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The phonological history of English describes changing phonology of the English language over time, starting from its roots in proto-Germanic to diverse changes in different dialects of modern English.

Within each section, changes are in approximate chronological order.

NOTE: In the following description, abbreviations are used as follows:

The time periods for many of the following stages are extremely short due to the extensive population movements occurring during the early AD period, which resulted in rapid dialect fragmentation:

  • The migration of the Goths from southeast Sweden to the Baltic Sea area around AD 1, followed by the migration to southeast Romania around AD 200. (Later migrations carried the Ostrogoths eastward to the Crimea area in modern Ukraine, and carried the Visigoths westward to Spain.)
  • The migration of the High German ancestors southward, starting around AD 260, and renewed in the 5th century AD.
  • The migration of the Anglo-Saxons westward into Britain, starting around AD 450.

Contents

Late Proto-Germanic period

This period is estimated to be c. AD 0–200. This includes changes in late Proto-Germanic, up to the appearance of Proto-West-Germanic c. AD 200:

  • Early i-mutation: /e/ is raised to /i/ when an /i/ or /j/ follows in the next syllable.
    • This occurs before deletion of any unstressed vowels; hence PIE /bereti/ > PG /bereθi/ > /beriθi/ > Goth baíriθ /beriθ/ "(he) carries".
    • The /i/ produced by this change can itself trigger later i-mutation. Hence WG /beriθ/ > /biriθ/ > OE /birθ/ "(he) bears".
  • a-mutation: /u/ is lowered to /o/ when a non-high vowel follows in the next syllable.
    • This is blocked when followed by a nasal followed by a consonant, or by a cluster with /j/ in it. Hence PG /ɡulda/ > OE/NE gold, but PG /ɡuldjanan/ > OE gyldan > NE gild.
    • This produces a new phoneme /o/, due to inconsistent application and later loss of unstressed /a/ and /e/.
  • Loss of /n/ before /x/, with nasalization and compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel.
    • The nasalization was eventually lost, but remained through the Ingvaeonic period.
    • Hence PrePG /tonɡjonom/ > PG /θankjanan/ > OE þencan > NE think, but PrePG /tonktoːm/ > PG /θanxtoːn/ > /θãːxtoːn/ > OE þóhte > NE thought.
  • Loss of final /m/, with nasalization (eventually lost) of the preceding vowel. Hence PrePG /dʱoɡʱom/ > PG /daɡam/ > PN /daɡa/ > WG /daɡ/ "day (acc. sg.)".
  • Pre-nasal raising: /e/ > /i/ before nasal + consonant. PrePG /bʱendʱonom/ > PG /bendanan/ > /bindanan/ > OE bindan > NE bind (Latin of-fendō).
    • This post-dated loss of /n/ before /x/.
    • This was later extended in PreOE times to vowels before all nasals; hence OE niman "take" but OHG neman.
  • /ei/ > /iː/ (c. AD 100). The Elder Futhark of the Proto-Norse language still contain different symbols for the two sounds.
  • Vowels in unstressed syllables were reduced or eliminated. The specifics are quite complex and occurred as a result of many successive changes, with successive stages often happening hundreds of years after the previous stage. Some specifics of the initial stage:
    • Final-syllable short vowels inherited from Proto-Germanic were generally deleted. Hence Goth baíriθ /beriθ/ "(he) carries" < PG /bereθi/ (see above).
      • This operated universally only in words of three syllables or more. In words of two syllables, final-syllable /a/ and /e/ were deleted, but /i/ and /u/ were unaffected following a short syllable (i.e. one with a short vowel followed by a single consonant.) Hence PG /daɡaz/ > Goth dags "day (nom. sing.)" (OE dæg), PIE /woida/ > PG /waita/ > Goth wáit "(I) know" (OE wát), PIE /woide/ > PG /waite/ > Goth "wáit" "(he) knows" (OE wát); but PIE /sunus/ > PG /sunuz/ > Goth sunus "son (nom. sing.)" (OE sunu), PIE /peku/ > PG /fehu/ > Goth faíhu /fehu/ "cattle (nom. sing.)" (OE feohu), PIE /wenis/ > PG /weniz/ > /winiz/ > OHG wini "friend (nom. sing.)" (OE wine), PIE /poːdi/ > PG /foːti/ > PreOE /føːti/ > OE fét "foot (dat. sing.)".
      • Final-syllable /a/ and /e/ were protected in words of two syllables by following /r/ and /ns/. Hence PG /fader/ > NE father; PG /stainans/ > Goth stáinans "stone (acc. pl.)".
      • Final-syllable /a/ and /e/ in two-syllable words were still present in Proto-Norse. PN /daɡaz/, Goth dags "day (nom. sg.)". PN /daɡa/, Goth dag "day (acc. sg.)".
    • Final-syllable long vowels were shortened.
      • But final-syllable /oː/ becomes /u/ in NWG, /a/ in Gothic. Hence PG /beroː/ > early OE beru "(I) carry", but Goth baíra; PG /ɡeboː/ > OE giefu "gift (nom. sg.)", but Goth giba.
    • Middle-syllable vowels of all types were unchanged; likewise in monosyllables, since they were stressed.
    • "Extra-long"' vowels were shorted to long vowels. There is a great deal of argument about what is exactly going on here.
      • The traditional view is that a circumflex accent arose (as in Ancient Greek) when two adjacent vowels were contracted into a single long vowel in a final syllable. This circumflexed vowel then remained long when other long vowels shortened.
      • A newer view holds that "overlong" (tri-moraic) vowels arose from the contraction of two vowels, one of which was long. Furthermore, final-syllable long vowels remained long before certain final consonants (/z/ and /d/).
      • The reason why such theories are necessary is that some final-syllable long vowels are shortened, while others remain. Nominative singular /-oːn/ shortens, for example; likewise first singular /-oːn/ < /-oːm/; while genitive plural /-oːn/ < /-oːm/ remains long. Both of the above theories postulate an overlong or circumflex ending /-ôːn/ in the genitive plural arising in the vocalic (PIE /o/ and /aː/, PG /a/ and /oː/) declensions, arising from contraction of the vocalic stem ending with the genitive plural ending.
      • Other examples of vowels that remain long are a-stem and ó-stem nominative plural /-ôz/ < early PIE /-o-es/ and /-aː-es/; PrePG ablative singular /-ôd/, /-êd/ (Gothic ƕadrē "whither", undarō "under"); /ō/-stem dative singular PG /ɡibâi/ > Goth gibái "gift" (but /a/-stem dative singular PG /stainai/ > Goth staina "stone").

