Later phonological developments

SHORTENING OF /u:/ With a series of words which in Middle English had /o:/ a shortening appears as of the 16th century which was established fully by the first half of the 17th century. By this time Middle English /o:/ had long since been shifted to /u:/ as a result of the Great Vowel Shift. The results of the present shortenings are words which in present-day English show /ʌ/. This vowel appears because the forms with the shortened vowel also experienced the unrounding and lowering of /ʊ/ just as did those words which had the short /ʊ/ to start with.


late ME

early ModE






blood, flood

These words usually have the spelling oo which indicates a long /o:/ in Middle English and /u:/ after the Great Vowel Shift.

There is a further somewhat later shortening which also involves the vowel /u:/. In this case the shortened /u:/ is not further shifted to /ʌ/. From this one can conclude that the shortening is quite recent, i.e. it occurred after the period during which the shift of /ʊ/ to /ʌ/ took place (mid to late 17th century). The shortening almost has the character of a conditioned change and it is only to be found before the voiceless velar and before the two alveolar plosives.

before /t/ : foot, soot
before /d/ : stood, hood, good
before /k/ : took, shook, look

The last shortening is quite recent and many conservative dialects, such as Irish English do not have it, e.g. the words book and cook have long vowels.

These changes illustrate well the principle of relative chronology. This refers to the fact that changes take place in a certain order without one’s knowing precise times for the individual changes of a sequence. The following table shows this graphically.

A further environment which has emerged in the 20th century is before /m/ where the shortening is optional and usually only found in Received Pronunciation, cf. broom, room with either /u:/ or /u/.

The above kind of shortening is finally attested in one other, rather special environment. In those words which have /f/ from /x/ by velar to labial shift the preceding /oʊ/ was shortened to /ʊ/ and later this was lowered to /ʌ/, e.g. tough, cough, rough.

LOWERING AND UNROUNDING OF /ʊ/ A development in the vowel system of English, which began in the mid 17th century and lasted for some time after this is the shift of short /u/, seen in words like cut, tongue, hunger, son in Modern English. The change is an isolated change, no other vowel is ‘dragged’ with it and it is not part of the Great Vowel Shift as this only affects long vowels and began centuries earlier anyway.

The general assumption is that there was an unrounding of /u/ to start with and that later this vowel was lowered to a mid-low position. By comparing modern dialects with each other one can say that the type of vowel, which is transcribed by /ʌ/, represents a continuous shifting down and forwards in the mouth. While more conservative dialects of English, such as Irish English and most varieties of American English have a value which corresponds approximately to a centralised cardinal vowel /ʌ/, Received Pronunciation has a value which is close to a low central vowel — normally transcribed as [ä] — and which is fairly near to the pronunciation of /a/ in High German, i.e. a word like Bann is a good approximation to RP bun.

The unrounding of /u/ did not occur in all cases where the Middle English vowel was to be found. If it occurred after a labial there was often no shift. After a labial and before /ʃ/ or /l/ — i.e. [ɫ] — it was never shifted. Further consonants which prevented the shift are /w-/ and /ʃ-/, both in initial position.

push, put, pull, wool, wood, cushion, should

The form could with /ʊ/ could well be due to its closeness to the modal should which does not have the shift for phonetic reasons. Note that a labial alone is not usually enough to have prevented the unrounding and lowering as words like but, bun, butler, putt, mutter amply testify.

In Modern English the lowered pronunciation would appear to be the default for any instance of short /u/ — either inherited or the result of borrowing — unless it is one of the small group of exceptions to the shift. Hence, for example, in the case of classical loans with u, /ʌ/ is employed as a realisation, e.g. plus /plʌs/, ultra /ʌltrə/.

THE ‘MINIM’ PROBLEM In Middle English manuscripts scribes tended to use vertical strokes to compose letters with, so-called minims. The rounded forms of letters which are so familiar to us today are a more recent development. Thus the form of o looked like a diamond and u looked like present-day v as is still the case in the letter w which as its name implies consists of two u’s.

Now there arose a practice in Middle English whereby scribes wrote o for /u/ when this sound occurred next to letters which contained minims, notably m, n, w. This practice was retained and has lasted to today as seen in spellings like month, none, won all of which previously had /ʊ/. Such instances must be carefully distinguished from those were the o does indeed indicated a (short) low-mid vowel, e.g. long, song, both with /ɒ/.

THE LOSS OF /ʍ/ The voiceless labio-velar approximant /ʍ/ arose from the pre-Old English sequence /xw/. With the reduction of /x/ zu /h/ in initial position the sequence /hw/ came to be realised phonetically as [ʍ]. As opposed to the /h-/ before the sonorants /n, l, r/ the phonological sequence /hw/ — phonetically [ʍ] — maintained itself for a considerable length of time and indeed has not died out yet in many conservative dialects. In Received Pronunciation it was voiced which meant that it merged with [w], leading in some cases to homophony.

which /wɪtʃ/


witch /wɪtʃ/


whale /ʍe:l/


wail /we:l/

/we:l/ (> RP /weɪl/)

The former distribution of /ʍ/ and /w/ is easy to recognise as English still writes wh- in all cases which derive from an original /hw/ whereas w- stands for the voiced approximant /w/.

THE LOSS OF SYLLABLE-FINAL /r/ A prominent feature of present-day Received Pronunciation is the lack of /r/ in syllable-final position (as in High German) However if it also forms the beginning of the following syllable — in this case one says that the /r/ is ambisyllabic — then it it is spoken in Received Pronunciation, e.g. very /veri/, ferry /feri/. The loss of /r/ left behind a /ə/-vowel which is, however, only realised when the preceding vowel is not low.

car /kɑ:/ */kɑə/
card /kɑ:d/ */kɑəd/

If the preceding vowel is high or mid front then the /ə/ is retained as a reflex of the deleted /r/. At the same time there is a lowering of the stem vowel by one level. Viewed historically this development is responsible for the formation of the present-day ‘centring diphthong’.

fear /fiə/ = [feə]
pear /peə/ = [pɛə]
pure /pjuə/ = [pjɔ:]

The situation with the back vowels is somewhat more complex. With the mid back vowel /ɔ:/ the /ə/ is no longer pronounced.

sore /sɔə/ > /sɔ:/
lore /lɔə/ > /lɔ:/

Where /ə/ occurs after /u/ speakers of advanced Received Pronunciation tend to delete it, lowering the /u/ by a level at the same time.

sure /ʃuə/ > /ʃɔə/

As opposed to other varieties of English, which have syllable-final /r/, there has been a merger in Received Pronunciation of those words which were formerly distinguished by /o:/ versus /ɔ:/.



r-less varieties of English







Due to the merger and lowering of /u/ to /ɔ:/ before the deleted /ə/ homophony can result which corresponds to three different forms in dialects with syllable-final /r/.



r-less varieties of English










  Middle English