H in the history of English
The Great Vowel Shift

Phonological change

In the discussion of sound laws, major examples of phonological change have been presented. In the current section some different types are to be found which have not been touched on yet.

Epenthesis Vowel epenthesis is a low-level phonetic rule which is used to break up clusters of consonants which are unacceptable in a certain language or variety. There are instances from the varieties of English where a prohibition on sequences of two sonorants in a syllable coda is resolved by vowel epenethesis which leads to re-syllabification (the syllable boundary is indicated by a dot).

film /fɪlm/ > [fɪ.lɪm]
arm /arm/ > [a.rəm]

Consonant epenthesis is different in its motivation. It arises in order to provide a more consonantal syllable coda. There are some words in English originally which ended in an alveolar nasal or an /s/ and which developed an epenthetic stop after the final segment. The result is that the syllable rhyme of such words shows a steady decrease in sonority from the nucleus to the right edge. Examples can be found from English and German.

High sonority Low sonority
vowel – nasal fricative – stop
sound (< son) against (< againes)
(German) Papst (< babes) (German) Palast (< palais)

Metathesis This phenomenon involves the reversal of linear order with two segments. It most commonly occurs with a vowel and /r/ and is attested widely across many languages.

bridde bird (Middle English and Modern English)
modern [mɒdɻən] (Modern English and Irish English)
brennen burn (German and English)
Birgit Brigitte (variants within German)

Metathesis may also occur with two consonants. In the history of English and among different varieties of the language a change of order with /ks/ or /sk/ to /sk/ or /ks/ is frequent, e.g. ask derives from Old English ascian which also showed a variant acsian. The second form is the source for the modern word. It stems from the first form by metathesis and itself was subject to metathesis again, reversing the original change in segment order. In the period when it was /aksian/ the palatalisation of /sk/-clusters took place — cf. dish, Old English disc from Latin discus — but the metathesised form was not affected. After the reversal of the first metathesis, the form ask resulted and retained this pronunciation which is why one does not have /æʃ/ in Modern English which would be the regular development of Old English ascian.

Two words from one root It may occur that different variants of a single root develop different meanings and thus survive in a language. Normally such variants do not survive if the meanings are the same. The source of the differences in form may vary. For instance the word parson is a form of person with the lowering of Early Modern English /e/ before /r/ which is found in many other words such as dark (< derk) or in place names like Berkshire /bɑ:kʃə/. The form with /ar/ came to mean not just any person but an ecclesiastical person and so the two forms continued with separate meanings in the standard.

Tawny ‘yellow-brown in colour’ and tan ‘brown skin colour resulting from exposure to sunlight’ both go back to the same root — Anglo-Norman tauné — but the first still has a reflex of the /au/ diphthong whereas the latter has the vowel simplification to /a/ which usually resulted before a nasal in French loans after the Middle English period.

Dough and duff ‘a type of boiled pudding’ are etymologically identical. The former shows entire vocalisation of Middle English /oʊx/ and the latter has the shift of /x/ to /f/ (as in tough) with the vowel change as follows: /ou/ > /u:/ > /u/ > /ʌ/.

Palsy is a doublet of paralysis. It furthermore is an early example of the loss of syllable-final /r/ as it derives from Middle English palsie, an alteration of Old French paralisie, itself from Latin paralysis.

Shirt is a form which derives directly from Old English scyrte and meant something like ‘garment for the upper half of the body’. In the period of Scandinavian influence the Norse form of the same root skyrta was borrowed with the approximate meaning ‘garment for the lower half of the body’. The Scandianvian form shows the typical lack of palatalisation, i.e. /sk-/, while the Old English form has /ʃ-/ at the beginning of the word.

Collapse of phonetic form This is a common change which leads to homonymy. The principle is simple: two words which originally had two different pronunciations end up with one due to a convergence of their pronunciation. A case in point would be the words ear (part of the body) and ear (seeds of wheat) which have, by chance development, become identical in pronunciation. If one compares their German equivalents, Ohr and Ähre, then it is obvious that etymologically the English words are separate entities.

Dissociation of monosyllabic and polysyllabic words It is a commonly observed phenomenon that long vowels in words of more than one syllable then to become short or, conversely, that vowels in monosyllabic words lengthen. This can be subphonemic as in Modern English mad [mæ:d] versus madder [mædə]. But in the course of time a re-alignment of the short vowel in the polysyllabic form with phonemically short vowels can lead to a dissociation of the two word structure types. Furthermore, if later changes only affect one type of vowel then the words can become quite different in their sound structure. This is the case in the history of English where only long vowels undergo the shift upwards and diphthongisation of high vowels labelled conveniently the Great Vowel Shift. This has led to the quite different pronunciation in the pair of words vine /vain/ (< /vi:n/) and vineyard /vɪnjɑ:d/ because only the vowel in the monosyllabic form remained phonemically long and underwent the Great Vowel Shift.

