Changes in distribution of consonants

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Changes in distribution of consonants


More systematic changes

o loss of ‘long’ consonants: OE man ‘one’, mann ‘man’

o OE /h/:

o word-initial [h]

§ lost in clusters: OE hræfn, hlāford, hlūd

§ (some evidence of ‘h-dropping’ word-initially)

· in words from French and Latin:

o e.g. oste ‘host’, onour ‘honour’

§ written language can retard/block/reverse sound change

· in native words: e.g. OE hit ‘it’;

o (adde ‘had’; herthe ‘earth’)


o postvocalic [ç] or [x]

§ still around in ME: light and laugh

· (ultimate fates: to zero or /f/)


o OE /g/:

o allophone [γ] (near l/r or between back vowels) vocalized to [u] or semivowel [w]:

§ OE swelgan, sorg, boga

o allophone [j] (near front vowels) vocalized to [i]:

§ OE genoh -> ME inough

§ OE mægden -> maiden, OE sægde -> said


More sporadic changes:

· in lightly stressed words, voicing of fricatives: that, was

· loss of unstressed final consonants: OE ānlic -> only

· loss of /w/ after /s/ or /t/ and (especially) before rounded vowels

§ OE swylc, swā

§ OE twā, sweord

· but kept in twin, swim

o influence of un/rounded vowels?

· metathesis, e.g. of /r/ and vowel

o OE bridd, þridda

o OE fersc, þurh

· intrusive (epenthetic) consonants especially before /l/, /r/, and /n/

o OE bremel ‘bramble’, næ:mel ‘nimble’, slumere

o OE þunor ‘thunder’, ealre ‘alder’, spinel, ganra,

o OE hlysnan ‘listen’

§ /b/ after /m/, /d/ after /n/, /t/ after /s/


The striking change in the written language of England during the twelfth century was, to a considerable extent, a matter of mere spelling. As was pointed out in the preceding section, soon after the Norman conquest children ceased to be regularly taught to read and write English, and were taught to read and write French instead. When, therefore, the mass of the new generation tried to write English, they had no orthographical traditions to guide them, and had to spell the words phonetically according to French rules. They usedch instead of the old c, when it was pronounced as in cirice church. The sound of the Old English sc in sceamu shame, which did not exist at that time in French, was rendered byss, ssh, sch, or sh. The French qu took the place of cp. The f between vowels (pronouncedv) was replaced by u or v (these being still, as long afterwards, treated as forms of one and the same letter, used indifferently for vowel and consonant). The Old English symbol was dropped, its place being taken by a or e. The sound of the Old English y, in the dialects where it survived, was expressed by u; and that of the Old English long u was written ou, as in French.
Of course these changes did not take place all at once. It is not to be supposed that no one ever read an Old English MS., and there was, for a long time, some mixture of the traditional spelling with the new one. Some few English sounds admitted of no tolerable representation in the French alphabet; and for the expression of these the native characters were retained in use. The letters, [char], [char] and [char] were used, though often blunderingly, even by scribes who, in other respects, were thoroughly French in their spelling; though often we find their sounds awkwardly rendered by t, th, ht, or d, and u.And in the twelfth century, though the continental variety of the Roman alphabet was generally used for writing English, it was found convenient to retain the native form [char] of the letter g for those two of its sounds that the French g lacked, namely, those ofgh and y (as in year). A new letter was thus added to the alphabet, and, though it came to be written [char], exactly like the contemporary form of z, it preserved its name “yok” until the fourteenth century. It may be remarked in passing that the ambiguity of pronunciation of this letter has misled modern writers into calling the author of the Brut“Layamon” instead of “Laghamon”; the incorrect form, however, has become too well known to be displaced. In addition to the two original values of the “yok,” it very early obtained a third use, being employed (without indicating any change of pronunciation) instead of the Old English h in certain positions, as in kni[char]t, ibro[char]t, rou[char],for which the older spelling was cniht, gebroht, ruh. But, in the fourteenth century many writers substituted y or i for [char], when pronounced as in [char]eer (year), and gh in all other cases. In the thirteenth century, the letters [char] and [char] went out of use, the former being replaced by the northern French w. The letter p was retained; but, although it was still called “thorn” in the fourteenth century, it seems in Chaucer’s time to have been regarded as a mere compendium for th, which generally took its place except initially. It may be noted that Thomas Usk, in the acrostic sentence of his Testament of Love (1387) spells pin (thine) with the four letters THIN. The adoption of a number of French words like ioie (joy), in which i was pronounced like the modern English j, introduced the consonantal use of this letter into English orthography.
The Old English initial combination hl survived (written lh) in some dialects down to the fourteenth century; but hr was very early reduced to r. For the Old English hw, Middle English writers substituted wh, though the h was, at first, often omitted in this combination, as in other positions, by scribes of French education. The northern spellingqua, quilk for Wha, whilk (who, which) arose from a dialectal pronunciation of qu as wh,which still survives locally in a few words.
From the twelfth century onwards, the letter y, when used as a vowel, was treated as a mere alternative form of i
The Ormulum is written in a peculiar phonetic spelling devised by the author himself. This is based, to a considerable extent, on native tradition, though the handwriting is of the continental type. There are, however, some of the new features. Orm uses ch and sh as we do now, and retains the Old English form of g for the two sounds which the French ghad not. A device peculiar to himself is the appropriation of different shapes of the letter gto the two sounds in god (good) and egge (edge). But the most noteworthy characteristic of his orthography is the method of indicating the quantity of the vowels. The shortness of a vowel, in a syllable ending with a consonant, is shown by doubling the following consonant, as in Crisstenndom. When the short vowel ended a syllable in the middle of a word, Orm marked it as in t[char]kenn, and very often (though not always) indicated a long vowel by one, two, or even three “acute accents” over the letter. This elaborate and cumbrous system found no imitators, but, as preserved in the author’s autograph MS., it is one of the most important aids that we possess for ascertaining the English pronunciation of the time.




