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Old and Middle English Phonology  

Donka Minkova

Old English (OE) is a cover term for a variety of dialects spoken in Britain ca. 5th–11th century. Most of the manuscripts on which the descriptive handbook tradition relies date from the latter part of the period. These late OE manuscripts were produced in Wessex and show a degree of uniformity interrupted by the Norman Conquest of 1066. Middle English (ME) covers roughly 1050–1500. The early part of the period, ca. pre-1350, is marked by great diversity of scribal practices; it is only in late ME that some degree of orthographic regularity can be observed. The consonantal system of OE differs from the Modern English system. Consonantal length was contrastive, there were no affricates, no voicing contrast for the fricatives [f, θ, s], no phonemic velar nasal [ŋ], and [h-] loss was under way. In the vocalic system, OE shows changes that identify it as a separate branch of Germanic: Proto-Germanic (PrG) ē 1 > OE ǣ/ē, PrG ai > OE ā, PrG au > OE ēa. The non-low short vowels of OE are reconstructed as non-peripheral, differing from the corresponding long vowels both in quality and quantity. The so called “short” diphthongs usually posited for OE suggest a case for which a strict binary taxonomy is inapplicable to the data. The OE long vowels and diphthongs were unstable, producing a number of important mergers including /iː - yː/, /eː - eø/, /ɛː - ɛə/. In addition to shifts in height and frontness, the stressed vowels were subject to a series of quantity adjustments that resulted in increased predictability of vowel length. The changes that jointly contribute to this are homorganic cluster lengthening, ME open syllable lengthening, pre-consonantal and trisyllabic shortening. The final unstressed vowels of ME were gradually lost, resulting in the adoption of <-e># as a diacritic marker for vowel length. Stress-assignment was based on a combination of morphological and prosodic criteria: root-initial stress was obligatory irrespective of syllable weight, while affixal stress was also sensitive to weight. Verse evidence allows the reconstruction of left-prominent compound stress; there is also some early evidence for the formation of clitic groups. Reconstruction of patterns on higher prosodic levels—phrasal and intonational contours—is hampered by lack of testable evidence.