skip to content

englesaxe

Early Middle English for today

full menu

Sound changes before 1100

How do the sounds of Early West Saxon (ca 900) differ from those of late east Mercian (ca 1100)

These sound changes are of two distinct types:

The following is based on Lass 1 and Johannesson 2

Differences between OE West Saxon and OE Anglian dialects (ca 900)

OE WS ie = OE A e
OE ie was confined to WS. In OE A, this sound appeared simply as e.
Examples: OE WS c`iest = OE A c`est > eME cest, OE WS forg`ietan = OE A forg`etan > eME fory`eten > ModE forget.
Note however that the modern reflexes of some of the words from this group, have i: OE WS c`iele, g`iefan, siex = OE A c`ele, g`efan, sex > eME cele, y`efen, sex > ModE chill, give, six.
OE WS g`ieldan, sc`ield have modern reflexes - yield, shield which appear to retain the ie, but the pronunciation follows the expected pattern - OE A g`eldan, sc`eld > eME y`e_lden, sce_ld (vowel lengthened before ld) > ModE /ji:ld/, /S`i:ld/.
OE WS i_e = OE A e_
OE i_e was confined to WS, where it had arisen as a result of i-mutation of e_a or i_o. In OE A, this sound appeared simply as e_, initially and medially.
Example: OE WS hi_eran 'hear' = OE A he_ran > eME he_ren.
However, final OE WS i_e as well as ig`e, had their eME reflex in i_ or iy` /i:/. For example OE WS hi_e, si_e, hlae_fdig`e > eME hi_, si_, lafdiy`; (PC2, Owl hi, Orm si, laffdiy`).
OE WS ea = OE A a (before l + consonant)
Note that where OE WS had ea before l + consonant, OE A had a. In most cases the ME reflexes of the differing WS and A forms were identical (see ea below), but if the consonant preceding the ea in OE WS was palatalised - either c` /tS`/ or g` /j/, the corresponding sound in OE A was non-palatalised (velar) - either c /k/ or g /g/. As a rule, it was the Anglian form which passed into ME and later ModE. ModE is the most practical guide in these cases.
Examples: OE WS c`ealf = OE A calf > eME calf; OE WS g`ealga = OE A galga > eME galge > Ch galwe > ModE gallow; OE WS eall = OE A all > eME all; OE WS anfeald = OE A anfald > eME anfald.
Exception: ModE chalk < OE WS c`ealc
OE ae_ = OE A e_ (limited)
OE WS ae_ appeared as e_ in OE A under certain circumstances (e.g. where the ancestral vowel was WGmc or Lat a_) 3. These forms passed to the EM dialect of ME and some ultimately to ModE. ModE is the most practical guide here. The list of forms which have survived to ModE is small:
OE WS dae_d, strae_t, slae_pan, grae_dig`, nae_dl = OE A de_d, stre_t, sle_pan, gre_dig`, ne_dl > eME de_d, stre_t, sle_pen, gre_diy`, ne_del > ModE deed, street, sleep, greedy, needle.

Sound changes in late OE (all dialects)

