Treatment of Fricative Consonants in Middle English and Early New English

§ 405. In order to understand the nature of the changes which af­fected the fricative consonants in ME and in Early NE we must recall some facts from their earlier history. In OE the pairs of fricative con­sonants — [f] and [v], [θ] and [ð], [s] and [z] — were treated as positional variants or allophones; sonority depended on phonetic con­ditions: in intervocal position they appeared as voiced, otherwise — as voiceless. In ME and in Early NE these allophones became independent phonemes.

Phonologisation of voiced and voiceless fricatives was a slow pro­cess which lasted several hundred years. The first pair of consonants to become phonemes were [f] and [v]. In Late ME texts they occurred in identical phonetic environment and could be used for differentiation between words, which means that they had turned into phonemes. Cf., e.g. ME veyne and feine ['veinə, 'feinə] (NE vein, feign). The two other pairs, [θ, ð] and [s, z], so far functioned as allophones.

§ 406. A new, decisive alteration took place in the 16th c. The fric­atives were once again subjected to voicing under certain phonetic conditions. Henceforth they were pronounced as voiced if they were preceded by an unstressed vowel and followed by a stressed one, e.g. Early NE possess [po'zes] — the first voiceless [s], which stood be­tween an unstressed and a stressed vowel, had become voiced, while the second [s], which was preceded by an accented vowel, remained voice­less (ME possessen [po'sesən] > NE possess). In the same way ME fishes, doores, takes ['fiʃəs, 'do:rəs, 'ta:kəs] acquired a voiced [z] in the end­ing. The last three examples show that one phonetic condition — an unaccented breeding vowel — was sufficient to transform a voiceless sibilant into a voiced one; the second condition — a succeeding stressed vowel — was less important: [s] is the last sound of the word. Probably the effect of stress extended beyond the boundaries of the word: the endings took no accent but could be followed by other words beginning with an accented syllable. This supposition is confirmed by the voicing of consonants in many form-words; articles, pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions; they receive no stress in speech but may be surrounded by notional words which are logically accented. For instance, in the following quotation from a Late ME text (Capgrave's CHRONICLE OF ENGLAND, c. 1463), there are several unstressed form-words with voiceless fricatives and sibilants "In this yere, in the XXI day of Aprile, was that frere bore whech mad these Annotaciones" ('in this year, on the twenty-first day of April, was born the friar who made these notes') — [θis, θe:, of, was, θat, θe:zə] and the ending [əs] in annotaciones. In Early NE the consonants in all these unstressed words became voiced, even initially [θis] > [ðis], [θe:] > [ði:], etc. (the initial fricative in notional, stressed, words remained voiceless, cf. ME thin, thorn [ðin, θorn], NE thin, thorn).[46]

Sometimes a similar voicing occurred in consonant clusters contain­ing sibilants, fricatives and affricates (see Table 11).

Table 11

Voicing of Consonants In Early New English

Change illustrated Examples
s z resemblen [rə'semblən] resemble
    foxes ['foksəs] foxes
    was [was] was
    is [is] is
    his [his] his
f v pensif [pen'sif] pensive
    of [ɔf] of[47]
θ ð there ['θɛ:rə] there
    they [θei] they
    with [wiθ] with
ks gz anxietie [aŋksie'tiə] anxiety
    luxurious [luksju:r'iu:s] luxurious[48]
knowleche ['knoulətʃ] knowledge
    Greenwich ['gre:nwitʃ] Greenwich ['gri:nidʒ]

§ 407. On the whole the Early NE voicing of fricatives was rather inconsistent and irregular. Though it was a positional change occurring in certain phonetic conditions, these conditions were often contradictory. The voicing had many exceptions; for instance, in assemble, assess we find a medial voiceless [s] in precisely the same environment as the voiced [z] of resemble and possess. Therefore after these changes voiced and voiceless fricatives could appear in similar phonetic conditions and could be used for phonological purposes to distinguish between morphemes; in other words, they had turned into phonemes, cf., e.g. NE thy [ðai] and thigh [θai], ice [ais] and eyes [aiz].

Loss of Consonants

§ 408. As shown in the preceding paragraphs, the system of conso­nants underwent important changes in ME and Early NE. It acquired new phonemes and new phonemic distinctions, namely a distinction between plosives, sibilants and affricates, a phonemic distinction through sonority in the sets of fricatives, sibilants and affricates. On the other hand, some changes led to the reduction of the consonant system and also to certain restrictions in the use of consonants.

As was mentioned in the description of vowel changes, particularly the growth of new diphthongs and long monophthongs, a number of consonants disappeared: they were vocalised and gave rise to diphthong­al glides' or made the preceding short vowels long. The vocalisation of [γ] in Early ME and of [x] in Late ME eliminated the back lingual fricative consonants.

With the disappearance of [x'] the system lost one more opposition — through palatalisation, as "hard" to "soft". (The soft [k'] and [g'] turned into affricates some time earlier, see §403).

§ 409. Another important event was the loss of quantitative distinc­tions in the consonant system.

It should be recalled that in OE long consonants were opposed to short at the phonological level. This is confirmed by their occurrence in identical conditions, their phonological application and the consistent writing of double letters, especially in intervocal position (see § 147). In Late ME long consonants were shortened and the phonemic opposi­tion through quantity was lost.

The loss of long consonant phonemes has been attributed to a va­riety of reasons. Long consonants disappeared firstly because their functional load was very low (the opposition was neutralised everywhere except intervocally), and secondly, because length was becoming a prosodic feature, that is a property of the syllable rather than of the sound. In ME the length of the syllable was regulated by the lengthening and shortening of vowels; therefore the quantitative differences of the con­sonants became irrelevant.

§ 410. In addition to all these changes, which directly affected the system of phonemes, some consonants underwent positional changes which restricted their use in the language. The consonants [j] and [r] were vocalised under certain phonetic conditions — finally and before consonants — during the ME and Early NE periods, though they continued to be used in other environments, e. g. initially: ME rechen NE reach; ME yeer, NE year. Some consonants were lost in consonant clusters, which became simpler and easier to pronounce, e.g. the initial [x] survived in ME as an aspirate [h], when followed by a vowel, but was lost when followed by a sonorant; cf. OE hē,hund > ME he [he:], hound [hurnd] (NE he, hound)and OE hlǣne which became ME leene ['le:nə] (NE lean); OE hlystan and ME listen ['listən] (with further simplification of the medial cluster in NE listen, as [t] was dropped between [s] and [n]).

In Early NE the aspirate [h] was lost initially before vowels — though not in all the words, e.g. ME honour [ho'nu:r] > NE honour, ME hit or it > NE it, but ME hope ['hɔ:pə] > NE hope.

In Early NE the initial consonant sequences [kn] and [gnl were simplified to [n], as in ME knowen ['knowən], gnat [gnat], NE know, gnat. Simplification of final clusters produced words like NE dumb, climb, in which [mb] lost the final [b].

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