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The historical phonology of English

Old English phonology
Middle English phonology
Early Modern English phonology
Late Modern English phonology
Introductions to this subject

  For literature on phonology consult the relevant section of the Reference Guide

Old English phonology

The sound system of Old English was quite different from that of present-day English. It contained sounds which are no longer found and combinations which do not occur anymore. It also has a system of word stress which only applies to part of modern English vocabulary.

Sounds of Old English not present in English any more

/x/:   þurh [θurx] ‘through’, riht [rɪxt] ‘right’

The voiceless velar fricative /x/ has been lost through vocalisation in the Middle English period. It can still be found in conservative Scots in a word like enough [ɪˡnʌx].

/ɣ/:   fugol [fuɣol] ‘bird’

The voiced velar fricative /ɣ/, like its voiceless counterpart, was also vocalised during the Middle English period, cf. the word fowl which is the present-day reflex of Old English fugol (the Middle English word bridde ‘young bird’ later adopted the general sense of ‘bird’).

/y/:   cyrice ‘church’, cynelic, ‘kingly’

The front rounded vowel /y/ arose through umlaut, originally the fronting of a back rounded vowel when followed by a high front vowel in a following syllable. This was a morphological process in the West and North Germanic languages and remnants are found in these languages today, with a very few in English such as man : men, mouse : mice (these are now opaque, i.e. the umlaut cannot be recognised as a regular sound change). Originally, there was a mid front rounded vowel [ø], in the second word in a pair like foot : feet (/fi:t/ < /fe:t/ < /fø:t(i)/) but this was lost at a very early stage.

Length contrasts

Old English had long and short vowels and consonants. The length distinction among consonants was lost in Middle English. This type of distinction can still be found in other European languages such as Italian.

cyssan ‘kiss’, settan ‘set’, siþþan ‘since’

Intervocalic voicing

In Old English the voiced fricatives [v, z, ð] were not independent system units (phonemes) but rather predictable from their environment. Where /f, s, θ/ occurred between vowels they were automatically voiced. Thus a word like wif [wi:f] ‘woman’ was wifas [wi:vəs] with a voiced [v] in plural. This alternation still exists today for word pairs like wife: wives, knife: knives, roof : rooves.


This is a sub-area of phonology concerned with the combinations of sounds. The set of permissible combinations has varied over the history of English, either by elements being lost, cf. /x/ and /ɣ/ above, or by the simplification or alteration of cluster types. In Old English /h/ and /w/ could occur before /r/ and /l/ as in hlaf /hl-/ ‘loaf’ or writan /wr-/ ‘write’; /h/ could also occur before /n/ as in hnutu /hn-/ ‘nut’ Such clusters were simplified during Middle English and only the second element of each cluster prevailed. Initial clusters like /fn-/ in fneosan ‘sneeze’ were changed to /sn-/. The combinations /gn-/ and /kn-/, as in gnagan ‘gnaw’ and cnēo ‘knee’ respectively, seem to have survived well into the Middle English period.

Middle English phonology

A number of changes took place during the Middle English period which altered the sound structure inherited from Old English. Apart from the losses of sounds and changes in clusters just discussed, there were other shifts, especially among vowels which link the Old English to the Early Modern English sound system.

Open Syllable Lengthening

By this is meant that a short vowel in an open syllable was lengthening (and often lowered), e.g. the short stem vowel of Old English in a word like nose was lengthened so that the pronunciation was then [nɔzə]. The open vowel was later raising as part of the Great Vowel Shift (see below). Similar lengthening occurred with front vowels, e.g. mete /metə/ became [mɛ:tə] and was later raised to [me:t] and then [mi:t] to given the modern pronunciation of the word.

Trisyllabic Vowel Shortening

In words of more than two syllables the stressed long word was often shortened. This applies in particular to French loans which had more than two syllables in a suffixed form, e.g. with nouns of quality derived from adjectives, cf. divine with a long /i:/ in the second syllable but a short /ɪ/ in the noun divinity. Because the Great Vowel Shift (see below) only affected long vowels the pronunciation of the shorter word form with the long form was later altered but not than of the trisyllabic word, i.e. /dɪˡvi:n/ became /dɪˡvain/

Vowel lengthening due to consonant loss

The velar fricative /x/ was lost during the Middle English period. Where it occurred at the end of a syllable and before another consonant it led to the preceding vowel being lengthened so that the overall quantity of the syllable rhyme – vowel + following consonant(s) – remained the same, e.g. niht /nixt/ > /ni:t/ ‘night’, riht /rixt/ > /ri:t/ ‘right’

The phonemicisation of voiced fricatives

Due to many loanwords from French a contrast arose in Middle English between voiceless and voiced fricatives. While these were predictable in Old English this was no longer the case in Middle English, e.g. voiced fricatives occurred in initial or final position in French loans, e.g. zeal, seize. Voiced fricatives also appeared in final position due to the loss of endings, e.g. baþian /baðian/ > /bað/ > /ba:ð/. This led to a contrast between noun and verb arising, cf. bath versus bathe in present-day English.

The rise of new stress patterns

French loans were often carried stress on the end of a word, or were perceived to do so by the English borrowing such words. In some cases the Germanic initial stress pattern, which English had inherited from earlier stages of the language, was applied with very early, Anglo-Norman loanwords, compare hostel with initial stress (an early loan) with hotel with final stress (a later loan). A stress contrast also arose in English between initial stress for Romance loans (French or Latin via French) when they were nouns but non-initial stress when they were verbs. This is the source of the stress alternations still found in English in word pairs like ˡconvert but conˡvert, ˡproject but proˡject, etc.

More information on Middle English phonology can be found in the module on Middle English.

Early Modern English phonology

The major vowel shift in the history of English – known generally as the Great Vowel Shift – involves the raising of low and mid vowels and the dipthongisation of the two original high vowels /i:/ and /u:/. The following chart gives an idea of the main movements over several centuries. Some sections of the shift advanced more quickly than others. In some varieties of English the Great Vowel Shift did not go to completion, e.g. in vernacular varieties of Irish English which do not always have the shift of /ɛ:/ to /e:/ and on to /i:/. In other varieties, the Great Vowel Shift has gone beyond the stage which it reached in Received Pronunciation, e.g. in Cockney English (vernacular London English) where the vowel in the FACE lexical set is more strongly diphthongised – with a lower starting point – than in less vernacular forms of English in the South-East of England, the same is true for the GOAT-vowel.
    Note than the Great Vowel Shift also affected the two Middle English diphthongs /ai/ and /au/ in words like sail and law respectively. The vowel in words like sail coalesced with that in words like face while the vowel in words like law merged with that in words like thought so that these two groups of words show the same vowel in present-day English.

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.

ME late ME early ModE ModE
/o:/ /u:/ /u/ /ʌ/

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.

Relative chronology

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/.

Late Modern English phonology

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/ /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-ful r-less varieties of English
hoarse /ho:rs/ /hɔ:s/
horse /hɔ:rs/ /hɔ:s/

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-ful r-less varieties of English
poor /pu:r/ /pɔ:/
pour /po:r/ /pɔ:/
paw /pɔ:/ /pɔ:/

Introductory books on phonology