Middle English phonetic. Vowels

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Middle English phonetic. Vowels

Extensive changes of vowels are one of the most remarkable features of English linguistic history. A variety of changes affected vowels in stressed syllables; the modification of unaccented vowels was more uniform and simple. It is convenient to begin the description of vowel changes with unstressed vowels, for they will be found in many examples given for other purposes and should therefore be made clear in advance. It should be borne in mind, however, that the boundaries between stressed and unstressed vowels were not static: in the course of time a vowel could lose or acquire stress, as in many words stress was shifted; consequently, the vowel would pass into the other group and would be subjected to other kind of changes.

In ME and NE the main direction of evolution of unstressed vowels was the same as before; even in the pre-written period unstressed vowels had lost many of their former distinctions, namely their differences in quality as well as some of their differences in quality. The tendency towards phonetic reduction operated in all the subsequent periods of history and was particularly strong in unstressed final syllables in ME.

In Early ME the pronunciaLion of unstressed syllables became increasingly indistinct. As compared to OE, which distinguished five short vowels in unstressed position, Late ME had only two -vowels in unaccented syllables: [a] and [i], which are never directly contrasted; this means that phonemic contrasts in unstressed vowels had been practically lost.

Confer some OE words with their descendants in Late ME and TABLE!!!

The occurrence of only two vowels, [a} and [t}, in unstressed final syllables is regarded a4 an important mark of ME, distinguished it on the one hand from OE with its greater variety of unstressed vowels, and on the other hand from NE . when the ME final [a] was dropped.

This final [a] disappeared in Late ME thought it continued to he spelt as -e. The loss of [a] started in the North, spread to the Midlands, and reached the Southern areas be the 15`h c. In the London dialect of Chaucer's time it was very unstable and could be easily missed out before a following initial vowel or when required by rhythm. When the ending -e survived only in spelling, it was understood as a means of showing the length of the vowel in the preceding syllable and was added, to words which did not have this ending before: confer OE stAn, rAd and ME stoop, stone. rode (NE stone. rode)


In ME and NE the vowels in stressed syllables changed both in quality and quantity, under the influence of the environment and independently, alone and together with surrounding sounds. As a matter of fact, not a single OE long monophthong or diphthong has remained unaltered in the course of history; only a few short vowels were not changed, unless they were lengthened and then shared the fate of long vowels (for instance, short [i] and [o] have not suffered any changes in is and of - OE is, of, but the same sounds have developed into diphthongs if they became long: OE blind > NIL blind [bli:nd]> NE blind Though the total number of phonemes has practically remained the same, their distinctive features and the principles of their opposition in the system, have altered. Long vowels were the most changeable and historically unstable group of English sounds. At all times they displayed a strong tendency to become narrower and to diphthongise, whereas short vowels displayed a reverse trend--towards greater openness.

In Early OE the prevalent type of vowel changes were assimilative changes mainly affecting the quality of the vowels. Early ME is mainly characterised by positional quantitative changes of monophthongs; at the same time profound independent changes affected the system of diphtongs; OE diphthongs were nionophtliongised and lost, and new types of diphthongs developed from vowels and consonants. Late ME saw the beginnings of a new series of sweeping changcs:independent qualitative changes of all long vowels known a s the "Great Vowel Shift" which lasted form 14th till the 17th or even 18th c.

The system of vowels in Late ME was no longer symmetrical. The OE balance of long and short vowels had been disrupted and was never restored again. Correlation through quantity car. no more be regarded as the basis of phonemic oppositions in the vowel system.. Moreover, the very character o$ quantitative differences between the vowels is believed to have been considerabIy altered. Some phoneticians define the new, differences between the former long and short vowels as "lax-' versus "tense", others interpret their correlations as oppositions of "contact", in which the short vowels are "chacked" and the long vowels are



Short: e ei ai oi au

Long: i: e: a: u: au ou




The early modern period had a numerous vowel changes. The most prominent is the great vowel shift. It affected the system of long vowels, all of which changed their quality after the shift. They either narrowed or developed into diphthongs. The shift can be defined as an independent phonetic conditions for it can be traced in the syllable or in the word. But never the less it affected every stressed long vowel in any position. i: - ai (c∫i:ld-c∫aild), e: - i: (ke:pn – ki:p), E: - e: - i: (mE:l – mi:l), a: - e: - ei (na:m - neim), o: - o: - ou (ro:d – roud), o: - u: (mo:n – mu:n), u: - au (mu:s – maus).

Spelling changes: 1) though, the shift affected the pronounsiation of all the words containing long vowels, yet it was not followed by any regular spelling changes. And few graphic replacements introduced in the 16th century failed to reflect a systematic character of the changes. Thus, the diagraphs ee and iewere used for the sound e:, while the diagraph ea was introduced to reflect E:. But the further merging of e: and E: in i: made their graphic distinguishes useless (meet-meat, steal-steel). In the similar way 2 diagraphs were introduced to represent o: o: (oo-o:, oa-O:). This innovation proved to be more useful as diagraphs still indicate 2 different sounds in Mod.E: oo-u: (room, mood), oa-ou (boat, phoan). 2) Mute eduring the period there was introduced another thing to indicate the lengths of the vowels. That was the final mute e. It produced the position of the open syllable for the root vowel and starting with the 13th century an open syllable had been lengthening posing. And during the great vowel shift these mute e began to be adopted even to the words, where it have benn never spelt before, and where it was to serve as a signal of a long open vowel (ban-bon-bone, lic-lik-like). 3) Alphabet. During the shif even the names of some letters were changed: a-ei, e-I, i-ai, be-bi, ka-kei. But not only the names of the leters, but also their values had changed. Before the shift the letter i stood for the sound i:. after the shift it began to denote 2 sounds, which are different in their qualities: i, ai (bit-bait). Similar changes happened to some other vowels: a (mad-made); u (cub-cube); e (pit-pet), o (god-gold). In general after the shift the gap between the spoken and written forms of words increased and the spelling system became more conservative and conventional than before. Though, in general the shift was the series of constant and systematic changes, still there are some cases, which need explanation and comments. First of all it concerns the origin of diphthong ei in the word brake, steak. Henry Wyld made a supposition, that this irregular pronunciation might have been influenced by a certain dialects. But he didn’t mansion any particular dialects. The second interpretation is given by Jasperson. In seems to be more convincing. He thought, that during the shift 2 long vowels a: and e: might have some intermediate stages of development, which were common, which had caused the pronunciation of diphthong ei and the words above mentioned. Being a systematic change of considerable results the shift posed a number of serious problems to scholars. The problems are connected with a chronological frame of the shift and its causes direction of change and their phonemic values.



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