Phonological history of English high front vowels
- 1 Lowering of short vowels
- 2 Long vowels up to the Great Vowel Shift
- 3 Fleece merger
- 4 Freeze–frees split
- 5 Weak-vowel merger
- 6 Kit split
- 7 Pin–pen merger
- 8 Bit–bet merger
- 9 Happy-tensing
- 10 Change of /iːə/ to /ɪə/
- 11 Mitt–meet merger
- 12 Met–mat merger
- 13 Met–mate merger
- 14 See also
- 15 References
- 16 Bibliography
Lowering of short vowels
Middle English short /i/ has developed into a lax, near-close near-front unrounded vowel, /ɪ/, in Modern English, as found in words like kit. Similarly, short /u/ has become /ʊ/. According to Roger Lass, this laxing occurred in the 17th century, but other linguists have suggested that it took place potentially much earlier.
The short mid vowels have also undergone lowering, so that the continuation of Middle English /e/ (as in words like dress) now has a quality closer to [ɛ] in most accents. Again, though, it is not clear whether the vowel already had a lower value in Middle English.
Long vowels up to the Great Vowel Shift
Middle English had a long close front vowel /iː/, and two long mid front vowels: the close-mid /eː/ and the open-mid /ɛː/. The three vowels were commonly spelt ⟨i⟩, ⟨ee⟩ and ⟨ea⟩ respectively, although other spellings were also possible. The spellings that became established in Middle English are mostly still used today, although the qualities of the sounds have changed significantly.
These /iː/ and /eː/ generally corresponded to similar Old English vowels, while /ɛː/ came from Old English /æː/. For other possible histories, see English historical vowel correspondences. In particular, the long vowels sometimes arose from short vowels, via Middle English open syllable lengthening or other processes. For example, team comes from an originally long Old English vowel, while eat comes from an originally short vowel that underwent lengthening; the distinction between these two groups of words is still preserved in a few dialects, as noted in the following section.
Middle English /ɛː/ was shortened in certain words. Both long and short forms of such words often existed alongside each other during the Middle English period; in Modern English the short form has generally become standard, but the spelling ⟨ea⟩ reflects the former longer pronunciation. The words affected include several ending in d, such as bread, head, spread, as well as various others including breath, weather and threat. For example, bread was /brɛːd/ in earlier Middle English, but came to be shortened so as to rhyme with bed.
In the Great Vowel Shift, the normal outcome of /iː/ was a diphthong which developed into Modern English /aɪ/, as in mine and find. Meanwhile /eː/ became /iː/, as in feed, while the /ɛː/ of words like meat became /eː/; this later merged with /iː/ in nearly all dialects, as described in the following section.
Fleece merger 
The fleece merger or the meet–meat merger is the merger of the Early Modern English vowel /eː/ (as in meat) into the vowel /iː/ (as in meet). The merger was complete in standard accents of English by about 1700.
As seen in the previous section, the Early Modern English (ENE) vowel /eː/ developed from Middle English /ɛː/ via the Great Vowel Shift, while ENE /iː/ was usually the result of Middle English /eː/ (the effect in both cases was a raising of the vowel). The merger saw ENE /eː/ raised further to become identical to /iː/; this means that Middle English /ɛː/ and /eː/ have both become /iː/ in standard Modern English – meat and meet are now homophones. The merger did not affect the words in which /ɛː/ had undergone shortening (see section above), and a handful of other words (such as break, steak, great) also escaped the merger in the standard accents, acquiring the same vowel as brake, stake, grate. Hence the words meat, threat (which was shortened) and great now have three different vowels, although all three words once rhymed.
The merger results in the fleece lexical set, as defined by John Wells. Words in this set that had ENE /iː/ (Middle English /eː/) are mostly spelt ⟨ee⟩ (meet, green, etc.), with a single ⟨e⟩ in monosyllables (be, me) or followed by a single consonant and a vowel letter (these, Peter), sometimes ⟨ie⟩ or ⟨ei⟩ (believe, ceiling), or irregularly (key, people). Those that had ENE /eː/ (Middle English /ɛː/) are mostly spelt ⟨ea⟩ (meat, team, eat, etc.), and in borrowed words sometimes with a single ⟨e⟩ (legal, decent, complete) or with ⟨ei⟩ or otherwise (receive, seize, phoenix, quay). There are also some loanwords in which /iː/ is spelt ⟨i⟩ (police, machine, ski); these mostly entered the language later.
