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Phonetic processes in Middle English (the system of vowels)

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Word Stress in ME and Early NE

In OE stress usually fell on the first syllable of the word, rarely on its second syllable. Word stress in OE was fixed: it never moved in inflection and seldom in derivation. This way of word accentuation was considerably altered in the succeeding periods. The word accent acquired greater positional freedom and began to play a more important role in word derivation. These changes were connected with the phonetic assimilation of thousands of loan-words adopted during the ME period. Gradually, as the loan-words were assimilated, the word stress was moved closer to the beginning of the word. It is known as the “recessive” tendency, e.g. vertu [ver´tju:] became NE virtue [və:t∫ə]. In words of three or more syllables the shift of the stress could be caused by the recessive tendency and also by the “rhythmic” tendency. Under it, a secondary stress would arise at a distance of one syllable from the original stress. Sometimes the shifting of the word stress should be attributed not only to the phonetic tendencies but also to certain morphological factors. Thus stress was not shifted to the prefixes of many verbs borrowed or built in Late ME and in Early NE, which accords with the OE rule: to keep verb prefixes unstressed, e.g. present. Corresponding nouns sometimes received the stress on the first syllable: NE ΄present n - pre΄sent v; ΄discord n - dis΄cord v. The latter pairs of words show that the role of word accentuation has grown: word stress performs a phonological function as it distinguishes a verb from a noun.

Unstressed vowels

In Early ME the pronunciation of unstressed syllables became increasingly indistinct. As compared to OE, which distinguishes five short vowels in unstressed position [e/i], [a] and [o/u], Late ME had only two vowels in unaccented syllables: [ə] and [i], e.g. OE talu – ME tale [΄ta:lə] – NE tale, OE bodiз – ME body [΄bodi] – NE body. The final [ə] disappeared in Late ME though it continued to be spelt as -e. When the ending –e survived only in spelling, it was understood as a means of showing the length of the vowel in the preceding syllable and was added to words which did not have this ending before, e.g. OE stān, rād – ME stone, rode [´stone], [´rode] – NE stone, rode. It should be remembered that while the OE unstressed vowels thus were reduced and lost, new unstressed vowels appeared in borrowed words or developed from stressed ones, as a result of various changes, e.g. the shifting of word stress in ME and NE, vocalization of [r] in such endings as writer, actor, where [er] and [or] became [ə].

Quantitative vowel changes in Early ME

In Later OE and in Early ME vowel length began to depend on phonetic conditions. The earliest of positional quantitative changes was the readjustment of quantity before some consonant clusters:

1) Short vowels were lengthened before two consonants – a sonorant and a plosive; consequently, all vowels occurring in this position remained or became long, e.g. OE wild – ME wild [wi:ld] – NE wild.

2) All other groups of two or more consonants produced the reverse effect: they made the preceding long vowels short, and henceforth all vowels in this position became or remained short, e.g. OE cēpte > ME kepte [΄keptə] – NE kept.

3) Short vowels became long in open syllables, e.g. OE nama > ME name [na:mə] – NE name. In spite of some restrictions no lengthening occurred in polysyllabic words and before some suffixes, OE bodiз > ME body [΄bodi] – NE body.

Qualitative vowel changes.

Development of monophthongs

The OE close labialized vowels [y] and [y:] disappeared in Early ME, merging with various sounds in different dialectal areas. The vowels [y] and [y:] existed in OE dialects up to the 10th c., when they were replaced by [e], [e:] in Kentish and confused with [ie] and [ie:] or [i] and [i:] in WS. In Early ME the dialectal differences grew. In some areas OE [y], [y:] developed into [e], [e:], in others they changed to [i], [i:]; in the South-West and in the West Midlands the two vowels were for some time preserved as [y], [y:], but later were moved backward and merged with [u], [u:], e.g. OE fyllan – ME (Kentish) fellen, (West Midland and South Western) fullen, (East Midland and Northern) fillen – NE fill. In Early ME the long OE [a:] was narrowed to [o:]. This was and early instance of the growing tendency of all long monophthongs to become closer, so [a:] became [o:] in all the dialects except the Northern group, e.g. OE stān – ME (Northern) stan(e), (other dialects) stoon, stone – NE stone. The short OE [æ] was replaced in ME by the back vowel [a], e.g. OE þǽt > ME that [Өat] > NE that.

Development of diphthongs

OE possessed a well developed system of diphthongs: falling diphthongs with a closer nucleus and more open glide arranged in two symmetrical sets – long and short: [ea:], [eo:], [ie:] and [ea], [eo], [ie]. Towards the end of the OE period some of the diphthongs merged with monophthongs: all diphthongs were monophthongised before [xt], [x’t] and after [sk’]; the diphthongs [ie:], [ie] in Late WS fused with [y:], [y] or [i:], [i]. In Early ME the remaining diphthongs were also contracted to monophthongs: the long [ea:] coalesced (united) with the reflex of OE [ǽ:] – ME [ε:]; the short [ea] ceased to be distinguished from OE [æ] and became [a] in ME; the diphthongs [eo:], [eo] – as well as their dialectal variants [io:], [io] – fell together with the monophthongs [e:], [e], [i:], [i]. As a result of these changes the vowel system lost two sets of diphthongs, long and short. In the meantime anew set of diphthongs developed from some sequences of vowels and consonants due to the vocalization of OE [j] and [γ], that is to their change into vowels. 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 з > ME day [dai]. These changes gave rise to two sets of diphthongs: with i-glides and u-glides. The same types of diphthongs appeared also from other sources: the glide -u developed from OE [w] as in OE snāw, which became ME snow [snou], and before [x] and [l] as in Late ME smaul and taughte.

System of Vowels in Late ME


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