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Middle English Phonetic System

Stressed vowels in Middle English.

In Middle English two types of phonetic changes took place in the system of stressed vowels: qualitative changes and quantitative ones.

Qualitative changes are those which affected the quality of the vowel and quantitativechanges affected its quantity (length of a vowel). Long vowels became short, short vowels were lengthened.

Qualitative changes of stressed vowels in Middle English

1.Contraction (сокращение, стяжение дифтонгов) of Old English diphthongs

One of the earliest phonetic changes that affected the quality of vowels in ME was the contraction of Old English diphthongs. OEeo(long and short) and ea(long and short)became simple vowels e and æ , which coincided in their quality with the first element of the diphthong: eo > ē, ea > æ:

Thus, the simple vowels which developed from OE diphthongs fused with the corresponding OE simple vowels as a result of it in Middle there were two identical simple vowels, which differ in their quality, one being Mid.E. æ: < OE æ: and from the Germanic diphthong ea and the second ē < OE ē and from the Germanic diphthong eo. These vowels had a similar further development: OE > ME e; eo: > ME ē; OE ea > ME æ, ea: > ME æ:

OE heorte > Mid.E. hērte (heart)

OE heord > ME hērd(e) (пастух)

OE feorr > ME fēr(r) (far)

OE seon (to see) > ME sē(n)

OE deor (deer) > ME dēr (олень)

It should be noted that the contraction of the diphthong ea took place in the early 11 century. Later, in the 12th century, the front vowel æ: (< OE ea) undergoes further changes depending on the quantity: short æ becomes short awhile the long æbecomes long open ȩwhich is reflected in modern English as a digraph ea.

Short a: OE heard > ME hærd (11 c.) > hard (12 c.)

OE earm > ME ærm (11 c.) > arm (12 c.)

OE hearpe (harp) > ME hærpe > harpe (12 c.)



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Long a:

OE beatan (to beat) > ME bæten (11 c.) > bȩten (12 c. long open e)

OE east (east) > ME æst (11 c.) > ȩst (12 c. long open e)

OE heap (heap) > ME hæp (11 c.) > hȩp (12 c. long open e)

OE sea (sea) > ME sæ (11 c.) > sȩ (12 c.)

The same process took place with OE simple long vowel æ:

OE sæ > ME sæ > sȩ (12 c.) Mod. E. sea (ȩ > ea)

Thus in ME there were two long vowelse which differ in their quality, which, however, were not confused: one of them being open – ȩ and the other – closed long closed e. The difference between them is reflected in Modern English spelling: the open ȩ is designated by the digraph eawhile the closede –by the digraph ee.In their further development these two vowels fused into one – the long sound [i:]but the difference in spelling survives till now:

Mod. E. see < ME s ē (long closed) < OE seon (to see)

Mod. E sea < ME sȩ (long open) < OE sæ (long æ ) In the same way:

Mod.E. meat < ME mȩt < OE mæt (long æ ) < *ea (by contraction of the long diphthong ea)

Mod.E. meet < met (long closed e) < OE mētan (long closed e).

2.Development of OE å

In the western dialects åchanged intoo,in all otherdialects – intoa. Literary English generally reflects the second vowel (a) though some cases of the eastern development are also found:

OE lånd – western dialects lond

– other dialects land

OE låmb – western dialects lomb

– other dialects lamb

OE månn – western dialects mon(n)

– other dialects man(n)

OE cånn – western dialects con(n)

– other dialects can(n) But in the following cases:

OE sånʒ – western dialects sonʒ– Mod.E. noun song

– other dialects sanʒ– Mod. E. past tense of sing – sang

OE strånʒ – western dialects stronʒ– Mod.E. adjective strong

– other dialects stranʒ

OE lånʒ – western dialects lonʒ– Mod.E.adj. long

– other dialects lanʒ


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