Phonological history of English high front vowels: Wikis


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The high front vowels of English have undergone a variety of changes over time, which may vary from dialect to dialect.


Weak vowel merger

The weak vowel merger (or Lennon-Lenin merger[citation needed]) is a phonemic merger of /ə/ (schwa) with unstressed /ɪ/ (sometimes written as /ɨ/, and occasionally called "schwi" by analogy with "schwa") in certain dialects of English.[citation needed] As a result of this merger the words abbot and rabbit rhyme; in accents without the merger they are distinct. The merger is complete in the Southern Hemisphere accents and Hiberno-English and variable in General American[1]

This merger is not usually stigmatized. Dictionaries usually represent the distinction and not the merger. While there are some dialects that have a variable distinction, there are very few dialects that maintain a complete distinction.

For people with the distinction [ɨ] is used in words spelled with i or e in an unstressed syllable. In accents with the distinction, the -ible and -able endings are distinct as [ɨbəl] and [əbəl]. The following are homophones for speakers with the merger, but distinct for those without it:

  • Lennon, Lenin
  • Rosa's, roses
  • allusion, illusion
  • proceed, precede

The following end differently for speakers without the merger:

  • ribbon, cabin
  • carrot, merit

Kit-bit split

The kit-bit split is a split of EME /ɪ/ found in South African English, where kit [kɪt] and bit [bət] do not rhyme.[1][2] 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], they may belong to the same phoneme /ə/, while the vowel of kiss, big, hit, inn etc. belongs to the phoneme /ɪ/.[1]

The kit-bit split is perhaps the most distinctive feature of South African English, as many of its other features are also found in New Zealand English. In New Zealand English, however, a centralized realization of /ɪ/ as /ə/ is general: there is no split and the vowels of kit and bit are pronounced identically.

Because of the centralized realization of the vowel /ɪ/ in some words in South African English, South Africans are often stereotyped as pronouncing "woman" and "women" the same way, as "women" has the vowel [ə]. In reality, they are distinct in South African English. "woman" is /wʊmən/ and "women" is /wəmən/, so they are distinct and never confused.

Pin-pen merger

The merger of pin and pen in American English. The areas marked in purple are where the merger is complete for most speakers. Based on Labov, Ash, and Boberg 2006: 68.

The pin-pen merger is a conditional merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ][3][4][5][6][1][7][8][9]. 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, as well as in less densely populated inland areas of the Western United States, 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,[7] there is very little variation throughout the Southern States in general, except that Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans are excluded from the merger.[9] 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[7] 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.

The pin-pen merger also appears in slightly different form in the forms of English spoken in Counties Cork and Kerry, Ireland.

People that have the merger will often use terms like ink pen and stick pin to make a clear distinction between the two words that are otherwise homophonous.[citation needed]

Happy tensing

The term happy tensing[1] refers to 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 Britain towards the last quarter of the twentieth century.[10]

Meet-meat merger

The meet-meat merger is the merger of the Early Modern English vowel /eː/ (usually spelled ea, as in meat, peace, sea, receive) with the vowel /iː/ (as in meet, piece, see, believe).[1][11][12] The merger is complete outside the British Isles and virtually complete within them. Some speakers in Northern England distinguish /ɪə/ in the first group of words from /iː/ or /əi/ in the second group. Old-fashioned varieties of Hiberno-English and the West Country dialects preserve the Early Modern English /eː//iː/ contrast, for instance piece ≠ peace ≠ pace, but it is rare in these accents nowadays. A handful of words (such as break, steak, great) escaped the merger in the standard accents and thus have the same vowel as words like brake, stake, grate in almost all varieties of English. The word threat rhymes with neither meat or great, due to early shortening (see "Bred-bread merger" below), although all three words once rhymed.

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),[11] 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.[13]

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.[12]

In accents with the distinction, the vowels /ɪə/ and /ɛɪ/ are usually represented by the spellings ea and ei, as in team and receive, and the vowel /iː/ is usually represented by the spellings ee, ie, eCe and iCe as in feet, thief, complete, and suite.

Mitt-meet merger

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.[14]

Met-mat merger

The met-mat merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English and Singaporean 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.[14]

Met-mate merger

The met-mate merger is phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Zulu English where /eɪ/ and /ɛ/ are both pronounced /ɛ/. As a result, the words "met" and "mate" are homophonous as /mɛt/. [15]

Bred-bread merger

The bred-bread merger is process that occurred in Middle English that caused Middle English /ɛː/ to be shortened in some words. As a result, "bred" and "bread" became homophones as /brɛd/ which were previously distinguished as /brɛd/ and /brɛːd/. The shortening of /ɛː/ occurred mostly before /d/ and /ð/, and sometimes elsewhere.


Idea-smoothing is a process that occurs in many dialects of British English where bisyllabic /iːə/ becomes the diphthong /ɪə/ in certain words, leading to pronunciations like /vɪəkəl/, /θɪətə/ and /aɪdɪə/ for "vehicle", "theatre/theater" and "idea" respectively. The words which have the /iːə/ to /ɪə/ may vary depending on dialect. Dialects that have idea-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/ for the first vowel in words such as period, serious, etc. but then /iːə/for the second vowel.[16] In addition, this practice is not restricted to Britain - some Americans and other cultures have idea-smoothing in their speech, but others do not.[citation needed]

Bit-bet merger

The bit-bet merger is a merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ (both sounding like [ɪ]) occurring for some speakers of Newfoundland English (Wells Pg. 500). As a result, bit and bet are homophones as /bɪt/.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
  2. ^ New Page 1
  3. ^ in_en.html
  4. ^ Merger
  5. ^ Kurath, Hans; Raven I. McDavid (1961). The Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press. p. 103. ISBN 0-8173-0129-1. 
  6. ^ Morgan, Lucia C. (1969). "North Carolina accents". Southern Speech Journal 34: 223–29. 
  7. ^ a b c Brown, Vivian (1990). The social and linguistic history of a merger: /i/ and /e/ before nasals in Southern American English. Ph.D. dissertation, Texas A & M University. 
  8. ^ Brown, Vivian (1991). "Evolution of the merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before nasals in Tennessee". American Speech 66: 303–15. doi:10.2307/455802. 
  9. ^ a b Labov, William; Sharon Ash; Charles Boberg (2006). The Atlas of North American English. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-016746-8. OCLC 181466123. 
  10. ^ See Blog 199: Swift Linguistic Changes
  11. ^ a b Alexander, D (2001). Orreight mi ol'. Sheffield: ALD. ISBN 1-901587-18-5. 
  12. ^ a b Wakelin, M. F. (1977). English Dialects: An Introduction. London: The Athlone Press. 
  13. ^ J. Stoddart, C. Upton and J.D.A. Widdowson, Sheffield Dialect in the 1990s, in P. Foulks and G. Docherty, Urban Voices: Accent Studies in the British Isles, pp.72-89, London, Edward Arnold, 1999
  14. ^ a b Tony T. N. Hung, English as a global language: Implications for teaching. Retrieved 27 September 2008.
  15. ^ Rodrik Wade, MA Thesis, Ch 4: Structural characteristics of Zulu English
  16. ^ John C Wells, Accents of English, page 361, Cambridge University Press, 1982


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