The historical changes in the grammatical structure of the English language from the OE period to the present time are no less striking than the changes in the sounds. Since the OE period the gramatical type of the language has changed: from what could be termed a largely synthetic or inflected language into a language of the analytical type, with analytical means of word connection prevailing over the synthetic ones. The syntax of the word group and of the sentence came to play a more important role in the language than the morphology of the word.

The devision of the words into parts of speech, being a most general characteristic of the language, has in the main remained the same. The only new part of speech was the article, which split from the numerals and the pronouns in Early ME.

The nominal and the verbal systems developed in widely different ways. The morphology of the noun, the adjective and the pronoun has on the whole become simpler: many grammatical categories were lost (e.g. gender in adjectives and nouns, case in adjectives); the number of forms within the surviving grammatical categories diminished (e.g. the number of cases); the morphological division into stems or types of declension disappeared.

The nouns in OE had the grammatical categories of gender, number and case, and were grouped into an elaborate system of declensions based on an earlier division into stems and correlated with gender. In the Early ME period the noun lost the grammatical category of gender. The two other categories of the noun, case and number, were preserved in a modified shape. The number of cases in the noun paradigm was reduced from four (distinguished in OE) to two in ME. In OE the forms of the Nominative and the Accusative cases were not distinguished in the plural, and in some stems they coincided also in the singular. The Dative case fell together with the former Nominative-Accusative into what can be termed the Common case. Only the Genitive case was kept distinctly separate from the other cases. The category of number proved to be the most stable of the grammatical categories of the noun.

In the OE period personal pronouns had three genders (in the 3-rd person), four cases like nouns, but unlike nouns, had three numbers in the 1-st and 2-nd persons.

! There developed one more class of pronouns, reflexive. (myself, themselves)

The other classes of pronouns, Interrogative, relative, indefinite and demonstrative pronouns, displayed great changes too.

The other direction in the development of the OE demonstrative pronoun se, seo, pet “that” led to the formation of the definite article the pronounced as [Oэ] in ME).

Of all the parts of speech the adjective has undergone the most profound grammatical changes. In the course of time it has lost all its grammatical categories except the degrees of comparison.

In OE the adjective was declined to show the gender, number and case of the noun it modified: it had a five-case system and two types of declension, weak and strong, often serving, together with the preceding pronoun or alone, to present a thing as “definite” or “indefinite”.

The agreement of the adjective with the noun became looser and in the course of the 12th century it was almost lost.

The degrees of comparison are the only set of forms which the adjective has preserved through all the historical periods. In OE the comparative and the superlative degree, like all the grammatical forms, were synthetic: they were built by adding the suffixes – ra and est/ost to the form of the positive degree. In ME the suffex had been weakened to –er ans –est and the alternation of the root-vowel became far less frequent than before.

