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Old English Consonant System

§ 146. Table 9 shows the system of OE consonants in the 9thand 10th c.

The system consisted of several correlated sets of consonants. All the consonants fell into noise consonants and sonorants. The noise con­sonants were subdivided into plosives and fricatives; plosives were further differentiated as voiced and voiceless, the difference being pho­nemic. The fricative consonants were also subdivided into voiced and voiceless; in this set, however, sonority was merely a phonetic difference between allophones. Cf. OE pin — bin, where the difference in sonority is phonemically relevant (NE pin, bin)and OE hlāf [f] — hlāford [v] where the difference is positional: the consonant is voiced intervocally and voiceless finally (incidentally, voiced and voiceless fricatives were not distinguished in OE spelling). The opposition of palatal and velar lingual consonants [k] — [k'], [g] — [g'] had probably become pho­nemic by the time of the earliest written records (see § 141). (Some schol­ars include in the system one more palatal consonant: [sk], spelt as sc, e. g. OE scip (NE ship); others treat it as a sequence of two sounds [s'] and [k'] until Early ME when they fused into a single sibilant [ʃ].) It is noteworthy that among the OE consonants there were few sibi­lants and no affricates.

Table 9

Old English Consonants

Place of articulation Manner of articulation Labial, labiodental Fore lingual (dental) Mediolingual (palatal) Back lingual (velar)
Noise consonants plosive voiceless p p: t t: k' k': k k:
voiced b b: d d: g': g g:
frica­tive voiceless f f: θ θ: s s: x' x': x x: (h)
voiced v ð z γ' (j) γ
Sonorants m m: n n:   (ŋ)
w r l i  

§ 147.The most universal distinctive feature in the consonant sys­tem was the difference in length. During the entire OE period long con­sonants are believed to have been opposed to short ones on a phonem­ic level; they were mostly distinguished in intervocal position. Sin­gle and geminated (long) consonants are found in identical phonetic conditions. Cf. OE lǣde — 1st p. sg Pres. of lǣdan (NE lead)and lǣdde (Past); OE sticca (NE stick) — stica (Gen. case pl of OE stice, NE stitch). In final position the quantitative opposition was irrelevant and the second letter, which would indicate length, was often lacking, e. g. OE man and eal are identical to mann, eall (NE man, all).

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