Vowel breaking

In historical linguistics, vowel breaking, vowel fracture,[1] or diphthongization is the sound change of a monophthong into a diphthong or triphthong.


Vowel breaking may be unconditioned or conditioned. It may be triggered by the presence of another sound, by stress, or in no particular way.


Vowel breaking is sometimes defined as a subtype of diphthongization, when it refers to harmonic (assimilatory) process that involves diphthongization triggered by a following vowel or consonant.

The original pure vowel typically breaks into two segments. The first segment matches the original vowel, and the second segment is harmonic with the nature of the triggering vowel or consonant. For example, the second segment may be /u/ (a back vowel) if the following vowel or consonant is back (such as velar or pharyngeal), and the second segment may be /i/ (a front vowel) if the following vowel or consonant is front (such as palatal).

Thus, vowel breaking, in the restricted sense, can be viewed as an example of assimilation of a vowel to a following vowel or consonant.


Vowel breaking is sometimes not assimilatory and is then not triggered by a neighboring sound. That was the case with the Great Vowel Shift in English in which all cases of /iː/ and /uː/ changed to diphthongs.


Vowel breaking sometimes occurs only in stressed syllables. For instance, Vulgar Latin open-mid /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ changed to diphthongs only when they were stressed.



Vowel breaking is a very common sound change in the history of the English language, occurring at least three times (with some varieties adding a fourth) listed here in reverse chronological order:

Southern American EnglishEdit

Vowel breaking is characteristic of the "Southern drawl" of Southern American English, where the short front vowels have developed a glide up to [j], and then in some areas back down to schwa: pat [pæjət], pet [pɛjət], pit [pɪjət].[2]

Great Vowel ShiftEdit

The Great Vowel Shift changed the long vowels /iː uː/ to diphthongs, which became Modern English /aɪ aʊ/.

  • Old English īs > Modern English ice /aɪs/
  • Old English hūs > Modern English house /haʊs/

Middle EnglishEdit

In early Middle English, a vowel /i/ was inserted between a front vowel and a following /h/ (pronounced [ç] in this context), and a vowel /u/ was inserted between a back vowel and a following /h/ (pronounced [x] in this context).

That is a prototypical example of the narrow sense of "vowel breaking" as described above: the original vowel breaks into a diphthong that assimilates to the following consonant, gaining a front /i/ before a palatal consonant and /u/ before a velar consonant.

Old EnglishEdit

In Old English, two forms of harmonic vowel breaking occurred: breaking and retraction and back mutation.

In prehistoric Old English, breaking and retraction changed stressed short and long front vowels i, e, æ to short and long diphthongs spelled io, eo, ea when followed by h or by r, l + another consonant (short vowels only), and sometimes w (only for certain short vowels):[3]

  • Proto-Germanic *fallan > Anglo-Frisian *fællan > Old English feallan "fall"
  • PG *erþō > OE eorþe "earth"
  • PG *lirnoːjan > OE liornan "learn"

In late prehistoric Old English, back mutation changed short front i, e, æ to short diphthongs spelled io, eo, ea before a back vowel in the next syllable if the intervening consonant was of a certain nature. The specific nature of the consonants that trigger back umlaut or block it varied from dialect to dialect.

Old NorseEdit

Proto-Germanic stressed short e becomes ja or (before u) regularly in Old Norse except after w, r, l. Examples are:

According to some scholars,[4] the diphthongisation of e is an unconditioned sound change, whereas other scholars speak about epenthesis[5] or umlaut.[6]

German and YiddishEdit

The long high vowels of Middle High German underwent breaking during the transition to Early New High German: /iː yː uː//aɪ̯ ɔʏ̯ aʊ̯/. In Yiddish, the diphthongization affected the long mid vowels as well: /ɛː oː øː iː yː uː//ɛɪ̯ ɔɪ̯ ɛɪ̯ aɪ̯ aɪ̯ ɔɪ̯/

  • MHG êwic → NHG ewig, Yiddish: אייביק‎‎, romanizedeybik ("eternal")
  • MHG hôch → NHG hoch, Yiddish: הויך‎‎, romanizedhoykh ("high")
  • MHG schœne → NHG schön, Yiddish: שיין‎‎, romanizedsheyn ("nice")
  • MHG snîden → NHG schneiden, Yiddish: שנײַדן‎, romanizedshnaydn ("to cut")
  • MHG vriunt → NHG Freund, Yiddish: פֿרײַנד‎‎, romanizedfraynd ("friend")
  • MHG hût → NHG Haut, Yiddish: הויט‎, romanizedhoyt ("skin")

This change started as early as the 12th century in Upper Bavarian and reached Moselle Franconian only in the 16th century. It did not affect Alemannic or Ripuarian dialects, which still retain the original long vowels.

