In the history of the English language, long vowels underwent several changes and this resulted in long vowels becoming diphthongs in Modern English. Just how and why these changes took place and how long vowels are marked in English orthography is the focus of this essay. Englsih has undergone many changes over time. It began as a Germanic language. For example, the people of the more northern kingdoms of East Anglia, Mercia, and Northumbria were descendants of the Germanic Angles (a name derived from the peninsula of Angeln in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany). Those of Essex (East Saxion), Sussex (South Saxon) and Wessex (West Saxon) were were related to migrating Germanic Saxons, who came from the region of Old Saxony. The inhabitants of Kent and southern Hampshire represent another Germanic migration from Europe, those of the Jutes. These migration patterns began around 400 - 600 AD and they have left their mark on Engllish as a Germanic language. Anglo-Saxon, also called Old English, was the language spoken by the migrating Germanic tribes at the time of Alfred the Great.

Britain was besieged by Picts, Scots, and Saxons. These invasions led the British leader Vortigern to invite Saxons (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) into an alliance against Picts and Scots. The Saxons rebeled against the Britons in 442 and this led to Saxon settlements in Sussex and Wessex around 477- 495. As a consequence, the British Celts were driven into Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, and Brittany (on northwest coast of France). The Latin work - Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae (The Fall of Britain) around 540) AD describes the fall of Britain to the Anglo-Saxons. This resulted in Anglo-Saxons control of England by the sixth century

Why is this information on the migration of Germanic tribes into England important? It is significant because Germanic languages underwent vowel changes this have relic forms in Modern English. The source of these forms is known as the German Ablaut series (die erste Lautverschiebung) and its vestiges in English is called the Great English Vowel Shift. The Ablaut Series in German strong verbs refers to a systematic variation in the vowels within the same root or affix. For example, in English there is a vowel alternation in the root forms of "sing, sang" and "sung." The folowing provides examples of the major verb patterns in German and their counterparts in English.

There are seven main ablaut classes or categories found in the conjugation of verbs in modern Germanic languages (German, Dutch, English, etc.). These vowel-shift patterns make it easier to learn how to conjugate strong verbs in German. Some German verbs even follow the identical English vowel pattern: German trinken, trank, getrunken vs. English drink, drank, drunk.

In modern German, classes 3b and 4 are identical. In English, Class 4 verbs have retained an -n in the past participle (broken, spoken) not found in Class 3b.


  Ablaut Patterns in German
Strong-Verb Conjugation Patterns

  Strong Verb Class

German Examples

English Meanings

 English Ablauts

Ablaut Class 1a:

ei - i - i

beißen, biss, gebissen
bleichen, blich, geblichen
gleichen, glich, geglichen
reiten, ritt, geritten
 bite, bit, bitten
bleach, bleached, bleached
resemble, resembled, resembled
tear, tore, torn
 drive, drove, driven
slide, slid, slid

Ablaut Class 1b:

ei 0 ie 0ie

bleiben, blieb, geblieben
meiden, mied, gemieden
schreiben, schrieb, geschrieben
stay, stayed, stayed
avoid, avoided, avoided
write, wrote, written

 Ablaut class 2

i - o -o

 biegen, bog, gebogen
fließen, floss, geflossen
kriechen, kroch, gekrochen
 bend, bent, bent
flow, flowed, flowed
crawl, crawled, crawled
 freeze, froze, frozen
shoot, shot, shot

 Ablaut Class 3a

a - i -u

 bringen, rang, gerungen
inden, band, gebunden
singen, sang, gesungen
 tie, tied, tied
ring, rang, rung
sing, sang, sung
 sing, sang, sung
ring, rang, rung

 Ablaut Class 3b

e - a -o\\

 brechen, brach, gebrochen
nehmen, nahm, genommen
sprechen, sprach, gesprochen
 break, broke, broken
take, took, taken
speak, spoke, spoken
 win, won, won
find, found, found

 Ablaut Class 4

e - a -o

  Same as Class 3B in Modern German

 break, broke, broken
speak, spoke (spake), spoken

Ablaut Class 5

e/i - a- e 

 essen, aß, gegessen
geben, gab, gegeben
sehen, sah, gesehen
 eat, ate, eaten
give, gave, given
see, saw, seen
 eat, ate, eaten
give, gave, given

 Ablaut Class 6

a - u - a

 laden, lud, geladen
tragen, trug, getragen
schaffen, schuf, geschaffen
 load, loaded, loaded
carry, carried, carried
create, created, created
 shake, shook, shaken

 Ablaut Class 7

V - ie - V

 blasen, blies, geblasen
halten, hielt, gehalten
schlafen, schlief, geschlafen
 blow, blew, blown
hold, held, held
sleep, slept, slept
 fall, fell, fallen

More will be said about the ablaut series of vowels in English under the rubric of the Great English Vowel Shift.

