Phonological history of English vowels

In the history of English phonology, there have been many diachronic sound changes affecting vowels, especially involving phonemic splits and mergers.

Great Vowel Shift and trisyllabic laxingEdit

The Great Vowel Shift was a series of chain shifts that affected historical long vowels but left short vowels largely alone. It is one of the primary causes of the idiosyncrasies in English spelling.

The shortening of ante-penultimate syllables in Middle English created many long–short pairs. The result can be seen in such words as,

Middle English from long V from short V
ī : i child /aɪ/
children /ɪ/
ē : e
ea : e
serene /iː/
serenity /ɛ/
ā : a nation /eɪ/
national /æ/
ō : o goose /uː/
gosling /ɒ/
oa : o
ō : o (Latin)
holy /oʊ/
holiday /ɒ/
ū : u south /aʊ/
southern /ʌ/

*Earlier Modern English /ou/ merged with /oː/.

Tense–lax neutralizationEdit

Tense–lax neutralization refers to a neutralization, in a particular phonological context in a particular language, of the normal distinction between tense and lax vowels.

In some varieties of English, this occurs in particular before /ŋ/ and (in rhotic dialects) before coda /r/ (that is, /r/ followed by a consonant or at the end of a word); it also occurs, to a lesser extent, before tautosyllabic /ʃ/.

In the Pacific Northwest, especially in the Seattle area, some speakers have a merger of /ɛ/ with /eɪ/ before /ɡ/. For these speakers, words with /ɛ/ like beg, egg, Greg, keg, leg and peg rhyme with words with /eɪ/ like Craig, Hague, plague and vague.[1]

Some varieties (including most American English dialects) have significant vocalic neutralization before intervocalic /r/, as well. See English-language vowel changes before historic /r/.


Low front vowelsEdit

Low back vowelsEdit

High back vowelsEdit

High front vowelsEdit


Schwa syncope is the deletion of schwa. English has the tendency to delete schwa when it appears in a mid-word syllable that comes after the stressed syllable. Kenstowicz (1994) states that "... American English schwa deletes in medial posttonic syllables ...", and gives as examples words such as sep(a)rate (as an adjective), choc(o)late, cam(e)ra and elab(o)rate (as an adjective), where the schwa (represented by the letters in parentheses) has a tendency to be deleted.[6]


Vowel changes before historic /r/Edit

Mergers before intervocalic /r/Edit

Mergers before intervocalic r are quite widespread in North American English.

Mergers before historic coda /r/Edit

Various mergers before historic coda r are very common in English dialects.

Vowel changes before historic /l/Edit

  • The salarycelery merger is a conditioned merger of /æ/ and /e/ before /l/ occurring in New Zealand and Victorian (Australia) English.
  • The fillfeel merger is a conditioned merger of /ɪ/ and /iː/ before /l/ occurring in some dialects of American English.
  • The fellfail merger is a conditioned merger of /ɛ/ and /eɪ/ before /l/ occurring in some varieties of Southern American English.
  • The fullfool merger is a conditioned merger of /ʊ/ and /uː/ before /l/ mainly occurring the North Midland accent of American English.
  • The hullhole merger is a conditioned merger of /ʌ/ and /oʊ/ before /l/ occurring for some speakers of English English with l-vocalization.
  • The dolldole merger is a conditioned merger, for some Londoners, of /ɒ/ and /əʊ/ before nonprevocalic /l/.
  • The vilevial merger involves a partial or complete dephonologicalization of schwa after a vowel and before coda /l/.
  • Four other conditioned mergers before /l/ which require more study have been mentioned in the literature and are as follows:
    • /ʊl/ and /oʊl/ (bull vs. bowl)
    • /ʌl/ and /ɔːl/ (hull vs. hall)
    • /ʊl/ and /ʌl/ (bull vs. hull)
    • /ʌl/ and /oʊl/ (hull vs. hole)

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Freeman, Valerie (2014). "Bag, beg, bagel: Prevelar raising and merger in Pacific Northwest English" (PDF). University of Washington Working Papers in Linguistics. Retrieved 22 November 2015.[permanent dead link]
  2. ^ Wells, John C. (1982). Accents of English 2: The British Isles. Accents of English. Vol. 2. Cambridge University Press. p. 402. ISBN 9780521285407. OCLC 971171807.
  3. ^ E. J. Dobson (English pronunciation, 1500–1700, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968, passim) and other scholars before him postulated the existence of a vowel /y/ beside /iu̯/ in early Modern English. But see Fausto Cercignani, On the alleged existence of a vowel /y:/ in early Modern English, in “English Language and Linguistics”, 26/2, 2022, pp. 263–277 [1].
  4. ^ Hung, Tony (2002). "English as a global language: Implications for teaching". The ACELT Journal. 5 (2): 3–10.
  5. ^ Deterding, David; Hvitfeldt, Robert (1994). "The Features of Singapore English Pronunciation: Implications for Teachers" (PDF). Teaching and Learning. 15 (1): 98–107.
  6. ^ Kenstowicz, Michael J. (1994). Phonology in generative grammar. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-55786-426-0. OCLC 450897985.
  7. ^ a b Katz, William F. (2013). Phonetics for Dummies. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9781118505083. OCLC 1027577087.