H in the history of English

The story of this segment reaches back far beyond Old English. The sound in Germanic is represented by χ, a cover symbol for a velar-uvular voiceless fricative which in turn derives from Indo-European /k/ by the Germanic sound shift. There was also a labialised version of the sound, i.e. with a following [w] element.

By the Old English period an allophony had developed whereby in initial position the sound was weakened to a glottal fricative /h-/, the velar form /x/ being retained in medial and final position. Late Old English shows an additional aspect in the allophony which was determined by the frontness or backness of the following vowel, i.e. [ç] occurred after high vowels, [x] was found after back ones. In the Middle English period all instances of /x/ were lost except in Scottish and Ulster English. The distribution of /h/ — which derived from /x/ — was restricted. It hardly ever occurs medially, except in a word like behave with /-h-/ and is not found finally in English. Put in terms of prosody, the distribution in Modern English is such that /h/ can only occur immediately before a stressed vowel.

Initial /h-/ was often lost, e.g. Old English hit > it. Then /h-/ in general was dropped but the standard and certain conservative dialects, like Irish English, retain it. Parallel to this one finds the loss of [ʍ] from Old English /hw-/ which is simplified to [w], again in southern British English but not in more archaic forms, including many varieties of American English. After this, instances of hypercorrection begin to occur, as in hobviously, hour with an initial [h-].

Note that the original situation in Old English involved /h/ before sonorants as well — /hw-, hl-, hn-, hr-/ — but these clusters were simplified quite early on by the loss of pre-consonantal /h/.

The Great Vowel Shift

By the end of the 13th century alternative spellings for e and o as i and u begin to appear above all in the northern dialects of England. Many linguists see in these shifts the beginning of a development which changed the long vowel system of Late Middle English and Early Modern English radically. This development is known by the general label Great Vowel Shift. It only affected the long vowels, by which are meant both monophthongs and diphthongs. In order to understand the basic mechanism of the Great Vowel Shift one should imagine a vowel rectangle and see the shifts in relation to this.

Many linguists assume that the closed mid vowels were first of all raised somewhat. After this raising had reached a certain level it was represented orthographically, i was written for e and u for o. However, it could also have been that the two high vowels /i:/ and /u:/ were shifted first. Middle English /i:/ and /u:/ correspond to Modern English /ai/ and /au/ (cf. time and house). From this one can conclude that the Great Vowel Shift also caused the diphthongisation of both high vowels. But it could have been that the whole process started with these shifts. After all diphthongs are not represented unambiguously in English orthography. /ai/ and /au/ are not shown any differently in Modern English than the Middle English vowels /i:/ and /u:/.

Because of the above, linguists frequently speak of a push-pull chain. By this term is meant that a shifting set in at some point in time and that further shifts resulted in an interrelated manner.

THE SERIES OF SHIFTS AND THE NEW DIPHTHONGS If one observes the Great Vowel Shift over its entire period then one can recognise clearly the starting and end points for the long vowels. These can be represented in the form of a diagram. The basic principle of the Great Vowel Shift is that each long vowel was raised by a single level and that the two highest vowels were diphthongised. This rule of thumb does not hold for all vowels but offers a fairly accurate orientation in the system of vowel shifts.

The low vowel /a:/ went through two intermediary stages until it arrived at the position it occupies today. The open mid vowel went through one intermediary stage.

A relative chronology of the developments in the long vowel system is offered below. Not all linguists would agree with this representation. Nonetheless certain aspects of the system are undisputed. For example the raising of monophthongised Middle English /ai/ (as in sail) can never have ‘caught up on’ the open front vowel /ɛ:/ (as in beat) as otherwise a collapse of the difference between the two vowels would have resulted with common further development being the consequence, i.e. sail would be /si:l/ in Modern English. The development of Middle English /a:/ and /ai/ must have been similar as the result of the shift in both these cases is the same (cf. tale and tail).

Note The Great Vowel Shift only affected long vowels and diphthongs. The shift of short /ʊ/ to /ʌ/ as in but /bʊt/ to /bʌt/, which began in the mid 17th century, is not part of the vowel shift.


Lahiri, Aditi (ed.) 2000. Analogy, Levelling, Markedness. Principles of Change in Phonology and Morpholgy. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Kenstowicz, Michael 1994. Phonology in Generative Grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

The following handbooks can be consulted for overview articles on phonological change.

de Lacy, Paul (ed.) 2007. The Cambridge handbook of phonology. Cambridge: University Press.

Goldsmith, John 1996. The handbook of phonological theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Definitions of terms from phonetics and phonology can be found in the following dictionary.

Trask, Robert Lawrence 1996. A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. London: Routledge.