West Germanic period

This period is estimated to be c. AD 200–400. This includes changes up through the split of Ingvaeonic and High German (c. AD 400):

  • Unstressed diphthongs were monophthongized. /ai/ > /æː/, /au/ > /oː/.
    • Results were different in Gothic. Diphthongs remained except for absolutely final diphthongs stemming from PIE short diphthongs, which became short /a/.
    • Hence PIE /sunous/ > PG /sunauz/ > Goth sunáus, but > PWG /sunoː/ > OE suna "son (gen. sing.)"; PIE /nemoit/ > PG /nemait/ > /nimait/ > Goth nimái, but > PWG /nimæː/ > OE nime "(he) takes (subj.)"; PIE (loc.?) /stoinoi/ > PG /stainai/ > Goth staina, but > PWG /stainæː/ > OE stáne "stone (dat. sing.)"; PIE (loc.?) /ɡʱebʱaːi/ > PG /ɡebâi/ > Goth gibái, but > PWG /ɡebæː/ > OE giefe "gift" (dat. sing.).
  • /æː/ becomes /aː/ [ɑː].
  • Elimination of word-final /z/.
    • Note that this change must have occurred before rhoticization, as original word-final /z/ did not become /r/.
    • But it must have occurred after the North-West-Germanic split , since word-final /z/ was not eliminated in Old Norse, instead merging with /r/.
  • Rhoticization: /z/ > /r/.
    • This change also affected Proto-Norse; but in Proto-Norse, the date and nature are contested. /z/ and /r/ were still distinct in the Danish and Swedish dialect of Old Norse, as is testified by distinct runes. (/z/ is normally assumed to be a rhotic fricative in this language, but there is no actual evidence of this.)
  • West Germanic Gemination of consonants except /r/, when preceded by a short vowel and followed by /j/.
  • OE nominative plural /as/ (ME /s/), OS nominative plural /oːs/ may be from original accusative plural /ans/ (rather than original nominative plural /oːz/; cf. ON nominative plural /ar/), following Ingvaeonic nasalization/loss of nasals before fricatives.