The merger is complete outside the British Isles and virtually complete within them. Some speakers in Northern England distinguish /iː/ or /əi/ in the first group of words and /ɪə/ in the second group. Old-fashioned varieties of Hiberno-English and the West Country dialects preserve the Early Modern English /iː/–/eː/ contrast, for instance piece ≠ peace ≠ pace, but it is rare to find the contrast in these accents nowadays. In some dialects that preserve the distinction, things are more complicated than simply all words in the meat set having /ɪə/. In those accents, some (but not all) words in the meat set actually have a sound resembling /ɛɪ/ as in eight. In Alexander (2001), a book about the traditional Sheffield dialect, the spelling "eigh" is used for the vowels of eat and meat but the spelling "eea" is used for the vowels of team and cream. However, a 1999 survey in Sheffield found that the /ɛɪ/ pronunciation is almost extinct.
The words team and cream, which have /ɪə/ in the traditional Yorkshire accents, have original long vowels, going back to Old English tēam and Old French creme respectively, while eat (< OE etan) and meat (< OE mete) have vowels that were originally short but lengthened by Middle English open syllable lengthening. This is the origin of the Yorkshire distinction.
In accents with the distinction, the vowel /ɪə/ is usually represented by the spellings ea and eCe, as in neat and complete, and the vowel /ɛɪ/ is usually represented by the spellings ei and ey, as in receive and key, and the vowel /iː/ is usually represented by the spellings ee, ie and iCe as in feet, thief and suite, as well as plain e in the monosyllabic words be, he, me, she, the (when stressed), we and ye.
The freeze–frees split is the split of English /iː/ into two distinct phonemes:
- /iː/, which occurs in morphologically closed syllables (as in freeze /friːz/);
- /ei/, which occurs in morphologically open syllables (as in frees /freiz/).
The weak-vowel merger is a phonemic merger of /ə/ (schwa) with unstressed /ɪ/ (sometimes transcribed as /ɨ/ or /ᵻ/) in certain dialects of English. As a result of this merger the words abbot and rabbit rhyme; in accents without the merger they are distinct. The merger is nearly complete in the Southern Hemisphere accents and General American, and complete in Hiberno-English.
Even in accents that generally maintain the distinction, it may still likely merge in other circumstances:
- /ər/ and /ɨr/ have merged in virtually all accents when they occur at the end of a word or before consonants.[dubious ] These two sequences are otherwise less likely to merge before vowels, but still more likely to merge than /ə/ and /ɨ/ alone. In Received Pronunciation, this became /ər/ before vowels, and /ə/ elsewhere. In General American, this became /ɚ/ in all positions.
- /əl/ and /ɨl/ have merged in most accents when they occur at the end of a word or before consonants (especially if the /l/ is dark [ɫ]), becoming /əl/ or /l̩/. In accents where /ɨl/ survives, it is usually realized as /ɪl/ and may not be articulated as a weak vowel at all; in modern Received Pronunciation and General American, this tends to sound archaic or stilted.
- /ən/ and /ɨn/ have merged into /n̩/ after /t/ or /d/ in General American, creating the sequences /tn̩ dn̩/. /tn̩/ in particular often simplifies to [ʔn̩]. The weak vowel may reappear when a word is enunciated syllable by syllable. In Received Pronunciation, the distinction is still often made, resulting in non-rhyming pairs such as "Martin" vs. "Barton".
The following end differently for speakers without the merger:
- ribbon, cabin
- carrot, merit
The kit split is a split of EME /ɪ/ found in South African English, where kit [kɪt] and bit [bət] do not rhyme. It is not clear whether this is a true phonemic split, since the distribution of the two sounds is predictable: [ɪ] is used adjacent to velars (kiss, gift, lick, big, sing, kit), after /h/ (hit), word-initially (inn), generally before /ʃ/ (fish), and by some speakers before /tʃ, dʒ/; [ə] is used elsewhere (limb, dinner, limited, bit). Nevertheless because of the phonetic similarity of the two vowels in a word like dinner ([ˈdənə], with the dropping of the final r characteristic of SAE and other non-rhotic varieties of English), they may belong to the same phoneme /ə/, while the vowel of kiss, big, hit, inn etc. belongs to the phoneme /ɪ/.
