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Phonological history of English vowels

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


  • Great Vowel Shift and trisyllabic laxing 1
  • Tense–lax neutralization 2
  • Monophthongs 3
    • Low front vowels 3.1
    • Low back vowels 3.2
    • High back vowels 3.3
    • High front vowels 3.4
  • Diphthongs 4
  • Vowel changes before historic /r/ 5
    • Mergers before intervocalic /r/ 5.1
    • Mergers before historic coda /r/ 5.2
  • Vowel changes before historic /l/ 6
  • References 7
  • See also 8

Great Vowel Shift and trisyllabic laxing

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 neutralization

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/ and /ɡ/. Some examples of neutralization of /ɛ/ to /eɪ/ before /ɡ/ are beg, egg, Greg, keg, leg and peg's coming to rhyme with Craig, Hague, plague and vague.

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 vowels

Low back vowels

High back vowels

  • The foot–goose merger is a phonemic merger of the vowels /ʊ/ and /uː/ found in distinct dialects of English: Scotland, Northern Ireland and the far north of England use /u/ for both these sets of words.[1]
  • The foot–strut split is the split of Middle English /ʊ/ into two distinct phonemes /ʊ/ (as in foot) and /ʌ/ (as in strut) that occurs in most accents of English (except most Northern English accents).
  • In Modern English, the vowels /iu/, /ɛu/, and /y/ (the latter occurring only in French loanwords) of Middle English have been merged.

High front vowels


Vowel changes before historic /r/

Mergers before intervocalic /r/

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

Mergers before historic coda /r/

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

Vowel changes before historic /l/


  1. ^ John C Wells, Accents of English, Cambridge, 1982, page 402

See also

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