Ingvaeonic and Proto-Anglo-Frisian period

This period is estimated to be c. AD 400–475. This includes changes from c. AD 400 up through the split of the Anglo-Frisian languages from Ingvaeonic, followed by the split of pre-Old English from pre-Old Frisian (c. AD 475). The time periods for these stages are extremely short due to the migration of the Anglo-Saxons westward through Frisian territory and then across the English Channel into Britain, around AD 450.

  • Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law: Loss of nasals before fricatives, with compensatory lengthening. Hence PG /munθaz/ > NHG Mund but OE múþ, NE mouth.
    • An intermediate stage was a long nasal vowel, where nasal /ãː/ > /õː/. PIE /dontos/ > PG /tanθaz/ > OE tóθ "tooth". (NHG Zahn < OHG zant.)
  • Development of new /ɑ/-/æ/ distinction through Anglo-Frisian brightening and other changes:
    • Fronting of /ɑː/ to /æː/ (generally, unless /w/ followed).
    • Fronting of /ɑ/ to /æ/ (unless followed by a geminate, by a back vowel in the next syllable, or in certain other cases). Hence OE dæg /dæj/ "day", plural dagas /dɑɣɑs/ "days" (dialectal NE "dawes"; compare NE "dawn" < OE dagung /dɑɣunɡ/). Gothic dags, plural daɡós.
    • Change of /ai/ to /ɑː/. PG /stainaz/ > OE stán > NE stone.

Old English period

This period is estimated to be c. AD 475–900. This includes changes from the split between Old English and Old Frisian (c. AD 475) up through historic early West Saxon of AD 900:

