Phonological history of English vowels
|History and description of|
|Development of vowels|
|Development of consonants|
- 1 Great Vowel Shift and trisyllabic laxing
- 2 Tense–lax neutralization
- 3 Monophthongs
- 4 Diphthongs
- 5 Vowel changes before historic /r/
- 6 Vowel changes before historic /l/
- 7 References
- 8 See also
Great Vowel Shift and trisyllabic laxing
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/
|ē : e
ea : e
|ā : a||nation /eɪ/
|ō : o||goose /uː/
|oa : o
ō : o (Latin)
|ū : u||south /aʊ/
*Earlier Modern English /ou/ merged with /oː/.
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
- æ-tensing is a process that occurs in some accents of North American English whereby the vowel /æ/ is raised and lengthened or diphthongised in various environments. In some dialects it involves an allophonic split whilst in others it affects all /æ/s. There are dialects, however, where the split is phonological.
- The bad–lad split is a phonological split of the Early Modern English short vowel phoneme /æ/ into a short /æ/ and a long /æː/. This split is found in some varieties of England and Australia.
- In Modern English, a new phoneme, /ɑː/, developed that did not exist in Middle English.
- The trap–bath split is a vowel split whereby the Early Modern English phoneme /æ/ merged with the /ɑː/ in certain environments. It occurs mainly in southern varieties of English English, the Boston accent and the Southern Hemisphere accents (although it is somewhat variable in Australia).
Low back vowels
- The father–bother merger is a merger of the Early Modern English vowels /ɑː/ and /ɒ/ that occurs in almost all varieties of North American English.
- The lot–cloth split is the result of a late 17th century sound change that lengthened /ɒ/ to [ɒː] before voiceless fricatives (off, broth, cost), voiced velars (dog, long) and also before /n/ in the word gone.
- The cot–caught merger is a phonemic merger that occurs in some varieties of English causing the vowel in words like cot, rock, and doll to be pronounced the same as the vowel in the words caught, talk, law, and small.
- The psalm–sum merger is a phenomenon occurring in Singaporean English where the phonemes /ɑ/ and /ʌ/ are both pronounced /ɑ/. In Australian English they are distinguished only by vowel length.
- The bud–bird merger is a merger of /ʌ/ and /ɜ/ occurring for some speakers of Jamaican English.
High back vowels
- The foot–goose merger is a phonemic merger of the vowels /ʊ/ and /uː/ found in distinct dialects of English: Scotland, Northern Ireland and the far north of England use /u/ for both these sets of words.
- The foot–strut split is the split of Middle English /ʊ/ into two distinct phonemes /ʊ/ (as in foot) and /ʌ/ (as in strut) that occurs in most accents of English (except most Northern English accents).
- In Modern English, the vowels /iu/, /ɛu/, and /y/ (the latter occurring only in French loanwords) of Middle English have been merged.
High front vowels
- The weak vowel merger is a phonemic merger of /ə/ (schwa) with unstressed /ɪ/ (sometimes written as /ɨ/) in certain dialects of English. As a result of this merger the words abbot and rabbit rhyme.
- The kit split is a split of EME /ɪ/ found in South African English, where kit [kɪt] and bit [bət] do not rhyme.
- The pin–pen merger is a conditional merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n] and [ŋ].
- Happy tensing is the process in which final lax [ɪ] becomes tense [i] in words like happy.
- The meet–meat merger is the merger of the Early Modern English vowel /eː/ with the vowel /iː/. The merger is complete outside the British Isles and virtually complete within them.
- The mitt–meet merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English and Singaporean English where the phonemes /iː/ and /ɪ/ are both pronounced /i/.
- The met–mat merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English and Singaporean English where the phonemes /ɛ/ and /æ/ are both pronounced /ɛ/.
- The met–mate merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Zulu English where /eɪ/ and /ɛ/ are both pronounced /ɛ/.
- The bred–bread merger is a process that occurred in Middle English that caused Middle English /ɛː/ to be shortened in some words.
- The bit–bet merger is a merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ occurring for some speakers of Newfoundland English.
- The thank-think merger is the lowering of /ɪ/ to /æ/ before the velar nasal /ŋ/ that can be found in the speech of speakers of African American Vernacular English.
- The vein–vain merger is the merger of the Middle English diphthongs /ai/ and /ei/ that occurs in all dialects of present English.
- The following mergers are grouped together by Wells as the long mid mergers. They occur in all but a few dialects of English.
- The cot–coat merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Zulu English where the phonemes /ɒ/ and /oʊ/ are not distinguished.
- The rod–ride merger is a merger of /ɑ/ and /aɪ/ occurring for some speakers of African American Vernacular English.
- The pride–proud merger is a merger of the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /aʊ/ before voiced consonants occurring for some speakers of African American Vernacular English.
- The line–loin merger is a merger between the diphthongs /aɪ/ and /ɔɪ/ that occurs in some English dialects.
- The coil–curl merger is a merger of /ɔɪ/ and /ɜr/ which historically occurred in some dialects of English. It is particularly associated with the dialects of New York and New Orleans.
Vowel changes before historic /r/
Mergers before intervocalic /r/
- The Mary–marry–merry merger is the merger of /æ/ and /ɛ/ with historic /eɪ/ before intervocalic /r/.
- The mirror–nearer merger is the merger of /ɪ/ with /iː/ before intervocalic /r/.
- The hurry–furry merger is the merger of /ʌ/ before intervocalic /r/ with /ɜr/.
- The furry–ferry merger, common in the Philadelphia accent, is the merger of /ɛ/ and /ʌ/ before intervocalic /r/.
- The tory–torrent merger is the merger of /ɒ/ and /ɔː/ before intervocalic /r/.
Mergers before historic coda /r/
Various mergers before historic coda r are very common in English dialects.
- The cheer–chair merger is the merger of the Early Modern English sequences [iːr] and [eːr], which is found in some accents of modern English.
- The fern–fir–fur merger is the merger of the Middle English vowels /ɪ, ɛ, ʊ/ into [ɜr] when historically followed by /r/ in the coda of the syllable.
- The fur–fair merger is a merger of /ɜr/ with /ɛər/ that occurs in some accents.
- The steer–stir merger is a possible merger of /ɜr/ with /ɪər/ that may occur in some American and the English dialects.
- The tower–tire and tower–tar mergers are found in some accents of Southern British English. The tire–tar merger is found in some Midland and Southern U.S. accents.
- The cure–fir merger is a merger of /ʊər/ with /ɜr/ or /ʊr/ with /ɜr/ that occurs in East Anglian and American English in certain words.
- The pour–poor merger is the merger of /ʊər/ with /ɔr/ or /ʊr/ with /ɔr/.
- The pure–poor split occurs in Australian, New Zealand, and American English that can cause the centring diphthong /ʊə/ to disappear and split two ways into /ʉːə/ and /oː/ or three ways into /ji/, /o/, and /uə/.
- The card–cord merger is a merger of Early Modern English [ɑr] with [ɒr], found in some Caribbean, English West Country and Southern and Western U.S. accents.
- The horse–hoarse merger is the merger of /ɔ/ and /oʊ/ before historic /r/ occurring in most varieties of English.
- The nurse–square merger occurs in some areas of England. The two sets are sometimes merged to /ɛː/ (Liverpool, east coast of Yorkshire) and sometimes to /ɜː/ (south Lancashire).
- The flower–flour merger occurs for most speakers of English. As such, "flower" and "flour" are homophones and "sour" rhymes with power.
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)
- John C. Wells, Accents of English, Cambridge, 1982, page 402