ARTS1691 - Sound Shifts in OE History

Sound Shifts In OE History

Early Indo-European had two different phonemes for [k]:

paletal [k]: keep
velar [k]: cool

The different paths these phonemes took splits the world approximately East/West into two forms:

Satem (Old Iranian for hundred)

The Satem languages include Indo-Iranian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic and Albanian.

The [k] phoneme in Satem languages stayed separate and the paletal [k] developed into the sibilant [s].

Centum (Latin for hundred)

The Centum languages include English.

The [k] phonemes in Centum languages became allophonic. They're both used, but which is determined automatically by the environment.

First IE → Germanic Consonant Shifts (Grimm's Law – 1822)

These were the big changes that distinguished the Germanic languages from other Indo-European languages.

This helps with highlighting correspondence between Present Day English words of Germanic origins and those of later Latin or French origins.

Three big generalised changes happened:

Voiced Stops /b d g gw/ → Devoiced to Germanic /p t k kw/

Voiceless Stops /p t k kw/ → Became Germanic fricatives /f θ x xw/

Voiceless Fricatives → Became Germanic Voiced Stops

Verner's Law

Some of the changes from Grimm's Law didn't follow the generalised pattern;
e.g. fadar (Gothic) → pi/tá (Sanskrit)
The above follows the d→t devoicing, but not the t→θ.

What Karl Verner did was show that Grimm's Law only applied when word stress fell on the first syllable.

He also showed that voiceless fricatives became voiced only when:

  1. The immediately preceding vowel did not carry the main stress of the word
  2. The consonant concerned was not the start of the word
  3. The consonant concerned was not next to a voiceless consonant

Germanic Movement Off The Continent

Grimm's and Verner's shifts both took place whilst the Germanic people were still on the continent, taking the first steps towards separating them from the rest of the IndoEuropean speakers.

When the Germanics did move off the continent a number of changes occurred between the recorded writings before and after (Germanic and OE).

Umlaut (Sound Alteration)

We have a number of examples of the vowel sound changes that occurred.

A common one was the mutation of the 'oo' in fotiz (plural of 'foot') to become an 'ee' in fetiz.
Eventually the 'iz' would have dropped as redundant for drawing the distinction, leaving foot and feet.

This was also seen in some of the Latin words that carried across too.
(Latin) Caseus → Cyse → Cheese (different vowel sound)
(Latin) Castellum → Castle (same vowel sound)

Great Vowel Shift

From 1400 to 1600 a systematic change in vowel sounds was occurring throughout England.

Unfortunately the printing press was invented in 1476, meaning that spelling started to become consistent and standardised at exactly the wrong moment.

Causes For The Great Vowel Shift

One theory suggests that after the initial mid vowel change of /e:/ and /o:/ becoming higher vowels, the rest of the change was a chain shift: essentially a dominoes after-effect.
This move would have left a gap between the lower and mid vowels, causing the lower ones to rise up too.
This all ties in with the concept of a balanced system.

Another theory focuses on the socio-linguistic side of things. In the 16th Century there is evidence that “mate” and “meet” were merging to both use /e:/, and in the 17th Century there is evidence that “meat” (originally [ɛ:]) merged with “meet”, leaving “mate” distinct.
Using Shakespearian rhymes as evidence the theory is that as the lower class began to merge “meat” and “meet”, the upper classes subconsciously distanced themselves.

The problem with the socio-linguistic theory is that it doesn't account for the entire vowel shift.

System Balancing and After Effects of GVS

After the mid vowels moved up in the mouth, and the low vowels became mid to follow, there was a gap where the lower vowels originally were.

This was solved with the introduction of the long a; [a:].

  • Words such as 'father' lengthened to their current pronunciation
  • Words such as 'almond' and 'palm' dropped the 'l' and lengthened the 'a'
  • Words such as 'car' dropped the 'r' to become a long 'a'. (Here was where the rhotic/non-rhotic [r] split happened).