  • Breaking of front vowels
    • Most generally, before /x/, /w/, /r/ + consonant, /l/ + consonant (assumed to be velar [ɹ], [ɫ] in these circumstances), but exact conditioning factors vary from vowel to vowel
    • Initial result was a falling diphthong ending in /u/, but this was followed by diphthong height harmonization, producing short /æ̆ɑ̆/, /ɛ̆ɔ̆/, /ɪ̆ʊ̆/ from short /æ/, /ɛ/, /ɪ/, long /æɑ/, /eo/, /iu/ from long /æː/, /eː/, /iː/. (Written ea, eo, io, where length is not distinguished graphically.)
    • Result in some dialects, for example Anglian, was back vowels rather than diphthongs. West Saxon ceald; but Anglian cald > NE cold.
  • Shortening of Vowels
    • In two particular circumstances, vowels were shortened when falling immediately before either three consonances or the combination of two consonants and two additional syllables in the word. Thus, OE gāst > NE ghost, but OE găstliċ > NE ghastly (ā > ă/_CCC) and OE crīst > NE Christ, but OE crĭstesmæsse > NE Christmas (ī > ĭ/_CC$$).
    • Probably occurred in the seventh century as evidenced by eighth century Anglo-Saxon missionaries' translation into Old Low German, "Gospel" as Gotspel, lit. "God news" not expected *Guotspel, "Good news" due to gōdspell > gŏdspell.
  • /ɪ̆ʊ̆/ and /iu/ were lowered to /ɛ̆ɔ̆/ and /eo/ between 800 and 900 AD.
  • By the above changes, /au/ was fronted to /æu/ and then modified to /æa/ by diphthong height harmonization.
    • PG /draumaz/ > OE dréam "joy" (cf. NE dream, NHG Traum). PG /dauθuz/ > OE déaþ > NE death (Goth dáuθus, NHG Tod). PG /auɡoː/ > OE éage > NE eye (Goth áugō, NHG Auge).
  • /sk/ was palatalized to /ʃ/ in almost all circumstances. PG /skipaz/ > NE ship (cf skipper < Dutch schipper, where no such change happened). PG /skurtjaz/ > OE scyrte > NE shirt, but > ON skyrt > NE skirt.
  • /k/, /ɣ/, /ɡ/ were palatalized to /tʃ/, /j/, /dʒ/ in certain complex circumstances (see Old English phonology).
    • This change, or something similar, also occurred in Old Frisian.
  • Back vowels were fronted when followed in the next syllable by /i/ or /j/, by i-mutation (c. 500 AD).
    • i-mutation affected all the Germanic languages except for Gothic, although with a great deal of variation. It appears to have occurred earliest, and to be most pronounced, in the Schleswig-Holstein area (the home of the Anglo-Saxons), and from there to have spread north and south.
    • This produced new front rounded vowels /œ/, /øː/, /ʏ/, /yː/. /œ/ and /øː/ were soon unrounded to /ɛ/ and /eː/, respectively.
    • All short diphthongs were mutated to /ɪ̆ʏ̆/, all long diphthongs to /iy/. (This interpretation is controversial. These diphthongs are written ie, which is traditionally interpreted as short /ɪ̆ɛ̆/, long /ie/.)
    • Late in Old English (c. AD 900), these new diphthongs were simplified to /ʏ/ and /yː/, respectively.
    • The conditioning factors were soon obscured (loss of /j/ whenever it had produced gemination, lowering of unstressed /i/), phonemicizing the new sounds.
  • More reductions in unstressed syllables:
    • /oː/ became /ɑ/.
    • Germanic high vowel deletion eliminated /ɪ/ and /ʊ/ when following a heavy syllable.
  • Palatal diphthongization: Initial palatal /j/, /tʃ/, /ʃ/ trigger spelling changes of a > ea, e > ie. It is disputed whether this represents an actual sound change or merely a spelling convention indicating the palatal nature of the preceding consonant (written g, c, sc were ambiguous in OE as to palatal /j/, /tʃ/, /ʃ/ and velar /ɡ/ or /ɣ/, /k/, /sk/, respectively).
    • Similar changes of o > eo, u > eo are generally recognized to be merely a spelling convention. Hence WG /junɡ/ > OE geong /junɡ/ > NE "young"; if geong literally indicated an /ɛ̆ɔ̆/ diphthong, the modern result would be *yeng.
    • It is disputed whether there is Middle English evidence of the reality of this change in Old English.
  • Initial /ɣ/ became /ɡ/ in late Old English.

Up through Chaucer's English

This period is estimated to be c. AD 900–1400.