The next major change in the English language that impacts on the development of long vowels and diphthongs in English occurred England was attacked and occupied by the Norman French. In the Battle of Hastings in 1066 AD, the King of England succeeded his throne to the Norman Rule, The events leading to this invastion began with the death of King Edward of England. He died on January 5, 1066, after a reign of 23 years. He left no heirs to the throne. This vacancy led to a rivalty between Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and William, Duke of Normandy. From within England, there was a third rival, Harold Godwinson, who was the second most powerful man in England and an advisor to Edward. But the relationship between King Edward and his advisor was more complicated. Harold and Edward, it should be mentioned, became brothers-in-law when the king married his sister. Because of his deep familial relationship to the King of England, he was considered to be his logical successor to the throne. It was even argued that when the King ws dying, he committed the throne in the hands of Harold Godwinson. These rivalries set the stage for the Battle of Hastings in 1066. William of Normandy was a distant cousin to King Edward and this blood relationship enabled him to lay claim to the throne of England. For this reason, he immediately prepared to invade England. These plans were completed in July but were delayed due to bad weather conditions. Finally, on September 27, the Normans made landfall on the English coast near Pevensey and marched to Hastings where the French infantry and cavalry overwhelmed the British forces. With the loss of the English forces at the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxon rule came to an end. What followed over the next three centuries was the establishment of French as the official language of London and the take over of the feudal system by the new land owners. To the victor goes the spoils.

There are many reasons why this period of English history is important. The most important from the point of view of this essay can be found in the emergence of a new form of English used in that country, Middle English. This new language was a mixture of Anglo-Saxon Old Engilsh and Normandy French. This combination changed the grammatical structure of the language. It introduced Latinate stress rules, a lexicon laden with French words, and a plethora of new diphthongs into the newly developing language. Over time, the new language that would be called "Middle English" was used by the next generation of native speakers. It is now time to consider the linguistic influences of both the Germanic and French invasions had on the development of this new Creole language. This journey begins with a discssion of the vowel triangle and how diphthongs are formed within a phonetic system by the addition of front and back glides within that system.



As noted earlier, phonetics is the study of speech sounds.  Linguists are adept at hearing these sounds and transcribing them.  The model of how to write these sounds is known as phonetics and it has been around for several millennia.  Over a century ago, linguists in France and England took a strong interest in the Sanskrit language.  As they began their journey into this ancient language of India, they learned that more was written in Sanskrit than all of the combined literature of Greek and Latin.  Today, one could go to the Asian library of the University of Hawaii or at the University of California at Berkeley and pick up an ancient scroll written in Sanskrit.  Most of these scrolls have not been translated.  What is important about Sanskrit is that it lead to the discovery of manuscripts on phonetics written about 300 BC by a scholar known as Panini.  The method that he used in describing speech sounds is still used today, it is called “articulatory phonetics.”  In his writings, this Indian scholar noted that the vowels of a language could be described by means of a triangle.  Later, French scholars were to call this "the Vowel Triangle."     


When one produces these speech sounds, one quickly learns that the sounds [i] and [u] represent the highest tongue position in the mouth and [a] coincides with the lowest tongue position. The vowel [i] and [u] also have something to do with tongue position. The vowel [i] represents the farthest forward that one push the tongue and still produce a vowel sound. Similarly, [u] is the sound that is farthest back in the mouth. Now, there are several important things that can be said about this simple vowel triangle. First, it provides the nomenclature for the description of speech sounds, id est, articulatory descriptions.

[i] high front vowel
[u] high back vowel
[a] low central vowel

The second factor about this vowel triangle is that it provides the basis for the description of all other vowel sounds. Languages differ in how they have modified the simple vowel triangle. For example, if a language such as Spanish has a five-vowel system the new vowel additions will occur as mid-vowels.



