Changes of Short Vowels in Early New English

391. As compared to the Great Vowel Shift other vowel changes of the NE period seem few and insignificant. Yet, like all the sound changes of that time, they account for the modern system of vowels and clarify certain points in modern spelling.

The short vowels in Early NE were on the whole more stable than the long vowels: only two short vowels out of five underwent certain alterations: [a] and [u].

392. ME [a] is reflected as [æ] in NE, e.g. ME that [θat] > NE that; ME man [man] > NE man. It has been suggested, however, that in ME the sound [æ] existed as well; it was an allophone, or variant of [a]; both allophones [a] and [æ] were indicated by the letter a in ME. In that case the development of ME la] in Early NE was merely a replacement of one dominant allophone by another, and the difference between ME man and NE man was very slight (see Note 2 to 377).

The more obvious change of the ME [a] came about when it was preceded by the semivowel [w]; probably under the influence of this labialised sound the vowel developed an allophone which finally merged with the phoneme [ɔ]:

OE wæs > ME was [was] > NE was
OE wæter > ME water ['water ] > NE water

393. The other change in the set of short vowels was a case of de-labialisation: ME short [u] lost its labial character and became [ʌ] except in some dialectal forms or when preceded by some labials, e.g. ME hut [hut] > NE hut, ME comen ['kumən] > NE come, but ME putten ['putən] > NE put; ME pullen ['pulən] > NE pull.

This development may have been tied up with the loss of ME [a] described above, as the new [ʌ] in a way tilled the position of ME [a], which had shifted to [æ]. The variant spellings of the vowel [ʌ], as in NE son and sun were explained in 359.

Growth of Long Monophthongs and Diphthongs in Early New English due to Vocalisation of Consonants

394. The history of English vowels would be incomplete if we did not mention the development of new long monophthongs and diphthongs, resulting from the vocalisation of some consonants, though these changes pertain to the history of consonants no less than to that of vowels. We may recall that vocalisation of some fricative consonants led to the appearance of long monophthongs and of new diphthongs with i- and u-glides during the Early ME period (see 380). Similar processes continued in later ages.

395. Two voiceless fricatives, [x] and [x'], were vocalised towards the end of the ME period. The glide [u] had probably developed before the velar consonant [x] even before its vocalisation; it is regularly shown in ME spellings, e.g. ME taughte, braughte ['tauxtə, 'brauxtə]. Later [au] was contracted to [ɔ:] in accordance with regular vowel changes (see 383), and [x] was lost, which transformed the words into NE taught, brought.

The palatal fricative [x'] changed to [j] some time during the 15th c.; it changed into the vowel [i] and together with the preceding [i] yielded a long monophthong [i:], which participated in the Great Vowel Shift. "Thus, words tike night, since the age of Chaucer have passed through the following stages: [nix't] > [nijt] > [ni:t] > [nait].

396. The most important instance of vocalisation is the development of [r], which accounts for the appearance of many new long monophthongs and diphthongs.

The sonorant [r] began to produce a certain influence upon the preceding vowels in Late ME, long before it showed any signs of vocalisation. [r] made the preceding vowel more open and retracted: the cluster [er] changed to [ar], e.g. OE deorc became Early ME derk [derk] due to the contraction of the OE diphthong [eo] to [e], and changed to dark [dark] in Late ME (NE dark); likewise OE clerec, which after the loss of the unstressed vowel became ME clerk [klerk], changed to [klark] (NE clerk); OE heorte developed into ME herle ['hertə], and Late ME [hart] (NE heart). The three examples are also interesting in that they show different reflections of one and the same change in the written form of the word: in dark the change of [er] to [ar] was shown in the spelling; in clerk the spelling points to the preceding stage, when the sequence sounded as [er]; the spelling of heart seems to bear traces of both stages or perhaps shows another attempt to record the transition of Eel into [a] with the help of the digraph ea. Although the change of [er] to [ar] was fairly common, it did not affect ail the words with the given sounds: cf. ME serven ['servən], person ['persən].

397. The vocalisation of [r] took place in the 16th or 17th c. In ME [r] was a rolled or trilled sound more like the Russian [r] than its Mod E descendant. The modification of [r] in the early 17th c. was noticed and commented upon by the contemporaries: Ben Jonson remarked that [r] began to sound "firm in the beginning of words and more liquid in the middle and ends". The new variants of pronunciation gradually displaced the older ones.