  • Vowels were lengthened before /ld/, /mb/, /nd/, /rd/, probably also /ŋɡ/, /rl/, /rn/, when not followed by a third consonant or two consonants and two syllables.
    • This probably occurred around AD 1000.
    • Later on, many of these vowels were shortened again; but evidence from the Ormulum shows that this lengthening was once quite general.
    • Remnants persist in the Modern English pronunciations of words such as child (but not children, since a third consonant follows), field (plus yield, wield, shield), old (but not alderman as it is followed by at least two syllables), climb, find (plus mind, kind, bind, etc.), long and strong (but not length and strength), fiend, found (plus hound, bound, etc.).
  • Vowels were shortened when followed by two or more consonants, except when lengthened as above.
    • This occurred in two stages, the first stage affecting only vowels followed by three or more consonants.
  • Inherited height-harmonic diphthongs were monophthongized by the loss of the second component, with the length remaining the same.
  • /æː/ and /ɑː/ became /ɛː/ and /ɔː/.
  • /æ/ and /ɑ/ merged into /a/.
  • /ʏ/ and /yː/ were unrounded to /ɪ/ and /iː/.
  • /ɣ/ became /w/ or /j/, depending on surrounding vowels.
  • New diphthongs formed from vowels followed by /w/ or /j/ (including from former /ɣ/).
    • Length distinctions were eliminated in these diphthongs.
    • Diphthongs also formed by the insertion of a glide /w/ or /j/ (after back and front vowels, respectively) preceding /x/.
    • Many diphthong combinations soon merged.
  • Trisyllabic laxing: Shortening of stressed vowels when two syllables followed.
    • This results in pronunciation variants in Modern English such as divine vs divinity and south vs. southern (OE súðerne).
  • Middle English open syllable lengthening: Vowels were usually lengthened in open syllables (13th century), except when trisyllabic laxing would apply.
  • Remaining unstressed vowels merged into /ə/.
  • Initial clusters /hɾ/, /hl/, /hn/ were reduced by loss of /h/.
  • Voiced fricatives became independent phonemes through borrowing and other sound changes.
  • /sw/ before back vowel becomes /s/; /mb/ becomes /m/.
    • Modern English sword, answer, lamb.
    • /w/ in swore is due to analogy with swear.

Up to Shakespeare's English

This period is estimated to be c. AD 1400–1600.

  • Loss of most remaining diphthongs.
    • /ai/ (and former /ɛi/, merged into /ai/ in Early Middle English) became /ɑː/ before the Great Vowel Shift.
    • /ou/ (and former /ɔu/, merged into /ou/ in Early Middle English) became /oː/ and /ei/ became /eː/ after the shift causing the long mid mergers.
    • /au/ became /ɔː/ after the shift.
    • The dew-new merger: /ɛu/ and /iu/ merger, and they then become /juː/ after the shift.
    • The joy-point merger: /ʊi/ and /oi/ merge, so that point and joy now have the same vowel.
    • The rein-rain merger: /ai/ and /ei/ merge, so that rain and rein are now homonyms.
    • The dew-duke merger: /y/ and /iu/ merge, so that dew and duke now have the same vowel.
    • /oi/ remained.
    • In a few regional accents, including some in Northern England, East Anglia, South Wales, and even Newfoundland, monophthongization has not been complete, so that pairs like pane /pain and toe/tow are distinct. (Wells 1982, pp. 192–94, 337, 357, 384–85, 498)
  • /x/ (written gh) lost in most dialects causing the taut-taught merger.
  • Great Vowel Shift; all long vowels raised or diphthongized.
    • /aː/, /ɛː/, /eː/ become /ɛː/, /eː/, /iː/, respectively.
    • /ɔː/, /oː/ become /oː/, /uː/, respectively.
    • /iː/, /uː/ become /əi/ and /əu/, later /ai/ and /au/.
    • New /ɔː/ developed from old /au/ (see above).
    • Note that /ɔː/, /oː/, /uː/, /au/ effectively rotated in-place.
    • /ɛː/, /eː/ are shifted again to /eː/, /iː/ in Early Modern English, causing merger of former /eː/ with /iː/; but the two are still distinguished in spelling as ea, ee.
  • Loss of /ə/ in final syllables.
  • Initial cluster /ɡn/ loses first element; but still reflected in spelling.
  • /kn/ reduces to /n/ in most dialects, causing the not-knot merger.
  • /wr/ reduces to /r/ in most dialects, causing the rap-wrap merger.
  • Doubled consonants reduced to single consonants.

Up to the American–British split

This period is estimated to be c. AD 1600–1725.

