Features of Middle English phonology

The following sections should be seen in the context of the above one Writing and Sounds of Old English as it offers a discussion of the main changes between Old and Middle English and elaborates on some of the features of Middle English which are relevant to developments today.

LENGTHENING IN OPEN SYLLABLES This is a phonological process which started in the north of England in the 13th century and affected the high vowels /i/ and /u/ in the following century. It is one of the major sound changes of early Middle English and involves lengthening and lowering as seen in the following examples.

RETENTION OF MORA THROUGH COMPENSATORY LENGTHENING To understand Open Syllable Lengthening properly one must start with the notion of mora. A mora corresponds metrically to the quality of a short vowel; all long vowels and diphthongs are bimoric in English. The constituents of a syllable correspond to morae in metrics. One can see that in the history of English various cases of compensatory lengthening recognize that with the loss of a consonant its mora is transferred to a preceding vowel, for instance light /lɪxt/ [lɪçt] (-VCC) > /li:t/ (-V:C).

SYLLABIC RESTRUCTURING Recall here that a metrical foot (F = foot) refers to those syllables which stand between two stressed (S = strong, i.e. stressed, indicated by a superscript stroke: ˡ) syllables including the first stressed syllable, irrespective of the number of weak, i.e. unstressed (W = weak) syllables after it: ˡHe’s preˡdicting a ˡlandslide ˡvictory.

The labels S, ‘strong’, and W, ‘weak’, refer to the relative accentuation of the syllable. With the designations L, ‘light’, and H, ‘heavy’, the reference is to the quantity of the syllable. The correlation between strong and heavy on the one hand and weak and light on the other is in Middle English such that when a syllable is the only one in a foot then it must also be ‘heavy’, hence the lengthening of short stressed vowels after the loss of final /ə/. The entire metrical quantity of the words was retained by Open Syllable Lengthening.

VOWELS BEFORE /X/ In West Saxon there were only two recognisable variants for /x/, [h] in initial position, [x] in all other positions, irrespective of the preceding vowel. It was only towards the end of the Old English period that the variant [ç] appears as an allophone after front vowels. In Middle English this led to a diphthong with the mid front vowels /e/ and /e:/.

There is an equivalent to the diphthongisation of [e(:)ç] to [eiç] with back vowels. With the latter vowels the allophone was [x] up to early Middle English. During this period a velar glide appears before this sound, [u], the back equivalent to /i/ with [ç]. This merged with the preceding vowel and resulted in a diphthong.

THE SHIFT OF /X/ TO /F/ Already by the 14th century a shift is to be found in English which is common in many other languages as well. It is the shift among fricatives from velar to labial place of articulation. In English the shift was unidirectional and represents one of the many reflexes of /-x/ in Modern English (the remaining reflexes are vocalic). Note that there are two main outputs from this shift, one with an original high vowel /ʊ/ (later lowered to /ʌ/) and one with a mid back vowel /ɔ/; occasionally the shift occurred with a mid front vowel, cf. the form dwarf which itself shows later lowering of /e/ to /a/ before /r/.

SHORT VOWEL DEVELOPMENTS The development of late Old English /y/ differed in the various dialects. In Kentish the vowel had already unrounded to /ɛ/ in the late 9th century; in the west midlands and in the south-west it was retained in the Middle English period. In the east midlands it was probably unrounded early on (after the 11th century).

late OE



i North and East Midlands


y West Midlands and South


ɛ Kent

There are many examples for the unrounding in the east midlands.

The development in the east applies to those cases where there was no phonetic conditioning. If, however, /y/ came after a labial or in the environment of /ʃ/ or before /dʒ, tʃ, ʃ/ it was retracted to /u/. Western dialects show the retraction already in the 12th century and this is responsible for many of the spellings with u to the present day.

In the west midlands and in the south a front vowel was retained longest. The spelling u there stands for /y/ and is not restricted to the environment before /dʒ, tʃ, ʃ/, cf. gult /gylt/ ‘guilt’, kun /kyn/ ‘kin’.

