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The phonology of Old English is necessarily somewhat speculative, since it is preserved purely as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large corpus of Old English, and the written language apparently indicates phonological alternations quite faithfully, so it is not difficult to draw certain conclusions about the nature of Old English phonology.

Contents

Sound inventory

The inventory of surface sounds (whether allophones or phonemes) of Old English is as shown below.

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Consonants

  Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m   n     (ŋ)  
Stop p  b   t  d tʃ  (dʒ)   k  ɡ  
Fricative f  (v) θ  (ð) s  (z) ʃ (ç) (x)  (ɣ) h
Approximant     r[1]   j w  
Lateral     l        

1. ^  The exact nature of Old English r is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant [ɹ], as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar flap [ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r]. In this article we will use the symbol /r/ indiscriminately to stand for this phoneme.

Consonant allophones

The sounds marked in parentheses in the table above are allophones:

  • [dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ and when geminated
    • For example, senġan "to singe" is [sendʒɑn] < /senjɑn/ < *sangjan
    • and bryċġ "bridge" is [bryddʒ] < /bryjj/ < *bruggjō < *bruɣjō
  • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/
    • For example, hring "ring" is [hriŋɡ]; [ŋ] did not occur alone word-finally in Old English as it does in Modern English.
  • [v, ð, z] are allophones of /f, θ, s/ respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants.
    • For example, stafas "letters" is [stɑvɑs] < /stɑfɑs/, smiþas "blacksmiths" is [smiðɑs] < /smiθɑs/, and hūses "house (genitive)" is [huːzes] < /huːses/.
  • [ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively. The evidence for this is indirect, as it is not indicated in the orthography. Nevertheless, the fact that there was historically a fronting of *k to /tʃ/ and of to /j/ after front vowels makes it very likely. Moreover, in late Middle English, /x/ sometimes became /f/ (e.g. tough, cough), but only after back vowels, never after front vowels. This is explained if we assume that the allophone [x] sometimes became [f] but the allophone [ç] never did.
    • For example, cniht "boy" is [kniçt], while ġeþōht "thought" is [jeˈθoːxt]
  • The sequences /hw hl hn hr/ were realized as [w̥ l̥ n̥ r̥].
  • [ɣ] is an allophone of /ɡ/ occurring after a vowel or liquid. Historically, [ɣ] is older, and originally appeared in word-initial position as well; for Proto-West Germanic (PWG) and probably the earliest Old English it makes more sense to say that [ɡ] is an allophone of /ɣ/ after a nasal. But after [ɣ] became [ɡ] word-initially, it makes more sense to treat the stop as the basic form and the fricative as the allophonic variant.
    • For example, dagas "days" is [dɑɣɑs] and burgum "castles (dative)" is [burɣum]

Vowels

Monophthongs Short Long
Front Back Front Back
Close i  y u iː  yː
Mid e  (ø) o eː  (øː)
Open æ ɑ æː ɑː

The front mid rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect. There is also historical evidence suggesting that short /e/ and /o/ were phonetically lower and/or more centralized (perhaps /ɛ/ and /ɔ/) than the corresponding long ones.

Diphthongs Short (monomoraic) Long (bimoraic)
First element is close iy[2] iːy
Both elements are mid eo eːo
Both elements are open æɑ æːɑ

2. ^  It is uncertain whether the diphthongs spelt ie/īe were pronounced [i(ː)y] or [i(ː)e]. The fact that this diphthong was merged with /y(ː)/ in many dialects suggests the former.

The distribution of velars and palatals

The pairs /k/~/tʃ/ and /ɡ/~/j/ are almost certainly distinct phonemes synchronically in Late West Saxon, the dialect in which the majority of Old English documents are written. This is shown by such near-minimal pairs as:

  • drincan [driŋkɑn] "to drink" vs. drenċan [drentʃɑn] "to drench"
  • gēs [ɡeːs] "geese" vs. ġē [jeː] "you"

Nevertheless there are very few environments in which both the velars and the palatals can occur; in most environments only one or the other set occurs. Also, the two sets alternate with each other in ways reminiscent of allophones, for example:

  • ċēosan [tʃeːozan] "to choose" vs. curon [kuron] "chose (pl.)"
  • ġēotan [jeːotan] "to pour" vs. guton [ɡuton] "poured (pl.)"

(In the standardized orthography used on this page, c stands for /k/, ċ for /tʃ/, g for /ɡ/ and [ɣ], and ġ for /j/ and [dʒ]. The geminates of these are spelled cc, ċċ, cg, ċġ.)