In Early NE [r] was vocalised when it stood after vowels, either finally or followed by another consonant. Losing its consonantal character [r]changed info the neutral sound [ə], which was added to the preceding vowel as a glide thus forming a diphthong; e.g. ME there ['θɛ:re] > NE there. Sometimes the only trace left by the loss of [r] was the compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel, e.g. ME arm [arm] > NE arm, ME for [fɔr] > [fɔə] > [fɔ:] (NE for). If [r] stood in the final unstressed syllable after [ə], the vocalisation of [r] to [ə] resulted in the survival of the ending, e.g. ME rider(e) ['ri:dərə] > ['ri:dər] > NE rider. If the neutral [ə] produced by the vocalisation of [r] was preceded by a diphthong, it was added to the diphthong to form a sequence of sounds named "triphthong", e.g. ME shour [ʃu:r], NE shower ['ʃauə]. ([r] was not vocalised when doubled after consonants and initially, NE errand, dry, read.)

Table 6

Vocalisation of r and Associated Vowel Changes



Change illustrated Examples
After short vowels o + r ɔ: for [fɔr] for
    thorn [θɔrn] thorn
a + r a: bar [bar] bar
    dark [dark] dark
i + r ə: first [first] first
e + r serven ['servən] serve
u + r fur (fur] fur
ə + r ə brother ['brɔðər] brother
After long vowels i: + r aiə shire ['ʃi:rə] shire
e: + r beer |be:r] beer
ɛ: + r ere ['ɛ:r(ə)] ear
ɛ: + r ɛə there ['θɛ:r(ə)] there
    beren ['berən] bear
a: + r ɛə hare ['ha:rə] hare
ɔ: + r ɔə/ɔ: floor [flɔ:r] floor
o: + r u: + r uə auə moor [mɔ:r] flour [flu:r] moor flower

The formation of monophthongs, diphthongs and triphthongs in the course of the vocalisation of [r] was a very complicated process, for [r] could occur practically after any vowel, and in the meantime the vowels underwent different alterations. The influence of [r] could sometimes slow down or prevent the changes of long vowels under the Oreat Vowel Shift, for [r] tended to make the vowel more open, while the shift made it closer; sometimes the vowel changed into the nucleus of a diphthong with the ə-glide from [r] at an intermediate stage of the shift. Various results of the changes are exemplified in Table 6.

398. It is apparent that the vocalisation of [r] had a profound effect on the vowel system; there developed a new set of diphthongs, and also triphthongs, with ə-glides: [iə, ɛə, uə, etc.]; there arose a new central long monophthong [ə:]; the new long [a: 1 filled a vacant position in the system, since ME [a:] had been diphthongised under the Great Vowel Shift, and the new [ɔ:] merged with [ɔ:] resulting from the contraction of ME [au] (e.g, drauen ['drauən] > NE draw).


399. In addition to the main sources of long monophthongs and diphthongs in Early NE, such as the Great Vowel Shift and the vocalisation of the sonorant [r], there were a few other instances of the growth of long vowels from short ones in some phonetic conditions. These lengthenings resemble Early ME quantitative vowel changes before consonant groups', only this time the consonant sequences which brought about the lengthening were different: [ss], [ft] and [nt]; the sequences mainly affected the vowel [a], e.g. ME plant [plant] > NE plant, ME after ['aftər] > NE after, ME mass [mass] > NE mass.

400. The reverse quantitative change shortening of vowels occurred in Early NE before single dental and velar consonants [θ, d, t, k]. The long vowels subjected to this shortening [e:] and [u:] were changing, or had already changed under the Great Vowel Shift, e.g. ME truth with an open [ɛ:] became [bre:θ] and was shortened to NE breath [breθ]; likewise, ME deed [dɛ:d] > [de:d] > [ded], NE dead. The digraph ea was introduced to show the open quality of the long [ɛ:] prior to the changes (see 386).

The long [u:], which became short before [k], and sometimes also before [t], was a product of the shift; this is evidenced by the spelling of such words as booh, (cot, where long ME [o:] was shown with the help of double o; in these words [o:] became [u:] and was shortened to [u].


  1. A Short Course in Human Relations
  2. A. Make up short dialogues expressing your opinion, agreeing or disagreeing. Use the prompts given below.
  3. A. Read the short extract from the interview and recognize any constructions expressing Future Actions.
  4. A. What countries is English the first language? Match English-speaking countries with their national flags and capitals.
  5. Accommodation of OE Vowels (breaking and diphthongisation).
  6. An Extract from the Late Middle English works criticizing the Church
  7. Analyze the meanings of the italicized words. Identify the result of the changes of the connotational aspect of lexical meaning in the given words.
  8. Ask your friend questions in English about their content. Summarize his/her answers.
  9. B) Give a short description of some other disease using a few phrases from the text above.
  10. B. Listen to part of a radio interview with a historian talking about Einstein. Then complete each sentence with a word or a short phrase. (Track 17, CD2)
  11. Causes of Grammatical Changes
  12. Changes in Matter

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Some Interpretations of the Great Vowel Shift | Principal Changes of Vowels in Middle English and Early New English (Tables)

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