The pin–pen merger is a conditional merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal stops [m], [n], and [ŋ]. The merged vowel is usually closer to [ɪ] than to [ɛ] (examples include: kin-ken, bin-ben, and him-hem). The merger is widespread in Southern American English, and is also found in many speakers in the Midland region immediately north of the South, and in areas settled by migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who settled in the Western United States during the dustbowl, particularly in Bakersfield, California. It is also a characteristic of African American Vernacular English.
Although this merger was not complete in the South even in fairly recent times, there is very little variation throughout the Southern States in general, except that Savannah, Austin, Miami, and New Orleans are excluded from the merger. The area of consistent merger includes southern Virginia and most of the South Midland, and extends westward to include much of Texas.
The northern limit of the merged area shows a number of irregular curves. Central and southern Indiana is dominated by the merger, but there is very little evidence of it in Ohio, and northern Kentucky shows a solid area of distinction around Louisville.
In the west, there is sporadic representation of merged speakers in Washington, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. But the most striking concentration of merged speakers in the west is around Bakersfield, California, a pattern that may reflect the trajectory of migrant workers from the Ozarks westward.
The pin–pen merger is one of the most widely recognized features of Southern speech. A study of the written responses of Civil War veterans from Tennessee, together with data from the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States and the Linguistic Atlas of the Middle South Atlantic States, show that the merger was at a very low level through the first sixty years of the 19th century, but then rose steeply to 90% in the middle of the 20th century.
Outside the South, the majority of North American English speakers maintain a solid distinction in perception and production, though there are in almost every region of the United States—and even a few places in Canada—a certain number of speakers that perceive the pairs of words as close or pronounce them acoustically closely.
People with the merger will often add descriptive modifiers, producing constructions such as ink pen and stick/straight or safety pin, to make a clear distinction between the two homophonous words.
A merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ (both sounding like [ɪ]) occurs for some speakers of Newfoundland English (Wells Pg. 500). As a result, bit and bet are homophones as /bɪt/.
Happy-tensing is the process in which final lax [ɪ] becomes tense [i] in words like happy. Happy-tensing is absent from many varieties of British English and, traditionally at least, from Southern American English. Other realizations of the final vowel are also possible, such as [e] in Scottish English. The history of happy-tensing is difficult to pin down; the fact that it is uniformly present in South African English, Australian English, and New Zealand English implies that it was present in southern British English already at the beginning of the 19th century. Yet it is not mentioned by descriptive phoneticians until the early 20th century, and even then at first only in American English. The British phonetician Jack Windsor Lewis believes that the vowel moved from [i] to [ɪ] in Britain the second quarter of the nineteenth century before reverting to [i] in non-conservative British accents towards the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Change of /iːə/ to /ɪə/
The change of /iːə/ to /ɪə/ is a change where bisyllabic /iːə/ becomes smoothed to the diphthong /ɪə/ in certain words, leading to pronunciations like /ˈvɪəkəl/, /ˈθɪətə/ and /aɪˈdɪə/ for "vehicle", "theatre/theater" and "idea" respectively. This is not restricted to any one variety of English; it happens in both British English and (less noticeably or often) American English as well as other varieties; although it is far more common in the former, as some Americans do not have the phoneme /ɪə/ in their speech. The words which have the /iːə/ to /ɪə/ may vary depending on dialect. Dialects that have this smoothing usually also have the diphthong /ɪə/ in words like "beer", "deer" and "fear" which are pronounced /bɪə/, /dɪə/ and /fɪə/ in those dialects. Some northern English accents have /ɪː/ instead of /ɪə/ in all words affected by idea smoothing, and some have /ɪː/ for the first vowel in words such as period, serious, etc. but then /iːə/ for the second vowel.
The mitt–meet merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English and Singaporean English where the phonemes /iː/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced /i/. As a result, pairs like "mitt" and "meet", "bit" and "beat", "bid" and "bead" etc. are homophones.
The met–mat merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English, Singaporean English and Hong Kong English where the phonemes /ɛ/ and /æ/ are both pronounced /ɛ/. For some speakers, this only occurs in front of voiceless consonants, so that pairs like "met", "mat", "bet", "bat" are homophones, but "bed", "bad" or "med", "mad" are kept distinct. For others, it occurs in all positions.
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