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Vowels in Unstressed Syllables

Vowels in Stressed Syllables

Old English Middle English Meaning

Consonant Changes from Old to Middle English

In the following table the first group of examples represents forms which lost initial h- preceding a resonant (l, n and r); the second set shows the loss of a final consonant; the third shows the simplification of the cluster /sw/, while the last pair reflects the voicing of voiceless consonants in some dialects:

There was also little change in the vowels in stressed or accented syllables. Most of the short vowels, unless lengthened, passed unchanged into ME. But short æ was lowered to [a] and y was unrounded to i (OE cræft > ME craft; OE brycg > brigge, bridge). The other short vowels a, e, i, o, u remained unchanged, as in OE catte > cat; bedde > bed; scip > ship; folc > folk; full > ful.

Amongst the long vowels, the most important change was the raising and rounding of long a > o: OE ban > ME bon (‘bone’), bat > bot (‘boat’). [y:] was unrounded to [i:]: OE bryd > bride, fyr > fir (‘fire’).

Long e in ME represented two sounds:

(1) Long e (long a in West Germanic) appears as long e in ME, unchanged from OE (except in West Saxon): slepan > slepen.

(2) In many words æ was a sound resulting from the i-umlaut of a. This was a more open vowel, appearing in ME as e (OE clæne > clene, dælen > delen (‘deal’).

Other OE vowels preserved their quality in ME: medu > mede (‘mead’); fif > fif (‘five’); bok > bok (‘book’); hus > hus (‘house’).

OE diphthongs were all simplified and all the diphthongs of ME are new formations resulting chiefly from the combination of a simple vowel with the following consonant ([j] or [w]), which vocalized. Though the quality did not change in ME, the quantity of OE vowels underwent considerable change. OE long vowels were shortened late in the OE period or early in ME when followed by a double consonant or by most combinations of consonants. The changes are not noticeable in spelling, but they are very significant, since they determine the development of these vowels in later stages.


The general obscuring of unstressed syllables in ME is a most significant sound change, since it is one of the fundamental causes of the loss of inflection. Before the end of OE, every unstressed /a/, /e/, /o/ and /u/ tended to become an <e> in spelling, presumably pronounced as /ə/ (schwa): OE oxa >ME oxe; OE foda > ME fode. Unstressed /i/, on the other hand, remained unchanged. When /ə/ was final in ME it was eventually lost, hence the modern forms ox, food; often the <e> was retained in spelling, though it was not pronounced. Certain endings in which /ə/ was followed by a consonant, especially the possessive and plural –es and preterite –ed, regularly syncopated, so that here, too, /ə/ is lost (e.g. botes > boats). Exceptions are sounds ending in a sibilant, e.g. busses, vases, etc., or verbs ending in an alveolar sound (wedded, wetted), where [ə] or [i] is still encountered in modern forms.


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