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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 laxing

Main articles: 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/.

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 vowels

Main article: Pronunciation of English ⟨a⟩

Low back vowels

Main article: Phonological history of English low back vowels

High back vowels

Main article: Phonological history of English high back vowels

High front vowels

Main article: Phonological history of English high front vowels


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]


Main article: Phonological history of English diphthongs

Vowel changes before historic /r/

Main article: English-language 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/

Main article: English-language vowel changes before historic /l/

See also


  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. 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.