The best way to explain the distribution of c~ċ and g~ġ is through historical linguistics. The PWG ancestor of both c and ċ is *k; the ancestor of both g and ġ is . Palatalization of *k to ċ and of to ġ happened in the following environments:

  • before PWG nonlow front vowels (*i, *ī, *e, *ē, *eu) as well as PWG *j
    • Examples: ġifþ "(he) gives" < *ɣifiþi, ċīdan "to chide" < *kīdan, ċeorl "churl" < *kerlaz, ġēotan "pour" < *ɣeutan; non-initially bēċ "books" < *bōkīz, sēċan "seek" < *sōkjan, bryċġ "bridge" < *bruɣjō
  • before OE /æ, æː/ < PWG *a, ā (but not before OE /ɑ, ɑː/ < PWG *a, ǣ by a-restoration)
    • Examples: ġeaf /jæf/ "gave" < *ɣaf, ċēace /tʃæːke/ "cheek" < *kāk-
  • before OE /æːɑ/ < PWG *au
    • Examples: ċēas "chose (sg.)" < *kaus, ġēat "poured (sg.)" < *ɣaut
  • before OE /æɑ/ < PWG *a by breaking
    • Examples: ċeald "cold" < *kaldaz, ġeard "yard" < *ɣardaz
  • after OE /i, iː/, unless a back vowel followed
    • Examples: "I" < PWG *ik, dīċ "ditch, dike" < PWG *dīk- (but wicu "weak")
  • after OE /e, eː/ and /æ, æː/ ( only!), unless a back vowel followed
    • Examples: weġ "way" < PWG *weɣaz, næġl "nail" < PWG *naɣlaz, mǣġ "relative" < PWG *māɣaz (but wegas "ways")

The velars remained velar, however, before back vowels that underwent i-mutation (umlaut):

  • cyning "king" < *kuningaz
  • gēs "geese" < *ɣōsīz
  • cemban "to comb" < *kambjan
  • macian "to make" < *makōjan

Palatalization was undone before consonants in OE:

  • sēcþ "he seeks" < *sēċþ < *sōkjiþi
  • sengþ "he singes" < *senġþ < *sangjiþi

The palatalization of PWG *sk to OE /ʃ/ (spelt ) is much less restricted: word-initially it is found before back vowels and r as well as in the environments where ċ and ġ are found.

  • sċuldor "shoulder" < *skuldr-
  • sċort "short" < *skort-
  • sċrūd "dress" < *skrūd-

Non-initially palatalization to is found before PWG front vowels and j, and after front vowels in OE, but not before an OE back vowel

  • fisċ "fish" < *fiskaz
  • āscian "ask" < *aiskōjan

In addition to /j/ from the palatalization of PWG , Old English also has /j/ from PWG *j, which could stand before back vowels:

  • ġeong /junɡ/ "young" < PWG *jungaz
  • ġeoc /jok/ "yoke" < PWG *jokan

Many instances where a ċ/c, ġ/g, or sċ/sc alternation would be expected within a paradigm, it was levelled out by analogy at some point in the history of the language. For example, the velar of sēcþ "he seeks" has replaced the palatal of sēċan "to seek" in Modern English; on the other hand, the palatalised forms of besēċan have replaced the velar forms, to create "beseech".

Phonological processes

A-restoration

The Anglo-Frisian languages underwent a sound change in their development from Proto-West Germanic by which the vowels *a, ā were fronted to /æ, æː/ unless followed by a nasal consonant, a process known in the literature as Anglo-Frisian brightening.

Later in Old English, short /æ/ (and in some dialects long /æː/ as well), was backed to /ɑ/ when there was a back vowel in the following syllable. Because strong masculine and neuter nouns have back vowels in the plural, alternations like /æ/ in the singular vs. /ɑ/ in the plural are common in this noun class:

/æ/~/ɑ/ alternation in masculine and neuter strong nouns
Case Masculine Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dæġ dagas fæt fatu
Accusative dæġ dagas fæt fatu
Genitive dæġes daga fætes fata
Dative dæġe dagum fæte fatum

Breaking

Breaking in Old English is the diphthongization of the short vowels /e, æ/ to short (monomoraic) /eo, æɑ/ when followed by /h/ or by /r/ or /l/ plus another consonant. Note that /l/ in implosive position has a velar quality (the "dark l" allomorph on PDE all, cold), and is therefore indicated as [ɫ]. The geminates rr and ll count as r or l plus another consonant. (But the change /e//eo/ does not happen before /l/ plus consonant unless the cluster is /lh/.)

Examples:

  • weorpan "to throw" < /werpan/
  • wearp [wæɑrp] "threw (sing.)" < /wærp/
  • feoh [feox] "money" < /feh/
  • feaht [fæɑxt] "fought (sing.)" < /fæht/
  • healp [hæɑɫp] "helped (sing.)" < /hælp/ (but no breaking in helpan "to help" because the consonant after /l/ is not /h/)
  • feorr [feorr] "far" < /ferr/
  • feallan [fæɑllɑn] "to fall" < /fællɑn/
  • eolh [eoɫx] "elk" < /elh/

The breaking of /i, e/ as a result of i-mutation of /e, æ/ is /iy/.

Examples:

  • hwierfþ "turns" (intr.) < /hwirfθ/ < /hwerfθ/ + I-mutation < *hwerbiþi
  • hwierfan "to turn" (tr.) < /hwerfɑn/ < /hwærfɑn/ + I-mutation < *hwarbjan

h-loss

In the same contexts where the voiceless fricatives /f, θ, s/ become voiced, i.e. between vowels and between a voiced consonant and a vowel, /h/ is lost, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel if it is short. Breaking before /rh/ and /lh/ takes place regardless of whether the /h/ is lost by this rule. An unstressed short vowel is absorbed into the preceding long vowel.