The most important innovation in the adjective system in the ME period was the growth of analytical forms of the degrees of comparison.

As to the verbal system, its grammatical evolution was less uniform and cannot be described in terms of one general trend: alongside many simplifying changes in the verb conjugation, such as the loss of some person and number distinctions or the loss of the declension of participles, many developments testify to the enrichment of the morphological system and the growth of new grammatical distinctions. The number of grammatical categories grew, as did the number of categorial forms within the existing categories (e.g. a new category of aspect, or the future tense forms within the category of tense). The changes involved the non-finite forms too, for the infinitive and the participle developed verbal features; the gerund, which arose in the Late ME period as a new type of verbal, has also developed verbal distinctions: passive and perfect forms.



Middle English pronouns are most easily understood by means of a broad historical overview.

The tables below give only some common spellings, the actual number of spellings to be found

in Middle English texts is much larger. In using the tables below, keep in mind that there is

considerable overlap between the different periods.


• The ‘thou’ form is used to refer to one person, whereas the ‘ye/you’ form refers to more

than one person. However, Middle English adopted to some extent the French tu/vous

distinction, in which the singular tu is used by those of higher social status to addressthose of lower social status, and the plural vous is used in formal address or by those of lower social status to address those of higher social status. This convention appears irregularly in Middle English texts. You will have to decide if it is present and has some implications for the interpretation of the text.

• It can be very difficult to distinguish the words for ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’ in early Middle English, since they all look pretty much the same. You need to judge by context. The forms for ‘she’ and ‘they’ given above are not a complete list of all the possible variant spellings.

• In early texts ‘thee’ pronoun is spelt þe, which can look like the definite article ‘the’ or the relative pronoun meaning ‘that’, ‘which’, or ‘who’. Make sure that you judge from context which word you have. • The word for ‘her’ can look like the word for ‘their’ (see below).

• Over time, the words for ‘my’ and ‘thy’ increasingly lose the –n when the following word

• begins with a consonant.

• The possessive of it (present-day its) is his, right up to the time of Shakespeare.

• In early texts the word for ‘their’, hir(e), can look like the word for ‘her’ (see above)



greatest inflectional losses; totally uninflected by end of ME period; loss of case, gender, and number distinctions

distinction strong/weak preserved only in monosyllabic adjectives ending in consonant: singular blind (strong)/blinde (weak), plural blinde(strong)/blinde(weak); causes in loss of unstressed endings, rising use of definite and indefinite articles

some French loans with -s in plural when adjective follows noun: houres inequales, plages principalis, sterres fixes, dayes naturales; cf. dyverse langages, celestialle bodies, principale divisiouns

comparative OE -ra>ME -re, then -er (by metathesis), superlative OE -ost, -est>ME -est; beginnings of periphrastic comparison (French influence): swetter/more swete, more swetter, moste clennest, more and moste as intensifiers

ME continued OE use of adjectives as nouns, also done in French; also use of 'one' to support adjective (e.g. "the mekeste oone")


The Middle English verb in different syntactic contexts could take a finite (inflected) or a non-finite (uninflected) form. The finite forms were inflected by means of suffixation, ie. the addition of inflectional morphemes to the end of the stem of a word, for the following verbal subcategories:

· mood: indicative, subjunctive, imperative;

· tense: present, past;

· number: singular, present;

· person: first, second, third.

The non-finite forms, ie. the forms unmarked for tense, number and person, were: infinitive, past participle, present participle and gerund. From around Chaucer's time the last two obtained more or less regularly the same ending -ing and so started to be formally indistinguishable though functionally still different (Lass 1992: 144). Syntactically, the infinitive and gerund functioned as nouns and the participles as adjectives. On the basis of their inflections ME verbs are commonly classified into three groups: two major ones, traditionally referred to as strong and weak, and a third one comprising a number of highly irregular verbs (here referred to as MAD verbs, see below). The basic difference between the first two groups lies in the way they form their past tense and past participle. Strong verbs build them by means of a root vowel alternation (the so-called ablaut) and the past marker of weak verbs is a dental suffix (usually -t, -d or -ed) attached to the root, after which the inflectional endings marking the number/person are added. Tables 1. and 2. present the paradigms of inflections for these two kinds of verbs.

The third of the aforementioned groups consists of verbs that display a high degree of irregularity and, according to Fisiak (1968: 99), may be further subdivided as follows:

· Mixed, whose past inflections are partly strong and partly weak, represented by only one verb: d n 'do'.

