Phonological history of English vowels

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In the history of English phonology, there were many diachronic sound changes affecting vowels, especially involving phonemic splits and mergers.

Great Vowel Shift and trisyllabic laxing

The Great Vowel Shift was a series of chain shifts that affected historical long vowels but left short vowels largely alone. It is one of the primary causes of the idiosyncrasies in English spelling.

The shortening of ante-penultimate syllables in Middle English created many long–short pairs. The result can be seen in such words as,

Middle English from long V from short V
ī : i child /aɪ/
children /ɪ/
ē : e
ea : e
serene /iː/
serenity /ɛ/
ā : a nation /eɪ/
national /æ/
ō : o goose /uː/
gosling /ɒ/
oa : o
ō : o (Latin)
holy /oʊ/
holiday /ɒ/
ū : u south /aʊ/
southern /ʌ/

*Earlier Modern English /ou/ merged with /oː/.

Tense–lax neutralization

Tense–lax neutralization refers to a neutralization, in a particular phonological context in a particular language, of the normal distinction between tense and lax vowels.

In some varieties of English, this occurs in particular before /ŋ/ and (in rhotic dialects) before coda /r/ (that is, /r/ followed by a consonant or at the end of a word); it also occurs, to a lesser extent, before tautosyllabic /ʃ/ and /ɡ/. Some examples of neutralization of /ɛ/ to /eɪ/ before /ɡ/ are beg, egg, Greg, keg, leg and peg's coming to rhyme with Craig, Hague, plague and vague.

Some varieties (including most American English dialects) have significant vocalic neutralization before intervocalic /r/, as well. See English-language vowel changes before historic /r/.


Low front vowels

Low back vowels

High back vowels

High front vowels


Vowel changes before historic /r/

Mergers before intervocalic /r/

Mergers before intervocalic r are quite widespread in North American English.

Mergers before historic coda /r/

Various mergers before historic coda r are very common in English dialects.

Vowel changes before historic /l/

  • The salary–celery merger is a conditioned merger of /æ/ and /e/ before /l/ occurring in New Zealand and Victorian (Australia) English.
  • The fill–feel merger is a conditioned merger of /ɪ/ and /iː/ before /l/ occurring in some dialects of American English.
  • The fell–fail merger is a conditioned merger of /ɛ/ and /eɪ/ before /l/ occurring in some varieties of Southern American English.
  • The full–fool merger is a conditioned merger of /ʊ/ and /uː/ before /l/ mainly occurring the North Midland accent of American English.
  • The hull–hole merger is a conditioned merger of /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization.
  • The doll–dole merger is a conditioned merger, for some Londoners, of /ɒ/ and /əʊ/ before nonprevocalic /l/.
  • The vile–vial merger involves a partial or complete dephonologicalization of schwa after a vowel and before coda /l/.
  • Four other conditioned mergers before /l/ which require more study have been mentioned in the literature and are as follows.
    • /ʊl/ and /ol/ (bull vs. bowl)
    • /ʌl/ and /ɔl/ (hull vs. hall)
    • /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (bull vs. hull)
    • /ʌl/ and /ol/ (hull vs. hole)


  1. John C. Wells, Accents of English, Cambridge, 1982, page 402

See also