Changes of stressed vowels

Changes of unstressed vowels in ME and Early NE

In the Middle and NE periods the main character and directions of the evolution of unstressed vowels were the same as before: the unstressed vowels had lost many of their former distinctions – their differences in quantity as well as some of their differences in quality were neutralised.

In the Middle English period the pronunciation of unstressed syllables became increasingly indistinct. As compared to OE which distinguished five short vowels in unstressed position (representing three phonemes [e/i], [a] and [o/u]), ME reduced them to [e/i] or rather [э/i], the first variant being a neutral sound. Compare: OE fiscas ME fishes [`fijэs]


The occurrence of only two vowels [i] and [э] in unstressed final syllables is regarded as an important mark of the ME language distinguishing it on the one hand, from OE with its greater variety of unstressed vowels, and on the other hand, from the NE, when this final [э] was altogether lost. (Compare NE risen, tale.)

Some of the new unstressed vowels were not reduced to the same degree as the OE vowels and have retained their quantitative and qualitative differences, e.g. NE consecrate [ei], disobey [o].

These examples, as well as modern polysyllabic words like alternant with [o] and [o:], direct with [ai] and [i] and others show that a variety of vowels can occur in unstressed position, although the most frequent vowels are [i] and [э], the latter confined to unstressed position alone, being the result of phonetic reduction of various vowels.

These development show that the gap between the set of stressed and unstressed vowels has narrowed, so that in Middle and NE we need no longer strictly subdivide the system of vowels into two sub-systems – that of stressed and unstressed vowels (as was done for OE), - even though the changes of the vowels in the two positions were widely different and the phonetic contrast between the stressed and unstressed syllables remained very strong.


Changes of stressed vowels

No other part of the English phonetic system has undergone such considerable changes as the stressed vowels. They changed both in quality and quantity, under the influence of the environment and independently, alone or together with the surrounding sounds. Not a single OE long vowel or diphthong has remained unaltered in the course of history; only a few short vowels have not altered at all (unless in certain positions they were at some time lengthened and then shared the fate of long vowels).

The prevailing type of changes of stressed vowels in OE were assimilative changes affecting the quality of the vowel. Towards the end of the OE period and especially in Early ME quantitative vowel changes appear to have assumed greater importance; these were positional changes, which affected many vowels and led to an alteration in the phonological load of vowel quantity.

The regular qualitative changes of all the long vowels between the 14th and the 17th centuries are known in the history of the English language as the Great vowel shift. The Great vowel shift was a series of consistent changes of long vowels accounting for many features of the ME vowel system and also of the modern spelling system. During this period all the long vowels became closer or were diphthongised. Some of the vowels occupied the place of the next vowel; [e:] > [i:], [o:] > [u:], while the latter changed to [au].

Vowel length was an inherited feature: OE short vowels had developed from short vowels, while long ones usually went back to Common Germanic long vowels or vowel combinations.

In later OE and in early ME many vowels became long or short depending on phonetic conditions and irrespective of their origin.

The earliest of the positional quanitative changes was the reajustment of quantity before some consonant clusters:

1) A sequence of two homorganic consonants, a sonorant and a plosive, brought about a lengthening of the preceding vowel; consequently all vowels occuring in this position remained or became long, e.e. OE wild > ME wild [wi:ld], NE wild.

2) All other sequences of two or more consonants produced the reverse affect: they made the preceding long vowels short, and thus all vowels in this position became or remained short, e.g. OE cepte > ME kepte [`keptэ], NE kept.

3) The short vowels [e], [a] and [o] (that is, the more open ones of short vowels) became long in open syllables, e.g. OE nama > ME name [`na:mэ], NE name.

2.8. Development of consonants

In the history of the English language the consonants were far more stable than the vowels. A large number of consonants have remained unchanged since the OE period. Such consonants as [t], [d], [n],[l],[m],[k] have not been subjected to any alteration.

One of the most important consonant changes in the history of English was the appearance of affricates and sibilants, lacking in the OE period. Sets of these sounds appeared in the language at various periods due to different assimilative changes and the phonologisation of positional variants. Another important development was the voicing of fricatives in Early NE and the new treatment of fricatives from the phonological viewpoint. As a result of these changes a number of new consonant phonemes were added to the system.

