Development of Monophthongs

§ 375. As compared with quantitative changes, qualitative vowel changes in Early ME were less important. They affected several mono­phthongs and displayed considerable dialectal diversity. On the whole they were independent of phonetic environment.

The OE close labialised vowels [y] and [y:] disappeared in Early ME, merging with various sounds in different dialectal areas. The treat­ment of [y] and [y:] in ME can be regarded as evidence of growing dialectal divergence. At the same time it is a relatively rare instance of similar alterations of a short and a long vowel.

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], [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:]. (The existence of [y] as a sepa­rate vowel may have been prolonged by the borrowing of French words with this sound, e.g. ME vertu, nature were at first pronounced as [ver'ty:], [na'ty:r], la­ter as [ver'tju:], [na'tju:r] (NE virtue, nature).

Development of Old English [y] and [y:] in Middle English dialects

The map[38] and the examples show the treatment of OE [y], [y:] in ME dialects:


fyllan Kentish fellen ['fellən] fill
  West Midland and South Western fallen ['fyliən, 'fullən]  
  East Midland and Northern fillen ['fillən] fill
mӯs Kentish mees [me:s]  
  West Midland and South Western mus, muis [my:s, mu:s]  
Northern and East Midland mis, mice [mi:s] mice[39]

ME pronunciations illustrate the variation stage; the NE words given in the last column show the final stage of the change: selection of one of co-existing variants in Standard English. For the most part NE forms descend from the East Midland dialect, which made the basis of the literary language; this is also true of the word hill shown in the map and of the words fire, king, kiss, kin, little and many others. Some mod­ern words, however, have preserved traces of other dialects: e.g. NE sleeve going back to OE slӯfe entered Standard English from the South-Eastern regions with the sound [e:] (which later regularly changed to [i:], see the Great Vowel Shift § 383 ff). Sometimes we can find traces of several dialects in one word; thus NE busy (OE bysiʒ)comes from an East Midland form with til as far as sounds go, but has re­tained a trace of the West­ern form in the spelling: the letter u points to the Western reflex of [y]; likewise the letter u in NE bury (OE byrian)is a trace of the Western forms, while the sound [e] comes from the South-East (Kent).

Development of Old English [a:] in Middle Eng­lish dialects

§ 376. In Early ME the long OE [a:] was narrowed to [ɔ:]. This was an early instance of the growing tendency of all long monophthongs to become closer; the tendency was intensified in Late ME when all Jong vowels changed in that direction. [a:] became [ɔ:] in all the dia­lects except the Northern group (see the map above).

e. g. OE ME   NE
stān Northern stan(e)['sta:nə] stone
  other dialects stoon, stone ['stɔ:n(ə)]  
ald1 Northern ald [a:ld][40] old
other dialects old [ə:ld]  

The resulting ME [ɔ:]must have been a more open vowel than the long [o:] inherited from OE, e.g. OE fōt, ME foot [fo:t] (NE foot). Judging by their earlier and later history the two phonemes [ɔ:] and [o:] were well distinguished in ME, though no distinction was made in spelling: o, and double o were used for both sounds. (The open [o:] also developed from the short [o] due to lengthening in open syllables, see § 372).[41]

§ 377. The short OE [æ] was replaced in ME by the back vowel [a]. In OE [æ] was either a separate phoneme or one of a group of allo­phones distinguished in writing [æ, a, ā, ea] (see § 123). All these sounds were reflected in ME as [a], except the nasalised [ā] which became [o] in the West Midlands (and thus merged with a different phoneme [o] or [ɔ].[42]

OE pǣt > ME that [θat] (NE that)
  earm >   arm [arm] (NE arm)
  blacu >   blak [blak] (NE black)[43]

See the map on p. 198 and the examples showing the splitting of [ā] in different dialects:

e. g. OE   ME NE
  lond, land West Midland lond [lɔnd] land
other dialects land [land]  
  lonʒ, lanʒ West Midland long [lɔŋ] long
  other dialects lang [laŋ]  

Most of the modern words going back to the OE prototypes with the vowel [ā] have [a], e.g. NE man, sand, and, which means that they came from any dialect except West Midland; some words, however, especially those ending in [ŋ], should be traced to the West Midlands, e.g. long, song, strong, from, bond (but also sand, rang and band, to be distinguished from bond).

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