In Yiddish, the diphthongization applied not only to MHG long vowels but also to /ɛː oː/ in words of Hebrew (in stressed open syllables) or Slavic origin:

Scottish GaelicEdit

Vowel breaking is present in Scottish Gaelic with the following changes occurring often but variably between dialects: Archaic Irish → Scottish Gaelic and Archaic Irish → Scottish Gaelic [7] Specifically, central dialects have more vowel breaking than others.

Romance languagesEdit

Many Romance languages underwent vowel breaking. The Vulgar Latin open vowels e /ɛ/ and o /ɔ/ in stressed position underwent breaking only in open syllables in French and Italian, but in both open and closed syllables in Spanish. Vowel breaking was mostly absent in Catalan, in which /ɛ/ and /ɔ/ became diphthongs only before a palatal consonant: Latin coxa 'thigh', octō 'eight', lectum 'bed' > Old Catalan */kuoiʃa/, */uoit/, */lieit/. The middle vowel was subsequently lost if a triphthong is produced: Modern Catalan cuixa, vuit, llit (cf. Portuguese coxa, oito, leito). Vowel breaking was completely absent in Portuguese. The result of breaking varies between languages: e and o became ie and ue in Spanish, ie and uo in Italian and ie and eu /ø/ in French.

In the table below, words with breaking are bolded.

Syllable shape Latin Spanish French Italian Portuguese Catalan
Open petram, focum piedra, fuego pierre, feu pietra, fuoco pedra, fogo pedra, foc
Closed festam, portam fiesta, puerta fête, porte festa, porta festa, porta festa, porta


Romanian underwent the general Romance breaking only with /ɛ/, as it did not have /ɔ/:

  • Latin pellis > Romanian piele "skin"

It underwent a later breaking of stressed e and o to ea and oa before a mid or open vowel:

  • Latin porta > Romanian poartă "gate"
  • Latin flōs (stem flōr-) > Romanian floare "flower"

Sometimes a word underwent both forms of breaking in succession:

  • Latin petra > Early Romanian pietră > Romanian piatră "stone" (where ia results from hypothetical *iea)

The diphthongs that resulted from the Romance and the Romanian breakings were modified when they occurred after palatalized consonants.

Quebec FrenchEdit

In Quebec French, long vowels are generally diphthongized in the last syllable.

  • tard [tɑːʁ][tɑɔ̯ʁ]
  • père [pɛːʁ][paɛ̯ʁ]
  • fleur [flœːʁ][flaœ̯ʁ]
  • fort [fɔːʁ][fɑɔ̯ʁ]
  • autre [oːtʁ̥][ou̯tʁ̥]
  • neutre [nøːtʁ̥][nøy̯tʁ̥]
  • pince [pɛ̃ːs][pẽɪ̯̃s]
  • onze [ɔ̃ːz][õʊ̯̃z]


Some scholars[8] believe that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) i, u had vowel-breaking before an original laryngeal in Greek, Armenian and Tocharian but that the other Indo-European languages kept the monophthongs:

  • PIE *gʷih3wos → *gʷioHwos "alive" → Gk. ζωός, Toch. B śāw-, śāy- (but Skt. jīvá-, Lat. vīvus)
  • PIE *protih3kʷom → *protioHkʷom "front side" → Gk. πρόσωπον "face", Toch. B pratsāko "breast" (but Skt. prátīka-)
  • PIE *duh2ros → *duaHros "long" → Gk. δηρός, Arm. *twārerkar (Skt. dūrá-, Lat. dūrus).

However, the hypothesis has not been widely adopted.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. ^ Kathryn LaBouff, Singing and Communicating in English, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 268.
  3. ^ Robert B. Howell 1991. Old English breaking and its Germanic analogues (Linguistische Arbeiten, 253.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer
  4. ^ J. Svensson, Diftongering med palatalt förslag i de nordiska språken, Lund 1944.
  5. ^ H. Paul, "Zur Geschichte des germanischen Vocalismus", Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Kultur 6 (1879) 16-30.
  6. ^ K. M. Nielsen, Acta Philologica Scandinavica 24 (1957) 33-45.
  7. ^ Martin John Ball, James Fife (1993). The Celtic Languages. p. 152. ISBN 9780415010351.
  8. ^ F. Normier, in: Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 91 (1977) 171-218; J.S. Klein, in: Die Laryngaltheorie und die Rekonstruktion des indogermanischen Laut- und Formensystems, Heidelberg 1988, 257-279; Olsen, Birgit Anette, in: Proceedings of the fourth international conference on Armenian linguistics, Cleveland's State University, Cleveland, Ohio, September 14–18, 1991, Delmar (NY) 1992, 129-146; J.E. Rasmussen, in: Selected Papers on Indo-European Linguistics, Copenhagen 1999, 442-458.
  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.