On the other hand, at different historical periods we can observe the loss of consonants and instances of consonant system and on the vowel system: owing to the vocalisation of consonants there developed a number of new diphthongs and long vowels.

English consonants were considerably simplified as far as consonant clusters are concerned, and also as a system, correlated through certain principles.

1) During the ME period the consonants lost their quantitative distinctions, as the long or double consonants disappeared. The number of consonant phonemes was reduced and one of their principal phonemic distinctive feature – opposition through quantity – was lost. e.g. OE settan, ME setten [`settэn], later [`setэn], NE set.

2) Some consonant clusters were simplified. One of the consonants, usually the first, was dropped. E.g. kn> n, gn >n, hw> w.

2.9. Historical Grammar (changes in the nominal system, verbal systems)

The historical changes in the grammatical structure of the English language from the OE period to the present time are no less striking than the changes in the sounds. Since the OE period the gramatical type of the language has changed: from what could be termed a largely synthetic or inflected language into a language of the analytical type, with analytical means of word connection prevailing over the synthetic ones. The syntax of the word group and of the sentence came to play a more important role in the language than the morphology of the word.

The devision of the words into parts of speech, being a most general characteristic of the language, has in the main remained the same. The only new part of speech was the article, which split from the numerals and the pronouns in Early ME.

The nominal and the verbal systems developed in widely different ways. The morphology of the noun, the adjective and the pronoun has on the whole become simpler: many grammatical categories were lost (e.g. gender in adjectives and nouns, case in adjectives); the number of forms within the surviving grammatical categories diminished (e.g. the number of cases); the morphological division into stems or types of declension disappeared.

The nouns in OE had the grammatical categories of gender, number and case, and were grouped into an elaborate system of declensions based on an earlier division into stems and correlated with gender. In the Early ME period the noun lost the grammatical category of gender. The two other categories of the noun, case and number, were preserved in a modified shape. The number of cases in the noun paradigm was reduced from four (distinguished in OE) to two in ME. In OE the forms of the Nominative and the Accusative cases were not distinguished in the plural, and in some stems they coincided also in the singular. The Dative case fell together with the former Nominative-Accusative into what can be termed the Common case. Only the Genitive case was kept distinctly separate from the other cases. The category of number proved to be the most stable of the grammatical categories of the noun.

In the OE period personal pronouns had three genders (in the 3-rd person), four cases like nouns, but unlike nouns, had three numbers in the 1-st and 2-nd persons.

! There developed one more class of pronouns, reflexive. (myself, themselves)

The other classes of pronouns, Interrogative, relative, indefinite and demonstrative pronouns, displayed great changes too.

The other direction in the development of the OE demonstrative pronoun se, seo, pet “that” led to the formation of the definite article the pronounced as [Oэ] in ME).

Of all the parts of speech the adjective has undergone the most profound grammatical changes. In the course of time it has lost all its grammatical categories except the degrees of comparison.

In OE the adjective was declined to show the gender, number and case of the noun it modified: it had a five-case system and two types of declension, weak and strong, often serving, together with the preceding pronoun or alone, to present a thing as “definite” or “indefinite”.

The agreement of the adjective with the noun became looser and in the course of the 12th century it was almost lost.

The degrees of comparison are the only set of forms which the adjective has preserved through all the historical periods. In OE the comparative and the superlative degree, like all the grammatical forms, were synthetic: they were built by adding the suffixes – ra and est/ost to the form of the positive degree. In ME the suffex had been weakened to –er ans –est and the alternation of the root-vowel became far less frequent than before.

The most important innovation in the adjective system in the ME period was the growth of analytical forms of the degrees of comparison.

As to the verbal system, its grammatical evolution was less uniform and cannot be described in terms of one general trend: alongside many simplifying changes in the verb conjugation, such as the loss of some person and number distinctions or the loss of the declension of participles, many developments testify to the enrichment of the morphological system and the growth of new grammatical distinctions. The number of grammatical categories grew, as did the number of categorial forms within the existing categories (e.g. a new category of aspect, or the future tense forms within the category of tense). The changes involved the non-finite forms too, for the infinitive and the participle developed verbal features; the gerund, which arose in the Late ME period as a new type of verbal, has also developed verbal distinctions: passive and perfect forms.


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