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The Consonants

Major Changes in the Sound System

Changes in the Orthographic System

Changes in the Middle English Orthography and Phonology

Lecture 5

During the Middle English period a number of very significant changes became more and more visible in the English language. The major changes from Old to Middle English are the loss of inflections, and with it the development of more fixed word order. As in the Old English period, language contact led to borrowing, but its scale was far greater during this period than it had been before.


One of the consequences of the Norman Conquest was the French influence on English spelling. Those letters which the French did not employ gradually went out of use. They were the letter æ, ð, þ, з.

New letters were introduced such as g, j, k, q, v.

Many digraphs and combinations of letters came into use, such as th, sh, ch, gh, ph, dg, ck, gu, qu, ou, or ow.

E.g. OE. wiþ – ME with; OE. fisc – ME fish; OE niht – ME night.

It became usual to mark the length of a vowel by doubling it, especially in closed syllables.

Thus ee and oo were used to denote [ē] and [ō].

E.g. OE swēt – ME sweet; OE зōd – ME good.

Sometimes the sound [ē], chiefly in French borrowings, was denoted by the digraphs ie or ei.

Many letters changed their signification.

The letter u, for instance, which had denoted only one sound in OE, [u], was employed after the French fashion to denote also the labial front vowel [ü] formerly expressed by y. E.g. bysiз, ME busy.

The letter c began to signify not only the sound [k] as in OE cōc, but also, in accordance with French usage, [s] before the letters i, e, y. So, OE cēpan, could no longer be written with the letter c, for it would be read [sēpən]. It became necessary to employ the letter k in similar cases. E.g. keepen, king.

The letter k was not unfrequently substituted for c in other cases. E.g. OE bōc – ME book. Sometimes after short consonants the sound [k] was denoted by the digraph ck. E.g. OE bæc, ME back.

The letter o came to be used not only for the sound [o], but also for the sound [u].

All these spelling changes wakened the more or less phonetic character of the OE, orthography. They gave rise to fluctuations in the graphic presentations of sounds and words. In OE the sound [e:], for instance, had only one graphic equivalent, the letter ē. In ME [e:] could be represented by e, ee, ei, ie. In OE, the word fisc had only one spelling. In ME, it could be written fish, fysh, fish, fisch, fyssh, fysch.

Consonantal changes in the system are slight during this period, which is a characteristic feature of English. Certain voiced consonants became voiceless and other voiceless consonants became voiced; consonants could occasionally also be lost completely. Thus, /w/ was lost before a following /o/ if it came after another consonant: OE swa > ME so (so); OE hwa > ME ho (who). In addition, ME lost consonant clusters beginning with /h/, so that hring became ring and hrof became rof (> roof). Significantly, both of these consonants were glides among which change was limited to the feature of voice.


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