· Anomalous, undergoing suppletion, that is the replacement of one stem with another one, when forming the past and, in some cases, the present tense forms, eg. g n 'go', b n 'be'.

· Defective, whose chosen principal categories are lacking or extremely rare. None of them, for instance, has the present participle and many lack the infinitive. All of them, except for will, are the continuation of Old English preterite-presents. Can/con 'I can', dar 'I dare' can be quoted as the examples of such verbs.

One of the alternative subdivisions of this set of verbs, proposed in many ME grammars (cf. Lass 1992: 139-144; Welna 1996: 144-146), is made on diachronic rather than synchronic grounds, which means that the ME verbs are classified according to the formal properties they had in OE (none of these verbs is a borrowing). Thus, the subclassification continues the Old English one and goes as follows: preterite-presents, eg. can/con, dar, and anomalous verbs: g n, b n, will.

Finally, as this group of verbs is rather complicated morphologically and problematic when it comes to their detailed description and classification, they will be labeled in this paper as MAD, 'MAD' being an acronym formed from the initial letters of the names of the three subgroups. Thus, a convenient term is coined, which makes it easy to refer to the set of discussed verbs as a whole.


English verbs have undergone a significant restructuring from the time when Old English was spoken: most of the OE strong verbs, ie. those forming the past (participle) through the process of ablaut, went into the weak category (Welna 1991: 131, after Krygier 1994: 17). The examples of such verbs can be mainly found in ME, therefore the shift can be said to have happened throughout the Middle English period although some instances of shifted verbs occurred already in OE texts (Kahlas-Tarkka 2000: 218). The explanation for this process should be looked for in the following factors: phonological, due to the extensive sound changes; a blurred distinction between strong and weak verbs with respect to their inflectional endings; systemic, ie. the irregularities within the strong verb system; and extra-linguistic such as the misinterpretations of English grammatical rules made by the French acquiring the English tongue (Krygier 1994: 252).

The shift of a verb from one category to another was accompanied by the growth of the number of irregularities within the strong verb system, which in turn accelerated the process itself. The disintegration of the ablaut system and attempts at fitting most strong verbs into the weak paradigm must have changed the perception of ablaut from systemic feature to an irregularity. (Krygier 1994: 194). Consequently, in the 14th century any productivity of the strong category is lost and therefore the distinction should rather be made between regular (productive) and irregular (unproductive) verbs with some additional group from which other categorial sets, eg. modals, will later emerge (Kastovsky 1996: 43). Owing to the fact that this paper concerns the language of the text from the end of the 14th century, the following classification will be adopted:

a) irregular verbs - forming the past by means of ablaut or by the addition of a dental suffix or by the change of a stem vowel and, in some cases, of a stem consonant, eg. kepen - kept, cachen - kaught. The latter originate from a distinctive subgroup of OE weak verbs. This category was a source for modern irregular verbs.
b) regular verbs - forming the past tense and past participle by the productive rule of the addition of a dental suffix. They are ancestral to regular verbs in Modern English.
c) MAD verbs - the remains of OE anomalous and preterite-present verbs, described in more detail in the previous section of this chapter.

In the database one more group is isolated that is not treated in this paper separately. It includes a small number of verbs (five) which do not occur in the text in any form that would allow their classification and external sources of information (Krygier 1994; Davis 1979; Sandved 1985) indicate that they were conjugated by Chaucer in his different works either as regular or irregular. Such a distinction of the group makes it quick and easy to trace and retrieve these verbs from the database.



Unstressed syllables in English may contain almost any vowel, but there are certain sounds—characterized by central position and weakness—that are particularly often found as the nuclei of syllables of this type. These include:

· schwa, [ə], as in COMMA and (in non-rhotic dialects) LETTER (pandapander merger); also in many other positions such as about, photograph, paddock, etc. This sound is essentially restricted to unstressed syllables exclusively. In the approach presented here it is identified as a phoneme /ə/, although other analyses do not have a separate phoneme for schwa and regard it as a reduction or neutralization of other vowels in syllables with the lowest degree of stress.

· r-colored schwa, [ɚ], as in LETTER in General American and some other rhotic dialects, which can be identified with the underlying sequence /ər/.

