Development of Monophthongs

375. As compared with quantitative changes, qualitative vowel changes in Early ME were less important. They affected several monophthongs and displayed considerable dialectal diversity. On the whole they were independent of phonetic environment.

The OE close labialised vowels [y] and [y:] disappeared in Early ME, merging with various sounds in different dialectal areas. The treatment of [y] and [y:] in ME can be regarded as evidence of growing dialectal divergence. At the same time it is a relatively rare instance of similar alterations of a short and a long vowel.

The vowels [y] and [y:] existed in OE dialects up to the 10th c, when they were replaced by [e], [e:] in Kentish and confused with [ie] and [ie:] or [i], [i:] in WS. In Early ME the dialectal differences grew. In some areas OE [y], [y:] developed into [e], [e:], in others they changed to [i], [i:]; in the South-West and in the West Midlands the two vowels were for some time preserved as [y], [y:] but later were moved backward and merged with [u], [u:]. (The existence of [y] as a separate vowel may have been prolonged by the borrowing of French words with this sound, e.g. ME vertu, nature were at first pronounced as [ver'ty:], [na'ty:r], later as [ver'tju:], [na'tju:r] (NE virtue, nature).

Development of Old English [y] and [y:] in Middle English dialects

The map[38] and the examples show the treatment of OE [y], [y:] in ME dialects:


fyllan Kentish fellen ['fellən] fill
  West Midland and South Western fallen ['fyliən, 'fullən]  
  East Midland and Northern fillen ['fillən] fill
mӯs Kentish mees [me:s]  
  West Midland and South Western mus, muis [my:s, mu:s]  
Northern and East Midland mis, mice [mi:s] mice[39]

ME pronunciations illustrate the variation stage; the NE words given in the last column show the final stage of the change: selection of one of co-existing variants in Standard English. For the most part NE forms descend from the East Midland dialect, which made the basis of the literary language; this is also true of the word hill shown in the map and of the words fire, king, kiss, kin, little and many others. Some modern words, however, have preserved traces of other dialects: e.g. NE sleeve going back to OE slӯfe entered Standard English from the South-Eastern regions with the sound [e:] (which later regularly changed to [i:], see the Great Vowel Shift 383 ff). Sometimes we can find traces of several dialects in one word; thus NE busy (OE bysiʒ)comes from an East Midland form with til as far as sounds go, but has retained a trace of the Western form in the spelling: the letter u points to the Western reflex of [y]; likewise the letter u in NE bury (OE byrian)is a trace of the Western forms, while the sound [e] comes from the South-East (Kent).

Development of Old English [a:] in Middle English dialects

376. In Early ME the long OE [a:] was narrowed to [ɔ:]. This was an early instance of the growing tendency of all long monophthongs to become closer; the tendency was intensified in Late ME when all Jong vowels changed in that direction. [a:] became [ɔ:] in all the dialects except the Northern group (see the map above).

e. g. OE ME   NE
stān Northern stan(e)['sta:nə] stone
  other dialects stoon, stone ['stɔ:n(ə)]  
ald1 Northern ald [a:ld][40] old
other dialects old [ə:ld]  

The resulting ME [ɔ:]must have been a more open vowel than the long [o:] inherited from OE, e.g. OE fōt, ME foot [fo:t] (NE foot). Judging by their earlier and later history the two phonemes [ɔ:] and [o:] were well distinguished in ME, though no distinction was made in spelling: o, and double o were used for both sounds. (The open [o:] also developed from the short [o] due to lengthening in open syllables, see 372).[41]

377. The short OE [æ] was replaced in ME by the back vowel [a]. In OE [æ] was either a separate phoneme or one of a group of allophones distinguished in writing [æ, a, ā, ea] (see 123). All these sounds were reflected in ME as [a], except the nasalised [ā] which became [o] in the West Midlands (and thus merged with a different phoneme [o] or [ɔ].[42]

OE pǣt > ME that [θat] (NE that)
  earm >   arm [arm] (NE arm)
  blacu >   blak [blak] (NE black)[43]

See the map on p. 198 and the examples showing the splitting of [ā] in different dialects:

e. g. OE   ME NE
  lond, land West Midland lond [lɔnd] land
other dialects land [land]  
  lonʒ, lanʒ West Midland long [lɔŋ] long
  other dialects lang [laŋ]  

Most of the modern words going back to the OE prototypes with the vowel [ā] have [a], e.g. NE man, sand, and, which means that they came from any dialect except West Midland; some words, however, especially those ending in [ŋ], should be traced to the West Midlands, e.g. long, song, strong, from, bond (but also sand, rang and band, to be distinguished from bond).


  1. A Perspective on the Development of Videotex
  2. Chart 6. The list of the countries in which, in opinion of experts, the media education is on the highest level of development
  3. Demonstrative Pronouns. Development of Articles
  4. Development of Diphthongs
  5. Development of Diphthongs
  6. Development of Nominal Grammatical Categories
  7. Development of sibilants and affricates in Early Middle English
  8. Development of the Continuous Aspect
  9. Development of the Gerund
  10. Development of Verbal Grammatical Categories
  11. Fitting Description to the Thesis-Development-Conclusion Format

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