For Kentish /ɛ/ is attested. The vowel is the short equivalent zu /e:/ which was already to be found in Kentish instead of West Saxon /y:/. Cf. gelt /gɛlt/ ‘guilt’, ken /kɛn/ ‘kin’.

The modern standard shows forms which can be traced to the various dialects. The phonetic possibilities are /ɪ/, /ɛ/ or /ʌ/ (from earlier /ʊ/) and the spelling can be i,e or u. There are many instances of a mixture of spelling from one dialect and pronunciation from another.



West Midlands

East Midlands


West Midlands






West Midlands

West Midlands


East Midlands

East Midlands

Apart from the above developments the short vowels of English have remained remarkably stable throughout the history of the language, for instance Old English cwic, god show the same vowels in Modern English. The two main changes which occur later are (1) /ʊ/ > /ʌ/ after the mid-17th century and (2) an earlier raising of /ɛ/ to /ɪ/ before nasals as in think [θɪk] and English [ɪŋglɪʃ].

Lowering of /e/ to /a/

This is a development which began in the north and spread to the south after about 1400. It is difficult to date this exactly as there is no orthographical indication of the shift. The lowering of /e/ to /a/ explains the present-day pronunciations of many proper names in England such as Derby, Hertfordshire, Berkeley (the name of the philosopher, not that of the Californian city). This shift was very common and in many cases the orthography has been adapted to the pronunciation so that these words cannot be recognised as having originally involved the shift, e.g. dark (from derk), barn (from bern), heart (from herte). The shift affected words irrespective of origin, hence some French loans also have the shift. Note that many instances did not become established and the /er/ (later /ɜ:/) pronunciation was retained.

Early Modern English
serve /sarv/  >  /sɜ:v/
certain /sartɪn/  >  /sɜ:tən/
fervent /farvɪnt/  >  /fɜ:vɪnt/

In one case this development led to a semantic distinction between two words one with the lowered vowel and one without. The word parson is a form of person with this lowering and came to mean not just any person but an ecclesiastical person and so the two forms continued with separate meanings in the standard.

THE LOSS OF FINAL /-ə/ The loss of phonetic substance in words is one of the most remarking developments in the history of English. It is already attested in Old English in the simplification of consonants. Later vowels in unstressed syllables lost their distinctiveness, then a final inflectional nasal was dropped and finally — probably by the 14th century — the remaining shwa, [ə], disappeared as can be seen in the following sequence.

drīfan /dri:van/ > /dri:vən/ > /dri:və/ > /dri:v/ (> /draiv/)

This phonetic loss always involves unstressed syllables and usually resulted in apocope (loss of endings). There are, however, instances of syncope (medial loss) and procope (initial loss). The latter can be seen quite clearly with the past participles of verbs which originally had a prefix ge- (cf. the similar prefix in German) but which was weakened progressively until it finally disappeared.

ge- /jə-/ > /i:/ > /ɪ/ > ø
OE gelufod ME yloved NE loved

This phonetic reduction had far-reaching consequences for the typology of English which gradually drifted from a synthetic type (Old English, much like German) to a more analytic type in modern times. The language developed means for compensating for the loss in manifestation of grammatical categories chiefly by a more rigid word order and by the increasing functionalisation of prepositions.

It is difficult to reconstruct the demise of final /ə/. The reason is quite simply that final -e continued to be written. The only sound proof is offered by a series of spellings in Middle English where the words have a final -e which is not etymologically justified.

cōle (OE col) ‘coal’
shīre (OE scīr) ‘county’

The loss of phonetic /-ə/ led to a refunctionalisation of the final written -e. It was henceforth used to indicate that the vowel of the preceding (stressed) syllable was long. This function has survived to the present day, cf. pane, with /ei/ from ME /a:/, and pan, with /æ/ from ME /a/.

In cases where final /-l/ is still spoken one must differentiate between those which represent a retention of an inherited /-l/ and those where the /-l/ is pronounced because it was reintroduced into the writing, e.g. ModE fault (< ME faute from French).

The situation is slightly different where the present-day English word shows a long low vowel. Here the /-l/ can have disappeared without necessarily having caused a diphthong.

calf /ka:f/, half /ha:f/

  Middle English