form hit survives as the strong form in a few dialects such as Southern American English and also occurs in the Scots language.[citation needed] Because the /h/ of unstressed have is usually dropped, the word is usually pronounced /əv/ in phrases like should have, would have, and could have. These can be spelled out in informal writing as "should've", "would've", and "could've".

See also

In other languages[edit]

The same phenomenon occurs in many other languages, such as Serbian, and Late Latin, the ancestor of the modern Romance languages. Interestingly, both French and Spanish acquired new initial [h] in medieval times, but these were later lost in both languages in a "second round" of H-dropping (however, some dialects of Spanish re-acquired /h/ from Spanish /x/ and Latin /f/). It is also known from several Scandinavian dialects, for instance Elfdalian and the dialect of Roslagen where it is found already in Runic Swedish.

Many Dutch dialects, especially the southern ones, feature H-dropping. The dialects of Zealand, Flanders and North Brabant have lost /h/ as a phonemic consonant but use [h] to avoid hiatus and to signal emphasis, much as in English.[7]


The opposite of aitch-dropping, aitch-adding, is a hypercorrection found in typically h-dropping accents of English. Commonly found in literature from late Victorian times to the early 20th century, holds that some lower-class people consistently drop h in words that should have it, while adding h to words that should not have it. An example from the musical My Fair Lady is, "In 'Artford, 'Ereford, and 'Ampshire, 'urricanes 'ardly hever 'appen". Another is in C. S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew: "Three cheers for the Hempress of Colney 'Atch". In practice, however, it would appear that h-adding is more of a stylistic prosodic effect, being found on some words receiving particular emphasis, regardless of whether those words are h-initial or vowel-initial in the standard language.

Words borrowed from French frequently begin with the letter h but not with the sound /h/. Examples include hour, heir, hono(u)r and honest. In some cases, spelling pronunciation has introduced the sound /h/ into such words, as in humble, hotel and (for most speakers) historic. Spelling pronunciation has also added /h/ to the English English pronunciation of herb, /hɜːb/, while American English retains the older pronunciation /ɝ(ː)b/.

Velar fricatives[edit]

Most varieties of modern English no longer normally have velar fricatives.

Taut–taught merger[edit]

The taut–taught merger is a process that occurs in modern English that causes /x/ to be dropped in words like thought, night, daughter etc.[8]

The phoneme /x/ was previously distinguished as [ç] after front vowels, [x] after back vowels. [ç] and sometimes [x] was lost in most dialects with compensatory lengthening of the previous vowels.

/x/ became /f/, with shortening of the previous vowel, in some words.

  • laughen /ˈlaxən/ > laugh /laf/ > RP /lɑːf/, GA /læf/

Inconsistent development of [x] combined with ambiguity of ou (either /ou/ or /uː/ in Early Middle English) produced multiple reflexes of orthographic ough. Compare Modern English through /θruː/, though /ðoʊ/, bough /baʊ/, cough /kɒf/, /kɔf/ or /kɑf/, rough /rʌf/.

Some accents in northern England show slightly different changes, for example, night as /niːt/ (neat) and in the dialectal words owt and nowt (from aught and naught, pronounced like out and nout, meaning anything and nothing). Also, in Northern England, the distinction between wait and weight is often preserved, so those speakers lack the wait–weight merger.

Wait–weight merger[edit]

The wait–weight merger is the merger of the Middle English sound sequences /ɛi/ (as in wait) and /ɛix/ (as in weight) that occurs in most dialects of English.[9]

The main exceptions are in northern England, for example in many Yorkshire accents, where these sequences are often kept distinct, so that wait /weːt/ is distinct from weight /wɛɪt/ and late /leːt/ does not rhyme with eight [ɛɪt].

The distinction between wait and weight is an old one that goes back to a diphthongisation of Middle English /ɛ/ before the fricative /x/ which was represented by gh in English. So in words like weight /ɛ/ became /ɛɪ/ and subsequently /x/ was lost as in Standard English, but the diphthong remained.

Wait on the other hand is a Norman French loan word (which in turn was a Germanic loan) and had the Middle English diphthong [ai] that was also found in words like day. This diphthong merged with the reflex of Middle English /aː/ (as in late) and both ended up as /eː/ in the accents of parts of northern England, hence the distinction wait /weːt/ vs. weight /wɛɪt/.

Note that the wait–weight merger is distinct from the pane-pain merger, where the formerly distinct vowels /eː/ and /ei/ have since merged as /eɪ/. Words like ate, ait and eight all had different pronunciations in Middle English, but are homophones in most accents today.

