Independent Vowel Changes in Proto-Germanic

Table 1


Throughout history, beginning with PG, vowels displayed a strong tendency to change. They underwent different kinds of alterations: qualitative and quantitative, dependent and independent. Qualitative changes affect the quality of the sound, e.g.: [o>a] or [p>f]; quantitative changes make long sounds short or short sounds long, e.g.: [i>i:], [ll>l]; dependent changes (also positional or combinative) are restricted to certain positions or phonetic conditions, for instance, a sound may change under the influence of the neighbouring sounds or in a certain type of a syllable; independent changes also spontaneous or regular take place irrespective of phonetic conditions, i.e. they affect a certain sound in all positions.

From an early date the treatment of vowels was determined by the nature of word stress. In accented syllables the oppositions between vowels were carefully maintained and new distinctive features were introduced, so that the number of stressed vowels grew. In unaccented positions the original contrasts between vowels were weakened or lost; the distinction of short and long vowels was neutralised so that by the age of writing the long vowels in unstressed syllables had been shortened. As for originally short vowels, they tended to be reduced to a neutral sound, losing their qualitative distinctions and were often dropped in unstressed final syllables (see the example *fiskaz).

Strict differentiation of long and short vowels is commonly regarded as an important characteristic of the Germanic group. The contrast of short and long vowels is supported by the different directions of their changes. While long vowels generally tended to become closer and to diphthongise, short vowels, on the contrary, often changed into more open sounds. These tendencies can be seen in the earliest vowel changes which distinguished the PG vowel system from its PIE source. IE short [o] changed in Germanic into the more open vowel [a] and thus ceased to be distinguished from the original IE [a]; in other words in PG they merged into [o]. The merging of long vowels proceeded in the opposite direction: IE long [a:] was narrowed to [o:] and merged with [o:]. The examples in Table 1 illustrate the resulting correspondences of vowels in parallels from Germanic and non-Germanic languages (more apparent in Old Germanic languages than in modern words, for the sounds have been modified in later history).

Change illustrated Examples
PIE PG Non-Germanic Germanic
      Old Modern
o o a L nox, Ir nochd, R R ;   Gt nahts, Icel nátt, OHG naht Gt magan, OE maʒan, mæʒ Sw natt, G Nacht Sw må, NE may
aa: oo: L mater, R Ind bhrāta, L frater, R Icel moðir, OE mōdor Gt broðar, O Icel broðir, OE brōðor Sw moder, NE mother Sw broder, NE brother


In later PG and in separate Germanic languages the vowels displayed a tendency to positional assimilative changes: the pronunciation of a vowel was modified under the influence of the following or preceding consonant; sometimes a vowel was approximated more closely to the following vowel. The resulting sounds were phonetically conditioned allophones which could eventually coincide with another phoneme or develop into a new phoneme.

The earliest instances of progressive assimilation were common Germanic mutations; they occurred in Late PG before its disintegration or a short time after. In certain phonetic conditions, namely before the nasal [n] and before [i] or [j] in the next syllable the short [e], [i] and [u] remained or became close (i.e. appeared as [i] and [u]), while in the absence of these conditions the more open allophones were used: [e] and [o], respectively. Later, these phonetic conditions became irrelevant and the allophones were phonologised.


  1. Accommodation of OE Vowels (breaking and diphthongisation).
  2. Analyze the meanings of the italicized words. Identify the result of the changes of the connotational aspect of lexical meaning in the given words.
  4. Vowel Gradation with Special Reference to Verbs

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