· syllabic consonants: [l̩] as in bottle, [n̩] as in button, [m̩] as in rhythm. These may be phonemized either as a plain consonant or as a schwa followed by a consonant; for example button may be represented as /ˈbʌtn̩/ or /ˈbʌtən/ (see above under Consonants).

· [ɪ], as in roses, making, expect. This can be identified with the phoneme /ɪ/, although in unstressed syllables it may be pronounced more centrally (in American tradition thebarred i symbol ⟨ɨ⟩ is used here), and for some speakers (particularly in Australian and New Zealand and some American English) it is merged with /ə/ in these syllables (weak vowel merger). Among speakers who retain the distinction there are many cases where free variation between /ɪ/ and /ə/ is found, as in the second syllable of typical. (TheOED has recently adopted the symbol ⟨ᵻ⟩ to indicate such cases.)

· [ʊ], as in argument, today, for which similar considerations apply as in the case of [ɪ]. (The symbol ⟨ᵿ⟩ is sometimes used in these cases, similarly to /ᵻ/.) Some speakers may also have a rounded schwa, [ɵ], used in words like omission [ɵˈmɪʃən].[39]

· [i], as in happy, coffee, in many dialects (others have [ɪ] in this position).[40] The phonemic status of this [i] is not easy to establish. Some authors consider it to correspond phonemically with a close front vowel that is neither the vowel of KIT nor that of FLEECE; it occurs chiefly in contexts where the contrast between these vowels is neutralized,[41][42][43] implying that it represents an archiphoneme, which may be written /i/. Many speakers, however, do have a contrast in pairs of words like studied andstudded or taxis and taxes; the contrast may be [i] vs. [ɪ], [ɪ] vs. [ə] or [i] vs. [ə], hence some authors consider that the happY-vowel should be identified phonemically either with the vowel of KIT or that of FLEECE, depending on speaker.[44] See also happy-tensing.

· [u], as in influence, to each. This is the back rounded counterpart to [i] described above; its phonemic status is treated in the same works as cited there.

Vowel reduction in unstressed syllables is a significant feature of English. Syllables of the types listed above often correspond to a syllable containing a different vowel ("full vowel") used in other forms of the same morpheme where that syllable is stressed. For example, the first o in photograph, being stressed, is pronounced with the GOAT vowel, but in photography, where it is unstressed, it is reduced to schwa. Also, certain common words (a, an, of, for, etc.) are pronounced with a schwa when they are unstressed, although they have different vowels when they are in a stressed position (see Weak and strong forms in English).

Some unstressed syllables, however, retain full (unreduced) vowels, i.e. vowels other than those listed above. Examples are the /æ/ in ambition and the /aɪ/ in finite. Some phonologists regard such syllables as not being fully unstressed (they may describe them as having tertiary stress); some dictionaries have marked such syllables as havingsecondary stress. However linguists such as Ladefoged[45] and Bolinger (1986) regard this as a difference purely of vowel quality and not of stress,[46] and thus argue that vowel reduction itself is phonemic in English. Examples of words where vowel reduction seems to be distinctive for some speakers[47] include chickaree vs. chicory (the latter has the reduced vowel of HAPPY, whereas the former has the FLEECE vowel without reduction), and Pharaoh vs. farrow (both have the GOAT vowel, but in the latter word it may reduce to[ɵ]).


The Great Vowel Shift was a massive sound change affecting the long vowels of English during the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. Basically, the long vowels shifted upwards; that is, a vowel that used to be pronounced in one place in the mouth would be pronounced in a different place, higher up in the mouth. The Great Vowel Shift has had long-term implications for, among other things, orthography, the teaching of reading, and the understanding of any English-language text written before or during the Shift. Any standard history of the English language textbook (see our sources) will have a discussion of the GVS. This page gives just a quick overview; our interactive See and Hear page adds sound and animation to give you a better sense of how this all works.

Then we talk about the GVS, we usually talk about it happening in eight steps. It is very important to remember, however, that each step did not happen overnight. At any given time, people of different ages and from different regions would have different pronunciations of the same word. Older, more conservative speakers would retain one pronunciation while younger, more advanced speakers were moving to a new one; some people would be able to pronounce the same word two or more different ways. The same thing happens today, of course: I can pronounce the word "route" to rhyme with "boot" or with "out" and may switch from one pronunciation to another in the midst of a conversation. Please see our Dialogue: Conservative and Advanced section for an illustration of this phenomenon.



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