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The Old English Consonant System




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Place of articu- lation Manner of articulation Labial, labiodental Forelingual (dental) Mediolingual (palatal) Back lingual (velar)
  Noise conso- nants   Plosive voiceless   voiced     p p:   b b:     t t:   d d:     k' k':   g':     k k:   g g:
Fricative voiceless   voiced   f f:   v   θ θ: s s:   ð z   х' х':   γ' (j)   х х: (h)   γ
Sonorants m m:   w n n:   r l     j (ŋ)

 

Some scholars include in the system one more palatal consonant: [sk’], spelt as sc (OE scip > NE ship). Others treat it as a sequence of two sounds [s’] and [k’] until Early ME when they fused into a single sibilant [∫].

The OE consonant system possessed a number of peculiar features:

1) it was developed rather poorly;

2) some pairs “voiced-voiceless” were only allophones but not phonemes yet;

3) voiced and voiceless fricatives were not distinguished in OE spelling;

4) there were few sibilants and no affricates;

5) the most universal distinctive feature in the consonant system was the difference in length.

 

5.Changes of Consonants in Early OE:

a)Treatment of Fricatives (hardening, rhotacism, voicing and devoicing).

On the whole, consonants were historically more stable than vowels, though certain changes took place in all historical periods. OE was a typical OG language. So it is naturally to suppose that OE ought to contain all the consonants that arose in PG under Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law. Yet it appears that very few noise consonants in OE correspond to the same sounds in PG. It happens so because in the intervening period most consonants underwent diverse changes: both qualitative and quantitative, independent and dependent.

After the changes under Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law PG had two sets of fricative consonants: voiceless [f, q, х, s] and voiced [v, ð, γ, z]. In WG and Early OE the difference between these two groups was supported by new features. PG voiced fricatives primarily tended to be hardened to corresponding plosives while voiceless fricatives, being contrasted to them primarily as fricatives to plosives, developed new voiced allophones.

 

Scheme 9

Changes of Fricatives in OE

 

Voiced Fricatives ----------------------------------------------------------------------à Plosives



hardening

Voiceless Fricatives-------------------------------------------------àNew Voiced Allophones

voicing

 

Hardening was the process when voiced fricatives changed into plosives. The PG voiced [ð] was always hardened to [d] in OE.

e.g. Gt goђs, godai [ð] - OE 3ōd (NE good).

The two other fricatives, [v] and [γ] were hardened to [b] and [g] initially and after nasals, otherwise they remained fricatives.

 

Scheme 10

 

Hardening

ð ---always----------à d

v ---initially---------à b

γ--- after nasal conditions----à g

 

PG [z] underwent a phonetic modification through the stage of [3] into [r] and thus became a sonorant, which merged with the older IE [r].

e.g. Gt wasjan - OE werian (NE wear)

This process is termed rhotacism.

 

In the meantime or somewhat later the PG set of voiceless fricatives [f, θ, х, s] and also those of the voiced fricatives which had not turned into plosives, that is, [v] and [γ], were subjected to a new process of voicing and devoicing. In Early OE they became or remained voiced intervocally and between sonorants and voiced consonants; they remained or became voiceless in other environments, namely, initially, finally and next to other voiceless consonants.

 

Cf. v Gt sibun [v] - OE seofon - NE seven

v {

f Gt hlaifs – OE hlāfas [v] - NE loaves

(Cf. R хлеб, U хліб) hlāf [f] loaf

 

The mutually exclusive phonetic conditions for voiced and voiceless fricatives prove that in OE they were not phonemes, but allophones.

 

b) West Germanic Gemination of Consonants.

In all WG languages, at an early stage of their independent history, most consonants were lengthened after a short vowel before [j]. This process is known as WG “gemination”or “doubling” of consonants. As the result long consonants are indicated by means of double letters. The change did not affect the sonorant [r]. This process also did not operate if the consonant was preceded by a long vowel.

 

Scheme 11

 

West Germanic Gemination of Consonants

 

a short vowel + c + j > cc (except r) (OE tælian > tellan > NE tell)

 

c – a consonant

 

During the process, or some time later, [j] was lost, so that the long consonants ceased to be phonetically conditioned. When the long and short consonants began to occur in identical phonetic conditions, namely between vowels, their distinction became phonemic.





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