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Phonology and spelling

Ranez.Ru > Помощь в учебе абитуриентам и студентам > Студенту > History of English - Old English >

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OE alphabet used two kinds of letters: the runes and the letters of the Latin alphabet. The bulk of the OE material is written in the Latin script. The most interesting peculiarity of OE writing was the use of some runic characters, in the first place, the rune called "thorn" which was employed alongside the crossed d, ∂ to indicate [th] and [∂]. In the manuscripts one more rune was regularly used – "wynn" for the sound [w].

The Anglo-Saxons did not use the letters v and j (which were invented later), and q and z were used only very occasionally. They used the letter æ, which we do not use.

Old English writing - phonetic principle: every letter indicated a separate sound. But, some letters indicated two or more sounds. см. рисунки.

Some OE letters indicated two or more sounds, even distinct phonemes. The letters could indicate short and long sounds. The letters f, s and [th], [∂] stand for voiced fricatives between vowels and also between a vowel and a voiced consonant; otherwise they indicate corresponding voiceless fricatives. The letter з stands for [g] initially before back vowels, for [j] before and after front vowels, for [γ] between back vowels and for [g'] mostly when preceded by c: OE daз [j]

The letter h stands for [x] between a back vowel and a consonant and also initially before consonants and for [x’] next to front vowels: OE niht [x’]

The letter n stands for [n] in all positions except when followed by [k] or [g]; in this case it indicates [ŋ]: OE sinзan.


In OE a syllable was made stressed by an increase in the force of articulation; a force stress was employed. In disyllabic and polysyllabic words the accent fell on the root-morpheme or on the first syllable. Word stress was fixed; it remained on the same syllable in different grammatical forms of the word and did not shift in word-building either.

The forms of the Dat. case of the nouns hlaforde ['xla:vorde], cyninge ['kyninge] used in the text and the Nom. case of the same nouns: hlaford ['xla:vord], cyning ['kyning].

Polysyllabic words, especially compounds, may have had two stresses, chief and secondary, the chief stress being fixed on the first root-morpheme; the grammatical ending -a (Gen. pl) was unaccented. In words with prefixes the position of the stress varied: verb prefixes were unaccented, while in nouns and adjectives the stress was commonly thrown on to the prefix.

a'risan - arise v., 'toweard - toward adj., 'misdad - misdeed n.

If the words were derived from the same root, word stress, together with other means, served to distinguish the noun from the verb. 'and-swaru n — and-'swarian v (NE answer, to answer).

System of vowels.

Changes of stressed vowels in Early Old English.

The development of vowels in Early OE consisted of the modification of separate vowels, and also of the modification of entire sets of vowels. The change begins with growing variation in pronunciation, which manifests itself in the appearance of numerous allophones: after the stage of increased variation, some allophones prevail over the others and a replacement takes place.

Development of monophthongs.

The PG short [a] and the long [a:], which had arisen in West and North Germanic, underwent similar alterations in Early OE: they were fronted, and in the process of fronting, they split into several sounds. The principal regular direction of the change – [a] > [æ] and [a:] > [æ:] – is often referred to as the fronting or palatalization of [a, a:]. The other directions can be interpreted as positional deviations or restrictions to this trend: short [a] could change to [o] or [ā] and long [a:] became [o:] before a nasal; the preservation of the short [a] was caused by a back vowel in the next syllable.

Development of diphthongs.

The PG diphthongs – [ei, ai, iu, eu, au] – underwent regular independent changes in Early OE; they took place in all phonetic conditions irrespective of environment. The diphthongs with the i-glide were monophthongised into [i:] and [a:], respectively; the diphthongs in –u were reflected as long diphthongs [io:], [eo:] and [ea:].


If the sounds in PG were not diphthongs but sequences of two separate phonemes, the changes should be defined as phonologisation of vowel sequences. This will mean that these changes increased the number of vowel phonemes in the language. Moreover, they introduced new distinctive features into the vowel system by setting up vowels with diphthongal glides; henceforth, monophthongs were opposed to diphthongs.

Palatal mutation.

Mutation is the change of one vowel to another through the influence of a vowel in the succeeding syllable. The most notable - i-Umlaut or palatal mutation. Palatal mutation is the fronting and raising of vowels through the influence of [i] or [j] in the immediately following syllable. Due to the reduction of final syllables the conditions which caused palatal mutation had disappeared in most words by the age of writing; these sounds were weakened to [e] or were altogether lost.

Breaking. Formation of a short diphthong from a simple short vowel when it is followed by a specific consonant cluster. a – ea.

Palatal Mutation (i-umlaut). Narrowing of the vowel in the stressed position syllable under the influence of i or j of the following syllable.

Back, or Velar Mutation. Back vowels o/u (sometimes a) influencing the preceding syllable caused the formation of diphthongs. The process was not universal (in west saxon literary language it occurred only before the sounds r, I, p, b, f, m).

Diphthongization after Palatal Consonants. Diphthongs resulted diphthongization after palatal consonants sk, k and j (in spelling c, sc, 3).

System of consonants.

Treatment of fricatives. Hardening. Rhotacism. Voicing and Devoicing.

After the changes under Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law had PG had the following two sets of fricative consonants: voiceless [f, Ө, x, s] and voiced [v, ð, γ, z]. The PG voiced [ð] (due to Verner’s Law) was always hardened to [d] in OE. The two other fricatives, [v] and [γ] were hardened to [b] and [g].

PG [z] underwent a phonetic modification through the stage of [з] into [r] and thus became a sonorant, which ultimately merged with the older IE [r]. This process is termed rhotacism.

In all WG languages, at an early stage of their independent history, most consonants were lengthened after a short vowel before [l]. This process is known as geminantion or doubling of consonants, e.g. fuljan > fyllan (NE fill). The change did not affect the sonorant [r], e.g OE werian (NE wear); nor did it operate if the consonant was preceded by a long vowel, e.g. OE dēman, mētan (NE deem, meet).

Velar consonants in Early Old English. Growth of New Phonemes.

The velar consonants [k, g, x, γ] were palatalized before a front vowel, and sometimes also after a front vowel, unless followed by a back vowel. Thus in OE cild (NE child) the velar consonant [k] was softened to [k’] as it stood before the front vowel [i] – [kild] > [k’ild]; similarly [k] became [k’] in OE sprǽc (NE speech) after a front vowel but not in OE sprecan (NE speak).

Loss of consonants in some positions.

Nasal sonorants were regularly lost before fricative consonants; in the process the preceding vowel was proably nasalized and lengthened, e.g. OHG fimf – OE fīf (NE five). It should be also mentioned the loss of consonants in unstressed final syllables. [j] was regularly dropped in suffixes after producing various changes in the root.


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