Examples:

  • sċōs "shoe" (gen.) < /ʃoːes/ < /ʃoːhes/, cf. sċōh (nom.)
  • fēos "money" (gen.) < /feːoes/ < /feohes/ < /fehes/, cf. feoh (nom.)
  • wēalas "foreigners, Welsh people" < /wæɑlhɑs/ < /wælhɑs/, cf. wealh (sing.)

i-mutation

See i-mutation in Old English.

Vowels after palatals

The vowels ie/īe and ea/ēa generally occur in Old English after ċ, ġ, where the vowels e/ē and æ/ǣ would be expected.

Examples:

  • sċieran "to cut", sċear "cut (past sing.)", sċēaron "cut (past pl.)", which belongs to the same conjugation class (IV) as beran "to carry", bær "carried (sing.)", bǣron "carried (pl.)"
  • ġiefan "to give", ġeaf "gave (sing.)", ġēafon "gave (pl.)", ġiefen "given", which belongs to the same conjugation class (V) as tredan "to tread", træd "trod (sing.)", trǣdon "trod (pl.)", treden "trodden"

The traditional view of this (e.g. Campbell 1959, Mitchell and Robinson 2001) is that the vowels were actually diphthongized in this position.

A minority view (e.g. Lass 1994) is that this phenomenon is purely orthographic, and that no diphthongization took place. Under this view, the words listed above have the following pronunciations:

  • sċieran [ʃerɑn]
  • sċear [ʃær]
  • sċēaron [ʃæːron]
  • ġiefan [jevɑn]
  • ġeaf [jæf]
  • ġēafon [jæːvon]
  • ġiefen [jeven]

The main argument in favor of this view is the fact that diphthongizations like /æ/[æɑ] and /e/[iy] (if this is the correct interpretation of orthographic ie) are phonetically unmotivated in the context of a preceding palatal or postalveolar consonant.

Vowel changes: an overview

West Germanic Condition Old English Examples
  i- umlaut
*a   æ e *daga(z) > dæġ "day"; *batizō > betera "better"
+n,m a,o e *mann(z), manni(z) > man, mon, plur. men "man"
+nf,nþ,ns ō ē *tanþ(z), tanþi(z) > tōþ, plur. tēþ "tooth"; *gans, gansi(z) > gōs, plur. ġēs "goose"
+ h, rC, lC ea ie *arma(z) > earm "arm"; *aldizō > ieldra "elder"
k,g,j+ ea ie Lat. castra > ċeaster "town, fortress"; *gasti(z) > ġiest "guest"
before a,o,u a   plur. *dagō(z) > dagas "days"
u-umlaut ea eo *alu > ealu "ale"; *asilu(z) > eosol "donkey"
*e   e i *etan, -iþ > etan, 3.sing. iteþ "eat"
k,g,j+ ie i *skeran > sċieran "shear"
+ h,rC,lC eo ie *sehs > seox "six"; *werþan, -iþ > weorðan, 3.sing. wierþ "become"
*i   i   *fiska > fisċ "fish"
+ nf,nþ,ns ī   *finf > fīf "five"
u-umlaut i (io, eo)   *miluka > mioluc,meolc "milk"
*u   u y *sunu(z) > sunu "son"; *gudinjō > ġyden "goddess"
+ nf,nþ,ns ū ȳ *munþ(z) > mūþ "mouth"; *wunskian > wȳsċan "wish"
a-umlaut (not before nasal) o e *guda > god "god"; *duhtar, duhtri(z) > dohter, plur. dehter "daughter"
(*ē >) *ā   ǣ ǣ *slāpan > slǣpan "sleep", Lat. strāta > strǣt "street"; *dādi(z) > dǣd "deed"
k,g,j+ ēa īe *jāra > ġēar "year"; Lat. cāseus > ċīese "cheese"
+ n,m ō ē *mānō > mōna "moon"; *kwāni(z) > kwēn "queen"
+ h,rC,lC ēa īe *nāha, nāhista > nēah, superl. nīehst "near, -est"
+ w / +ga,o,u,la,o,u ā   *knāwan > cnāwan "know"
  ē   *mēda > mēd "reward"
  ō ē *fōt(z), fōti(z) > fōt, plur. fēt "foot"
  ī   *wība > wīf "wife"
+ h,rC,lC īo > ēo īe *līhan > lēon, 3.pers. līehþ "lend"
  ū ȳ *mūs, mūsi(z) > mūs, plur. mȳs "mouse"
*ai   ā ǣ *staina(z) > stān "stone", Lat. Caesar > cāsere "emperor", *hwaitja > hwǣte "wheat"
*au   ēa īe *auzō > ēare "ear"; *hauzjan > hīeran "hear"
*eu   ēo īe *deupa > dēop "deep"; *liuhtjan > līehtan "lighten"

Prosody

References

  • Baker, Peter S. (2007). Introduction to Old English (2nd edition ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-5272-3.  
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-811943-7.  
  • Lass, Roger (1994). Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43087-9.  
  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson (2001). A Guide to Old English (6th edition ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22636-2.  

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