The history of the English language – Middle English phonology

Another Thursday, a new blog post!

Today, we keep working on HEL – the History of the English Language – and we have reached my favourite time period: Middle English! Today, we’re looking closer at specifically Middle English phonology, so, although it is my favourite time period, it is not necessarily my favourite topic – I am not a phonologist after all.

However, something interesting about Middle English is its spelling (hold your horses, I know we’re talking about phonology here, we’ll get there!).

You see, unlike modern English, where its current spelling system has given rise to memes such as this one:


That’s right! English didn’t use to be like that at all! However, you might find the alternative way rather disappointing (and confusing… and hair-pulling lie-awake-at-night frustrating). But, hey, that’s all in a day’s work!

So, during most of the Middle English period, words were generally spelled according to how the writer would have pronounced them – or how they sounded to the writer if someone else said them, perhaps.

This all changed, of course, once standardisation started.

Standardisation followed rather naturally after printing became a thing, though things had been moving in that direction for a while.

The problem?
The Great Vowel Shift.

You see, the phonology of Middle English was, like most things Middle English, in a transitional period. A lot changed during a reasonably short amount of time (you’ll find that historical linguists have a very odd idea of what is “short” or “recent” – for me, 600 years (as in this case) is a reasonably short time, while “recently” may be anything from yesterday to thirty years ago. When you study really old things, your perception gets a bit skewed.)

Anyway, things were changing. Generally speaking, the Middle English consonant sound inventory isn’t all that different from Old English (which we saw last week):

Stopp bt dt͡ʃ d͡ʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs zʃ(ç)(x) h

There are some differences, of course, but generally speaking, they look quite similar, don’t they? Here is the Old English one for comparison:

Nasalm(n̥) n(ŋ)
Stopp bt dk g
Affricatetʃ (dʒ)
Fricativef (v)θ (ð)s (z)ʃ(ç)(x ɣ)h
Approximant(l̥) lj(ʍ) w
Trill(r̥) r

The vowels… that’s a different story.

To remind you, these are the Old English vowels:

Closei i:y y:u u:
Mide e:(ø ø:)o o:
Openæ æ:ɑ ɑ:

And these… are the Middle English vowels.

Closei i:(y y:)u u:
Close-mide e:(ø øː)(ə)o o:
Opena a:

Quite a different set, wouldn’t you say? First, we have a new distinction in the mid-vowels. Where Old English only had the distinction mid, Middle English had yet another: close-mid and open-mid. Note, however, that this affected only the long vowels – not the short ones.

Additionally, we see the addition of several “new” vowels – such as /ɛː/ and /ɔː/ – and the loss of /æ/. So, it’s different.

So, what has this to do with spelling?

Well, when the Great Vowel Shift (which I talk more about in an earlier post) came along (technically, it likely started beforehand, but writing takes a long time to catch up to changing pronunciation), spelling had already started to standardise.

But, the spelling became standardise words as they sounded before the vowel shift. As a result of this “disconnect” between orthography and pronunciation, we have a rather odd spelling system in English.

And it would come to change even more in Modern English, but that is the topic for next week! Join me then, and in the meantime:

(Have you checked out Steve the vagabond and silly linguist on Facebook? If not, you really should – the page is great!)



For this particular post, I’ve really just checked out Wikipedia, which I used to model the tables.

For the rest, I’ve picked up a few things over the years of studying Middle English, some of it from these resources (which I highly recommend and, as last week, come with a small comment from me):

J.A. Burrow. Thorlac Turville-Petre. 2013. A book of Middle English. (3rd ed.) (I keep returning to this book, it gives a very interesting account of Middle English)

R.D. Fulk. 2012. An introduction to Middle English. (An easy overview, which currently graces my shelf as it provides easy access to some basic information that one occasionally needs to remind oneself of).

Simon Horobin. Jeremy J. Smith. 2002. An introduction to Middle English. (A thin volume that I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve used. Really, it gives a very easily-read and understood introduction for those who are unfamiliar with the Middle English language)

Roger Lass. 1999. Phonology and morphology. In Roger Lass (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English language. Vol. III. 1476-1776. (This chapter gives an excellent overview of some of the more dramatic changes in phonology that occurred during the Middle English period. It is really worth a read if you want to get more information).

Fernand Mossé. 2000. Handbook of Middle English. (A tad bit more complex but, as all of these resources, one that I keep returning to).

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for Old English last week, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and gives just as a wonderful account of Middle English as it does for Old English)

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