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Development of Monophthongs.

As compared with quantitative changes, qualitative vowel changes in Early ME were less important. They affected several mono­phthongs and displayed considerable dialectal diversity. On the whole they were independent of phonetic environment.

The OE close labialised vowels [y] and [y:] disappearedin Early ME, merging with various sounds in different dialectal areas. The treatment of [y] and [y:] in ME can be regarded as evidence of growing dialectal divergence. At the same time it is a relatively rare instance of similar alterations of a short and a long vowel.

Development of Old English [y] and [y:] in Middle English dialects


fyllan Kentish fellen ['fell∂n] fill
  West Midland and fullen ['fyll∂n,  
  South Western 'full∂n]  
  East Midland and Northern fillen [‘fill∂n]  


In Early ME the long OE [a:] was narrowed to [ב:]. This was an early instance of the growing tendency of all long monophthongs to become closer; the tendency was intensified in Late ME when all long vowels changed in that direction, [a:] became [ב:] in all the dialects except the Northern group.

stān Northern stan(e) [‘sta:n∂] stone
  Other dialects stoon, stone ['stב:n(∂)]  


The short OE [æ]was replaced in ME by the back vowel [a].In OE [æ] was either a separate phoneme or one of a group of allophones distinguished in writing [æ, a, ã, ea]. All these sounds were reflected in ME as [a], except the nasalised [ã] which became [o] in the West Midlands (and thus merged with a different phoneme lo] or [ב].

OE þæt > ME that [θat] (NE that)

earm > arm [arm] (NE arm)

blacu > blak [blak] (NE black)

The development of OE [as] to ME [a] is viewed with suspicion by some scholars, because the history of this sound includes several reversals, which is hardly probable: PG [a] > OE [æ] > ME [a] > NE [æ]. Perhaps, it was a graphic replacement and the ME letter a stood for two allophones, [æ] and [a].

Development of Diphthongs.

One of the most important sound changes in the Early ME period was the loss of OE diphthongs:


Table 3

Development of Old English Diphthongs in Early Middle English

Change illustrated Examples
ea: ε:   Cf.æ: ε: ēast rēad stræt eest [ε:st] reed [rε:d] street [strε:t] east red street
eo: e: Cf. e: e: dēop cēosan hē deep [de:p] chesen ['t∫e:z ∂n] he [he:] deep choose he
ie: i: e: Cf. i: i: e: e: līehtan hīeran rīsan cēpan lighten [li:x't∂n] heren ['he:r∂n] risen ['ri:z∂n] kepen ['ke:p∂n] lighten hear rise keep
ea a Cf. æ a Earm bæc arm [arm] back [bak] arm back
eo e Cf. e e heorte bedd herte ['hert∂] bed [bed] heart bed
ie i e Cf. i i e e nieht, niht hierde, hyrde hit (see bedd above) night [nix't] herd [herd] it [it] night 'shepherd' it

In Early ME the sounds [j] and [γ] between and after vowels changed into [i] and [u] and formed diphthongs together with the preceding vowels, e.g. OE dæ3>ME day [dai]. These changes gave rise to 2 sets of diphthongs: with i-glides and u-glides. The same types of diphthongs appeared also from other sources:

Table 4

Growth of New Diphthongs in Middle English

Change illustrated Examples
e+j ei e:+j ei æ+j ai a+γ au o+γ ou a:+w ou a:+x au + x we3 3rē3 mae5 la3u bo3a cnāwan brāhte wey [wei] grey [grei] may [mai] lawe ['lau∂] bowe ['bou∂] knowen ['knou∂n] braughte ['brauxt∂] way grey may law bow know brought


The formation of new diphthongs in ME was an important event in the history of the language. By that time the OE diphthongs had been contracted into monophthongs; the newly formed ME diphthongs differed from the OE in structure: they had an open nucleus and a closer glide; they were arranged in a system consisting of two sets (with i-glides and u-glides) but were not contrasted through quantity as long to short.

System of Vowels in Late Middle English.

Table 5

Middle English Vowels (the Age of Chaucer, Late 14th c.)


Monophthongs Diphthongs
Short i ea o u ei ai oi au ou
Long i: e: ε: a: ב : o: u:

As seen from the table, the system of vowels in Late ME was no longer symmetrical. The OE balance of long and short vowels had been disrupted and was never restored again.

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