Lock–loch merger[edit]

The lock–loch merger is a phonemic merger of /k/ and /x/ that is starting to occur in some Scottish English dialects, making lock and loch homonyms as /lɔk/. Many other varieties of English have borrowed foreign and Scottish /x/ as /k/, and so not all people who pronounce "lock" and "loch" alike exhibit the merger[clarification needed].[10][11]

The English spoken in Scotland has traditionally been known for having an extra consonant /x/, but that is starting to disappear among some younger speakers in Glasgow. This merger was investigated by auditory and acoustic analysis on a sample of children from Glasgow pronouncing words that traditionally have /x/ in Scottish English.

Voiced/voiceless splits[edit]

The Old English fricatives /f, θ, s/ had voiceless and voiced allophones, the voiced forms occurring in certain environments, such as between vowels. In Early Middle English, partly due to borrowings from French, these split into separate phonemes: /f, v, θ, ð, s, z/. Later, also, a voiced /ʒ/ appeared alongside /ʃ/.

Dental fricatives[edit]


The initial consonant in the word "finger"

Initial-fricative-voicing is a process that occurs in the West Country accents where the fricatives /s/, /f/, /θ/, /ʃ/ and /h/ can be voiced to [z], [v], [ð], [ʒ] and [ɦ] when they occur at the beginning of a word. In these accents, sing and farm are pronounced [zɪŋ] and [vɑːɻm]. As seen in H-dropping, many of these areas also drop /ɦ/ altogether. The West country pronunciations vane (Old English fana), vat (Old English fæt) and vixen (Old English fyxen) made their way into standard usage.[12]

A similar phenomenon happened in both German and Dutch.


S-retraction is a process where "s" is pronounced as a retracted variant of /s/ ([]) auditorily closer to /ʃ/. S-retraction occurs in Glaswegian, in Scotland.[10]

Seal–zeal merger[edit]

Seal–zeal merger is a phenomenon occurring in Hong Kong English where the phonemes /s/ and /z/ merge to voiceless [s] making pairs like "seal" and "zeal", and "racing" and "razing" homonyms.[13]

Pleasure–pressure merger[edit]

Pleasure–pressure merger is a phenomenon occurring in Hong Kong English where the phonemes /ʃ/ and /ʒ/ merge to voiceless [ʃ] making "pleasure" and "pressure" rhyme.[13]

Sip–ship merger[edit]

The sip–ship merger is a phenomenon occurring in some Asian and African varieties of English where the phonemes /s/ and /ʃ/ are not distinguished. As a result, pairs like "sip" and "ship", "sue" and "shoe" etc. are homophones.[14]

In the cartoon series, South Park, this pronunciation is made fun of by recurring character Tuong Lu Kim's distinctive pronunciation of the word, "city".

Ship–chip merger[edit]

The ship–chip merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Zulu English and Chicano English where the phonemes /ʃ/ and /tʃ/ are not distinguished. As a result, "ship" and "chip" are homophones.[15]

Zip–gyp merger[edit]

The zip–gyp merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Indian English where /z/ and /dʒ/ merge to [dʒ], making "zip" and "gyp" homophonous as /dʒɪp/.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Upton, C., Widdowson, J.D.A., An Atlas of English Dialects, Routledge 2006, pp. 58–59.
  2. ^ Collins, Beverley; Mees, Inger M. (2002). The Phonetics of Dutch and English (PDF) (5 ed.). Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers. pp. 290–302. 
  3. ^ Wells, J.C., Accents of English, CUP 1982, pp. 564, 568–69, 589, 594, 622.
  4. ^ Milroy, J., "On the Sociolinguistic History of H-dropping in English", in Current topics in English historical linguistics, Odense UP, 1983.
  5. ^ Milroy, L., Authority in Language: Investigating Standard English, Routledge 2002, p. 17.
  6. ^ "World of words - Oxford Dictionaries Online". Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  7. ^ "h". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ "Scotland". Archived from the original on 2004-07-03. Retrieved 21 February 2015. 
  9. ^ Wells, J.C., Accents of English, CUP 1982, pp. 192–94, 337, 357, 384–85, 498.
  10. ^ a b "Annexe 4: Linguistic Variables". Retrieved 2015-02-21. 
  11. ^ "University of Essex :: Department of Language and Linguistics :: Welcome". Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  12. ^ Harper, Douglas. "V". Online Etymology Dictionary. 
  13. ^ a b "Honk Kong English" (PDF). Retrieved 21 February 2015. 
  14. ^ "Legacies of Colonial English: Studies in Transported Dialects - Google Boeken". Retrieved 2013-08-01. 
  15. ^ Rodrik Wade, MA Thesis, Ch 4: Structural characteristics of Zulu English at the Wayback Machine (archived May 17, 2008)