Early Modern English Phonology

Topics: English language, Vowel, International Phonetic Alphabet Pages: 12 (3695 words) Published: June 5, 2012


The 15th c., following the death of Chaucer, marks a turning point in the history of English, for during this period the language underwent greater and more important phonological changes than in any other century before or since. Despite these changes in pronunciation, the old spelling was maintained and stereotyped. Generally speaking, Caxton and the printers who followed him based their spelling not on the pronunciation current in their day, but on the usage of medieval manuscripts. This is the reason why spelling and pronunciation in ModE are so divergent, why the values of English vowel symbols differ so completely from the values of the same symbols on the Continent. For example, each of the ME long vowels had changed their value (i.e. ME /e:/> ModE /i:/), but no spelling changes were introduced to reflect the new phonological values (i.e. feet, see, three).Thus the normal free sound of the symbol in English is /ei/, as against the usual value, /a:/ or /a/, in other European languages. All in all, the influence of printers and of men of learning has been greater than any other on English spelling. While it is true that early printed words exhibit many inconsistencies, they are nevertheless quite orderly as compared to the everyday writing of their time. The transition trom ME to ModE is marked by a general change in the nature of all long vowels and some of the short vowels, which is generally indicated by the name of GREAT VOWEL SHIFT, which took place between the 14th c. and the 17th c. Written evidence of these vocalic shifts is offered by the analysis of poetic rhymes from the 15c to the 18th c. and of the commentaries of the first phoneticians, grammarians, and lexicographers. A number of questions arise: • Is there a connection or causal relationship between the changes? • What is the nature of such connection? • Do the changes in the quality of the vowels have a certain common feature? • What is this common feature? • Is it possible to assign the changes to one or more causes?

The Great Vowel Shift has to be viewed as an organic whole, i.e., the vowel changes were part of a correlated movement. The various changes are not unconnected. This can be seen if we look at the general tendency of the shifts, especially in long vowels: ME /u:/ /i:/ /o:/ /e:/ /ε:/ /ɔ:/

15 /uu/ /Ii/ /ε:/-/i:/


Centuries 17 /əU/ /əi/ /u:/ /i:/ /i:/

18 /Λu/ /Λi/

19 /au/ /ai/

ME mous myn foot feet seed broken breken name /mu:s/ /mi:n/ /fo:t/ /fe:t/ /sε:d/ /brɔ:kən/ /brε:kən/ /na:m/

ModE mouse mine foot feet seed broken break name /maus/ /main/ /fu:t/ /fi:t/ /si:d/ /brouken/ /breik/ /neim/

/ou/ /e:/ /ei/

/ε:/ /a:/

/ε:/-/e:/ /æ:/‐/ε:/



The shaded and unshaded files in the group the vowel mutations according to a clear parallelism in the evolution of velar and palatal vowels sharing the same high as can be seen in the table above. However, the following exceptions must be taken into account to the long vowel mutation of the Great Vowel Shift:  Blocking of /u:/ > /au/ mutation. /u:/ did not change when: a) followed by bilabial consonants /m/ and /p/: — OE rūm > ME rume /roum /ru:m/ > ModE room /ru:m/ - /rum/ — OE stupian > ME stupen / stoupe(n) > ModE stoop /stu:p/ — ON drūpan > ME drupen / droupe(n) > ModE droop /dru:p/ — OF-AN tumbe > ME tumbe / toumbe > ModE tomb /tu:m/ b) /u:/ did not change when preceded by the semivowels /w/ and /j/: — OE wund/wundian > ME (PCL) wūnd/wūnden > ModE wound [wu:nd]1 — OE iuguþ > ME ʒuʒeþe/ʒuweþe > youthe > ModE youth /ju:θ/. — ME you and your, /ju:/ and /ju:r/, are also preserved undiphthongized in ModE, which may be explained from weak stress. However, this explanation does not hold for youth.  Shortenings in the /o:/ > /u:/ mutation: o The /u:/ resulting from the mutation of /o:/...

Bibliography: Dobson, E. J. English Pronunciation 1500-1700, Oxford: Clarendong Press, 1985 [1968] Fernández, F. Historia de la lengua inglesa, Madrid: Editorial Gredos, 1982. Guzmán González, T. “Ortografía y fonología del inglés moderno” en de la Cruz Cabanillas, I. y Martín Arista, F.J., Lingüística histórica inglesa, Barcelona: Editorial Ariel, 2001, pp. 597-623.
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