The first time that one encounters the system behind English orthography either occurs in grade school or in a class on English as a foreign language. At this time, some kind of reference is made to long and short vowel sounds. This distinction is evidence in various dictionaries that attempt to signify this distinction by using a macron over a vowel or a colon after a vowel [hi:] "high", or by using double vowels [ee] "green." Each dictionary company has its own system of presenting phonetic information. The reason for this is simple. There is money to be made in publishing dictionaries (lexicons) and these lexicographers copyright their own system of phonetics and do not allow other companies to use the same symbols. The same commercial interest can be found in lexical definitions. Each dictionary has its own definition of a word. Once a definition has been used, other companies cannot use it for economic purposes. Hence, these other companies go through agonizing experience of reworking and paraphrasing the lexical items in a dictionary. What is interesting about these organizations is that they hire linguists to research lexical items and document their etymologies, etc. Many of these linguists during the last half-century have been structuralists who were unhappy with the state of English orthography. Many of them wanted to revise the spelling system of English in order to make it more phonetic. Over the years, two schools on the phonetic transcription of English emerged. These schools differed from each other from each other on how vowel sounds are perceived. The Trager and Smith school of orthographical reform argued that English vowel sounds are best described in terms of simple vowels versus diphthongs. They noted that diphthongs begin with a steady state vowel [a, e, o, i, u ] and glide towards a glide [y, w].


sigh [say] my [may] pie [pay] write [rayt]
cow [kaw] out [awt] how [haw] house [haws]

English contains diphthongs with long glides from the steady state sound to the glide and there were called "genuine diphthongs."

English, they argued, also has several shorter diphthongs and they called these "spurious diphthongs."

mate [meyt] gait [geyt] date [deyt] bait beyt]
low [low] go [gow] foe [fow] row [row]
see [siy] be [biy] bee [biy] seat [siyt]
Luke [luwk] buy [b*y] cut [k* t] mutt [m* t] sofa [sowf*]

Trager and Smith argued that native speakers of English heard contrasts between simple vowels and diphthongs (complex vowels). Their system of phonetic transcription captured this distinction. By way of contrast, another group of linguists, Fires and Pike, favored another way of transcribing the sounds of English. They felt that native speakers of English heard distinctions between tense and lax sounds rather than simple vowels and diphthongs. Before discussing their system, one needs to understand what tense and lax means in phonetic terms. English has two kinds of high vowels and mid vowel. One set is called tense because the muscles under the chin that connect to the hyoid bone are tensed; and the other is called lax because when these sounds are produced, these muscles are lax. When the muscle are tensed (fortis), the buccal cavity is made smaller and this causes the speech sound to have a higher pitch. When these same muscles are laxed (lenis), the buccal cavity is made larger and the sounds emitted have a lower pitch.




When Chomsky and Halle (1968) developed their own system of phonology, they did not use the tense versus lax system of transcription used by Fries and Pike, nor did they use the simple vowel versus diphthong system of Trager and Smith. Instead, they used a system of long and short vowels. What this means, in effect, is that native speakers of English hear long versus short vowels. This fact is not only current, but it also existed in Old English. They explain their use of long vowels by recapitulating the historical events that led from Old English long vowels to Modern English diphthongs.

Chomsky and Halle (1968) claim that these sound rules still operate in Modern English phonology. What this claim means, in essence, is that the abstract underlying forms for most English words consist of patterns of long versus short vowels. The long vowels are diphthongized and undergo the vowel shift. Short vowels do not diphthongize. Hence, this system adequately explains the pattern of simple vowels versus diphthongs advocated by Trager and Smith. Also, long vowels are tense in English and short vowel are lax. Furthermore, long vowels co-occur with diphthongs, and short vowels are always simple lax vowel. Hence, this system adequately accounts for the system of contrasts of tense and lax vowels advocated by Fries and Pike. In the following derivational system used by Chomsky and Halle (1968), the underlying forms of Modern English words demonstrate a strong familiarity with Old English. The long vowels are diphthongized and then undergo a vowel shift. These rules, it should be noted, are ordered.

Notice how Modern English has various devices for designating long and short vowels. The silent "e" at the end of a word is nothing more than a device to signal that the preceding vowel is long. Hence, the silent letter in 'fine" means that the "i" vowel is long. The silent letter in "house" means that the "ou" is long. This spelling of [u] as "ou" comes from the French who imposed this spelling into English after their take over of England following the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Another technique for designating long vowel is by means of doubled letters. The double "e" in "green" tells one that "e" is a long vowel. Similarly, the double "o" in "food" means that the underlying form of this word has a long back mid vowel. Double consonants are used to signal short vowels. Notice the word "botm" which did not undergo the processes of diphthongization and the vowel shift because it contains a short vowel. In Modern English, the consonant cluster "tt" tells one that the preceding vowel is short. Whenever such consonant clusters occur, they have the effect of shortening the preceding vowel.

