Middle English Phonology


Review: some sound changes with grammatical implications


Reduction to /ə/ and eventual loss of short vowels in unstressed syllables

·       (lexical words: nama -> name, mete -> meat, nosu > nose, sunu -> son)

o      function of silent <-e>?

·       grammar words:

o      folc(e), niht(e): dative falls in with nominative, accusative

o      riht(e), freondlic(e): adverb falls in with adjective

o      lufodon, lufoden: preterite indicative and subjunctive plural fall together


Loss (inconsistent) of unstressed final consonants following a vowel

o      infinitive: helpan -> helpen -> help

o      affixes: ānlic -> only

o      pronouns: ic -> I, þin -> thi(n)

o      article: án -> a(n)

o      strong past participles: -en often stays, e.g. written, taken


These are among some quantitative sound changes:

o      loss

o      lengthening

o      shortening

Middle English: Consonants


Good review: Brinton & Arnovick, The English language, pp. 251-


New phonemes: voiced fricatives /ð/, /v/, /z/


The situation in OE

o      voiced fricatives were just allophones of voiceless fricatives

o      fricatives were voiceless unless they were between voiced sounds

§       [ð]: oðer

§       [v]: hlāford, hēafod, hæfde

§       [z]: frēosan, ceōsan, hūsian


A number of factors promoted the phonemicization of voiced fricatives:

o      loanwords from French: vine (fine), view (few), veal (feel)

o      but French lacks interdental fricatives or (with a few exceptions) word-initial /z/

o      dialect mixing:

o      (fox), vixen: southern English dialects

o      loss of final (vowels in) unstressed syllables

o      OE hūsian [z] -> -> ME house, hous /z/ (cf noun hous /s/)

o      “voiced consonants require less energy to pronounce”: previously unvoiced fricatives became voiced in words receiving little or no stress in a sentence, like function words:

o      e.g. [f] of  ->                 /v/

o      e.g. [s] in wæs, his ->   /z/

o      e.g. [θ] in þæt  ->          /ð/

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/

Middle English Vowels: ‘Qualitative’ changes


Loss of some vowels:


OE /y/ (long and short) developed in different ways in different dialects (great marker!)

§       unrounded to /i/ and /ɪ/ in East Midlands and north

o      e.g. Peterborough Chronicle has king for OE cyning

§       stayed rounded in the West Midlands and south

o      but spelled <u>, perhaps influenced by French (tu)

§       convention survives in forms like such, dusty

§       in Kent, it unrounded AND lowered to /ε/

o      spelled <e>

§       convention survives in forms like merry, knell

§       London attracted speakers of all different regions

o      hence the dog’s breakfast of sounds and spellings!

§       busy: has WM spelling with EM pronunciation

§       bury: has Kentish sound with WM spelling


OE <æ> lost: long /æ:/ and perhaps also short /æ/

§       OE <æ> ends up as ME <a> (and likely /α/)

o      e.g. OE bæð /æ/, ME bath /α/

§       roughly, OE <æ:> words end up as eME long <e>

o      by late ME, one group of these spelled <ea>

§       e.g. sæ: ‘sea’, tæ:can ‘teach’

o      <ea> distinguishes lower /ε:/ from higher <ee> /e/

§       e.g. OE tæ:can ‘teach’ vs OE cēpan ‘keep’


Long ash: more than you want to know

West Gmc


ME sound

late ME spelling




*ai > ā,

I-mut. to





sea, teach,





sleep, deed



OE /ά/ (<ā>)

§       rounds in most ME dialects

o      OE hām, gāt, stān, swā

§       late enough for input of lengthening before /mb/ (below)

o       OE camb -> cámb

§       but not in the north

o      p. 171: fais ‘foes’, p. 173 raid ‘rode’

§       late ME often distinguishes lower <oa> / <o-e> from higher <oo> /o/

o      e.g. boat /ɔ:/

o      e.g. boot /o/


General points about diphthongs

§       old diphthongs smoothed

o      e.g. /εo/ in heorte, eorðe

o      e.g. /eo/ in freosan, ceosan

§       new diphthongs added, including ones from

o      native sources: vocalization of OE /j/ and /γ/ in words like maiden /æi/ and bowe /ɔu/

o      French loanwords, e.g. noise /ɔi/

ME vowels: quantitative changes (lengthening and shortening)


Basically: explains different vowels in otherwise similar words

·       e.g. noun plurals: child and children, staff and staves

·       e.g. nose and nostril, wise and wisdom

·       e.g. in weak verbs: keep and kept, lead and led


In OE, some short vowels lengthened before certain consonant clusters: e.g., OE blind /I/ -> ME blind /i/


·       often subsequently reversed, but had lasting effects with

o      any vowel before /ld/:

§       OE cild /ɪ/ -> ME child /i/

§       OE mild, feld, gold, bald->báld

o      some vowels before /mb/ and /nd/:

§       climb, cámb (not /ε/ or /u/, so cf. unkempt, dumb)

§       blind, pound, bound (not /α/, so cf. band)

·       what do you notice about /mb/ and /nd/?


If the change was sometimes reversed, how do we know that it happened?

-Orm’s Ormulum (or rather Orrm’s Orrmulum) and its spelling conventions (see Crystal p. 42!) are an invaluable source for our knowledge of vowel length in early ME:

annd and wennd  but  kinde, findenn



Sometimes the change was blocked


-if a third consonant followed

          so, child but chil-dren

                   Why? the syllable division breaks up the /ld/ cluster


-if the word was unstressed (i.e. a grammar word)

          so, found but not under

In late OE, some long vowels shortened in closed syllables:

e.g. OE cēp-te -> ME kĕpte


Around the thirteenth century, some short vowels lengthened in open syllables:

e.g. OE nŏ-su -> ME nōse



What are open and closed syllables?


An open syllable

ends in a vowel

A closed syllable

ends in a consonant








Why is this interesting?


Source of vowel difference in keep and kept, nose and nostril



What’s potentially confusing about this?


The loss of final unstressed syllables in ME closes syllables that were open in OE

OE cē-pan -> ME kē-pe -> ME kēp


Where did long vowels shorten?


If they were in stressed closed syllables before a ‘consonant group’

e.g. groups that resulted from compounding: scēaphirde

e.g. doubled consonants: næ:ddre, læ:dde

-remember that doubled consonants were pronounced!

-often in the preterite of weak verbs whose stems ended in d: læ:dan, hy:dan


OE word

with a

long vowel &

closed syllable

ME word

but not in related words with an

open syllable

ME word












§ wīs




§ scēap








Which short vowels lengthened, and where?


OE short vowel

OE word with an open syllable

ME word

But not in words with closed syllables


















Can you sum this up for us?


By the end of the ME period,


Closed syllables are associated with short vowels


tal-ly remains short

cēp-te becomes short


Open syllables are associated with long vowels


ta-lu becomes long

cē-pan remains long