  • At some preceding time after Old English, all /r/ become /ɹ/.
    • Evidence from Old English shows that, at that point, the pronunciation /ɹ/ occurred only before a consonant.
    • Scottish English has /r/ consistently.
  • The foot-strut split: Except in northern England, /ʊ/ splits into /ʊ/ (inconsistently after labials), as in put, and /ʌ/ (otherwise), as in cut.
  • Ng coalescence: Reduction of /nɡ/ in most areas produces new phoneme /ŋ/.
  • Palatalization of /tj/, /sj/, /dj/, /zj/ produces /tʃ/, /ʃ/, /dʒ/, and new phoneme /ʒ/ (for example measure, vision). Received Pronunciation resisted against this kind of coalescence until the 20th century.
    • These combinations mostly occurred in borrowings from French and Latin.
    • Pronunciation of -tion was /sjən/ from Old French /sjon/, thus becoming /ʃən/.
  • Long vowels inconsistently shortened in closed syllables. (Modern English head, breath, bread, blood, etc.)
  • The meet-meat merger: Meet and meat become homonyms in most accents.
  • Changes affect short vowels in many varieties before an /r/ at the end of a word or before a consonant
    • /a/ as in start and /ɔ/ as in north are lengthened.
    • /ɛ/, /ɪ/ and /ʌ/ merge, hence most varieties of Modern English have the same vowel in each of fern, fir and fur.
    • Also affects vowels in derived forms, so that starry no longer rhymes with marry.
    • Scottish English unaffected.
  • /a/, as in cat and trap, fronted to [æ] in many areas.
    • But backed, rounded, and lengthened to /ɔː/ before syllable-final (that is, velarized) /l/ ([ɫ]). Modern English tall, talk, bald, salt, etc. But /ɑː/ in -alm, /æ/ in -alf.
    • New phoneme /ɑː/ develops from /al/ before /m/ (calm /ˈkɑːm/) and in certain other words, for example father /ˈfɑːðər/.
    • Most varieties of northern English English, Welsh English and Scottish English retain [a] in cat, trap etc.
  • Loss of /l/ in /lk/, /lm/, /lf/ (see above).
  • The pane-pain merger: The words pane and pain become homophones in most accents.
  • The toe-tow merger: The words toe and tow become homophones in most accents.
  • /uː/ becomes /ʊ/ in many words spelt oo: for example, book, wool, good, foot. This is partially resisted in the northern and western variants of English English, where words ending in -ook might still use /uː/. (Trudgill, p. 71)

After American–British split, up to the 20th century

This period is estimated to be c. AD 1725–1900.

  • Split into rhotic and non-rhotic accents: loss of syllable-final /ɹ/ in some varieties, especially of English English, producing new centering diphthongs /ɛə/ (square), /ɪə/ (near), /ɔə/ (cord), /oə/ (sore), /ʊə/ (cure), and highly unusual phoneme /ɜː/ (nurse).
  • The trap-bath split: southern English English /æ/ inconsistently becomes /ɑː/ before /s/, /f/, /θ/ and /n/ or /m/ followed by another consonant.
  • Reduction of /hw/ to /w/, causing whine and wine to be homophones, in most varieties of English English; also, regionally, in American English.
  • American and Australian English flapping of /t/ and /d/ to [ɾ] in some circumstances.
    • Generally, between vowels (including syllabic [ɹ̩], [l̩] and [m̩]), when the following syllable is completely unstressed.
    • But not before syllabic [n̩] in American English, for example cotton [kɑʔn̩].
  • Happy tensing (the term is from Wells 1982): final lax [ɪ] becomes tense [i] in words like happy. Absent from some dialects.
  • Line-loin merger: merger between the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ in some accents of Southern English English, Hiberno-English, Newfoundland English, and Caribbean English.
  • H dropping begins in English English and Welsh English, but this does not affect the upper-class southern accent that developed into Received Pronunciation, nor does it affect the far north of England or East Anglia. (Trudgill, p. 28-30)

After 1900

Some of these changes are in progress.

See also

References

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