OE ea > ae > a
OE diphthong ea /E`A`/ developed in late OE into a half-open front monophthong ae /ae/, which merged with OE ae and was further opened (lowered) to a /a/ in late OE 4. Evidence of the change first appears in Northumbrian and Mercian texts from the second half of the 10th century.
Examples: OE wearm > lOE *waerm > *warm; OE g`eaf > lOE *g`aef > *g`af; OE hleahtor > lOE *hlaehtor > *hlahter; OE waes, t`aet, aet > lOE *was, *t`at, *at.
OE e_a > ae_
OE diphthong e_a developed into a front half-open monophthong, /E`:/, and thus merged with the continuation of OE ae_.
Examples: OE de_ad 'dead' > lOE *dae_d; OE le_af 'leaf' > lOE *lae_f; OE gre_at > lOE *grae_t.
OE ea > e (before h)
in some cases OE ea + h developed into a closed monopthong e + h in lOE, and remained that way in eME. This process is known as smoothing.
Examples: OE eahta > PH3 ey`te, Ch eight
Ch and ModE are the guides here. Note - OE eahta hleahtor > Ch eighte but ModE laughter.
OE e_a > e_ (before h)
OE e_a + h developed into a closed monopthong e_ + h in lOE, and remained that way in eME.
Examples: OE ne_ah, he_ah, t`e_ah > lOE ne_h, he_h, t`e_h
OE a, e, i, o, u > a_, e_, i_, o_, u_ (before ld, nd, ng, mb, rd)
OE short vowels a e i o u in stressed position typically remained unchanged in eME 5. However, in late OE short vowels were lengthened before the following combinations of two consonants: ld, nd, ng, mb, rd 6.
Examples: cild > ci_ld (Orm child), hund > hu_nd (Orm hund), strang > stra_ng (Ch stroong); word > wo_rd (Orm word); climban > cli_mban (Orm climbenn); cf. ModE child /tS`aI`ld/, hound /haU`nd/, climb /klaI`m/.
Lengthening did not take place if the vowel was followed by three consonants: c`ildru pl. (Orm chilldre), hundred (Orm hunndredd); cf. ModE children /tS`I`ldr@`n/, hundred /hV`ndr@`d/.
Exceptions: There are several eME exceptions to the vowel-lengthening patterns outlined above: Orm shollde, wollde, wullderr, annd, stanndenn, sennd p ptc, wenndenn pt pl, winndeclut, wunnderr, unnderr, enngell, herrde, wurrdenn pt pl. In ModE there are numerous further cases of words of Anglo-Saxon origin with short vowels before ld, nd, ng & mb, rd: held, hand, land, sand, strand, wend, bend, rend, lamb, king, ring, sing, thing, wing, word etc 7. The corresponding eME words do not have a long vowel in this site. See aims & principles for further discussion.
OE a_, e_, o_, i_, u_ > a, e, o, i, u (before ht, pt, st i.a.)
OE long vowels a_, e_, o_, i_, u_ remained unchanged in eME 8. However, long vowels were shortened before consonant clusters other than ld, nd, ng, mb, rd (see above). The most common clusters affected were ht, pt, st.
Examples: t`o_ht > t`oht (Orm t`ohht), du_st > dust (Orm dusst), ce_pte > kepte (Orm keppte).
OE a, o, u > e (when unstressed)
In late OE 9, all original weak (unstressed) vowels except /i/ merged in one value - /@`/, usually spelled e in eME (and often e in lOE) 10.
Examples: mo_dor > *mo_der (Orm moderr), wuldor > *wulder (Orm wullderr), standan > *standen (Orm stanndenn), co_mon > *co_men (Orm comenn).
  1. Lass, Roger. The Cambridge History of the English Language Volume II 1066-1479, Cambridge University Press 1992; p50
  2. Johannesson, Nils-Lennart. East Midland dialect features and Phonology in Orrmulum Project, 2017. NB - follow the numbered links for details on Phonology and the lengthening and shortening of vowels. Installing fonts will make these pages easier to read.
  3. OE WS ae_ = OE A ae_ in most cases, e.g. OE sae_ 'sea' > eME sae_, OE lae_dan 'lead' > eME lae_den
  4. according to Lass p. 112 op. cit., ae > a had taken place by 1100; whereas, according to Johannesson op. cit.: "In most dialects, OE ae was lowered to a at the beginning of the ME period ...; throughout the 12th century, the change can be seen to spread over the East Midland area"; the latter appears to be a reference to the variety of spellings in PC1 and PC2, which probably reflect a vacillation between traditonal and phonetic spelling, rather than a change in pronunciation; see Lass op. cit. p. 77 on weak vowels
  5. Examples: OE wasc`an > eME wascen; OE settan > eME setten, OE cwellan > eME cwellen; OE sittan > eME sitten, OE in > eME in; OE god > eME god, OE from > eME from; OE full > eME full, OE cuman > eME cumen.
  6. "Our best evidence for vowel quantity in early ME is the spelling system devised by Orm and consistently applied throughout the Ormulum: in closed syllables, Orm uses a single post-vocalic consonant to indicate a long vowel, and a double post-vocalic consonant to indicate a short vowel." Johannesson op. cit.
  7. "In words with ng (such as t`ing), the vowel was shortened before the onset of the Great Vowel Shift. Words with rd (such as word) had a short vowel by C16, as evidenced by contemporary descriptions." Johannesson op. cit.
  8. Examples: OE li_f > eME li_f, OE ri_dan > eME ri_den, OE mu_s > eME mu_s, OE cu_ > eME cu_, OE ce_pan > eME ke_pen, OE fe_t > eME fe_t, OE bo_c > eME bo_k, OE go_d > eME go_d. Note: a_ was raised to o` /O`:/ in the South and Midlands, after 1200 approx.
  9. By the 11th century, according to Lass op. cit, p. 77
  10. "The usual interpretation of these <e> spellings is not that the vowels in question merged in /e/, as the orthography suggests, but in some 'neutral' or 'colourless' vowel [schwa]... it represents a passable cover-symbol for generally non-peripheral mid vowels." Lass ibid p. 77

Changes 1100 - 1200 »