The history of the English language – Modern English phonology

We’ve seen Old English. We’ve seen Middle English.

Our last installment of this little series is
Modern English phonology!

For ease of reference, let me remind you – in a slightly easier form than our previous tables – the Old and Middle English consonant inventories:

Old English
Middle English

There are quite a few changes, just between Old English and Middle English.

This is Modern English
 LabialDentalAlveolarPost-alveolarPalatalVelarGlottal
Nasalmnŋ
Stopp bt d tʃ dʒk g
Fricativef vθ ðs z ʃ ʒ(x)h
Approximantrjw
Laterall

There is a bit of a difference here – most noticeably, the addition of two consonants /ʒ/ and /w/, but the biggest difference between historical stages of the English language and the modern version is found in the vowels.

Let’s do a brief reminder.

So, in Old English, we have eight vowels: /i, e, æ, y, ø, ɑ, u, o/ and their long equivalents. In addition, we have three diphthongs: /iu̯, eo̯, æɑ̯/ and their long equivalents.

In Middle English, we still have eight short vowels: /i, e, a, y, ø, ə, u, o/ and their long equivalents (except for /ə/ which doesn’t have a long equivalent). However, in addition to these, we also find three new vowels that only exist as long vowels: /ɛː, œː, ɔː/. When it comes to diphthongs, Middle English had added another four by around the year 1400, giving a total of seven diphthongs: /ɛi, ɔi, ʊi, ɪu, ɛu, ɑu, ɔu/.

Okay, so there is a number of changes.

But what about Modern English?

Well….

In Modern English, we have fourteen vowels and eight diphthongs 1.

Goodness.

The Modern English vowels are: /ɪ, i:, e, e:, ɛ:, æ, ʊ, u:, ə, ʌ, ɜː, ɒ, ɔː, ɑː/. And its diphthongs are: /eɪ, əʊ, aɪ, aʊ, ɔɪ, ɪə, eə, ʊə/. Additionally, Modern English also has some so-called triphthongs. Although minor in comparison to the monophthongs (single vowels) and diphthongs, they do exist and are: /eɪə, aɪə, ɔɪə, aʊə, əʊə/.

Wow, that’s a lot of vowels.

And I think that might be enough for you for one blog post. If you are intrigued to learn how we got from Middle English to Modern English, though, check out my notes below!

If not (no judgment here), I hope this was enlightening for you. Check back next week, when we’ll once again back up and look at Old English syntax!

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Notes and references

Want to learn more?

Start by checking out our previous blog post on the Great (English) Vowel Shift.

Already know all that?

Alright. In that case, here is what I would suggest:

Donka Minkova. 2014. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. (I referenced this for both Old and Middle English, but it spans basically all of the phonological history of English and is a great book to have a look at if you’re interested in the phonological development of English).

Philip Carr. 2013. English phonetics and phonology. (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons. (A pretty standard textbook that works well as an introduction to modern English phonology)

Heinz J. Giegerich. 1992. English Phonology: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press (Another, very informative, phonology textbook)

Want to go more deeply into phonological theory and haven’t read The sound patterns of English (Chomsky & Halle, 1968) yet? Start there – it’s a classic (but not for someone to read for leisure as it gets reasonably complex rather quickly).

For this post, I’ll admit to having taken the overview photos from Wikipedia. This is simply because they provide a slightly more condensed view than my previous tables.

For Modern English, I have taken a look at Wiki‘s condensed info but also at this article.

  1. In Received Pronunciation – American English has twelve vowels and three diphthongs while Australian English has fourteen vowels and seven diphthongs (including long vowels)

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