There was another rule that shortened vowels. This one occurred in words borrowed from French. In that language, the antepenultimate vowel is shortened and this means that such a rule had to be adopted in English in order to account for the following alternations between long and short vowels. This rule is called trisyllabic laxing or shortening because a long tense vowel is shortened and made lax and short in the process.

Other examples of trisyllabic shortening include: "profane, profanity, sane, sanity, divine, divinity," but notice the exception to the rule occurs in "obese, obesity."

Not only are certain long vowels shortened from Old English to Modern English, but show vowels are made long due to the influence of their neighboring sounds. The "gh" spelling in "light, might, right," etc. represent a spelling device to tell one that the preceding vowel is lengthened, cf. German Licht [liçt].

A similar process of vowel lengthening occurs in dental nasal plus dental stop clusters: blind, behind, ground, grind, wind, etc. The older shortened forms of many of these words can still be found in Modern German such as Grund "ground" and Hund "dog."

In addition to the vowel changes from Old English, Modern English has also simplified initial consonant cluster.

Palatalization was another sound change that took place from Old English. Palatal velars [*] changed into front glides [y]: g*ar "year," and g*ald "yield." The noted diachronic difference between the cognate forms of German Tag and English "day" has to do with this rule. Another cognate can be found in the German Nagel with English "nail."

Those who wanted to reform English orthography during the zenith of structuralism overlooked the richness of spelling devices contained in the language. By looking at the spelling of a word, one can tell if it was borrowed from German, French, Latin, Greek, and so on. These differences are important because many of the old forms of pluralization still operate in these borrowed forms.



For someone learning how to pronounce English words, there is much room for doubt and confusion. However, there are certain defices within English orthography that will assist students of the English language in guiding their pronunciation. These guides signal the use of long vowels in Old English and the diphthongized versions of these sounds in Modern English.


 Orthographical Device  English Words  Pronunciation
 i + Consonant + silent letter "e"
 u + Consonant + silent letter "e"

a + Consonant + sielent letter "e"

 Double Vowels signal long vowels


 Vowels are lengthened before certain clusters









 "g" palatizes into "y" before Consontant

Vowel lenghtening also occurs



EXERCISE IN ENGLISH UMLAUTS. English used to be a full fledged member of the Teutonic family until it was creolized by the French after the Battle of Hastings. The phonemonon of umlauting (the fronting of back vowel with the retention of lip rounding) not only occurs in Modern German, but it also occurs in Modern English.


English has modern forms such as "gander" which is derived from an earlier Germanic [ganz] and "dental" which is derived from an earlier form of [dent]. When the nasal consonant was loss, the preceding vowel was lengthened. However, a more accurate description includes vowel lengthening before nasals with the raising of the long low central vowel before nasal clusters (cf. OE: [h?m] becoming "home). This process is often combined and treated as a single rule by diachronic linguistics. They call it compensatory lengthening. However, before this happened, one of the forms of [ganz] has a consonant inserted to strengthen this syllable changing [ganz] making into [gander]. Those forms which did undergo compensatory lengthening [gÇs] provided the basis for Modern English "goose" and "geese." Write the rules for these changes. Notice that once the vowels were umlauted, they eventually lost their lip rounding and this led to the modern pairs of words such as "mouse" and "mice."

EXERCISE IN ENGLISH VOWEL SHORTENING. The addition of "th" to a verb makes it into an abstract noun. This process is called nominalization and is evidenced by the following words:

Verb Noun

heal health
steal stealth
weal wealth cf. weal and deal
deep depth

Other forms of vowel shortening occurs in the following examples:

deal dealt
peal pelt
keep kept
read (present) read (past)
bite bitten
write written
meet met
sleep slept
ride ridden

What rules can account for these changes? How do these word pairs relate to the Great English Vowel Shift? Provide derivations for each of these pairs of words.


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Jakobson, Roman; Fant, Gunnar, and Morris Halle. 1952. Preliminaries to Speech Analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, Technical Report 13 Acoustics Laboratory.

Jakobson, Roman. 1960. "Why mama and papa?" In Perspectives in Psychological Theory Dedicated to Heinz Werner. Reprinted in Roman Jakobson, Selected Writings I, 5380545. The Hague: Mouton.

Jakobson, Roman. 1941. Kindersprache, Aphasie, und allgemeine Lautgesetzen. Prague: Travaux du Cercle Linquistieu de Prage, Volume IV.

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