The close and mid-height front vowels of English (vowels of ''i'' and ''e'' type) have undergone a variety of changes over time and often vary by dialect.

Developments involving long vowels

Until Great Vowel Shift

Middle English had a long close front vowel , and two long mid front vowels: the close-mid and the open-mid . The three vowels generally correspond to the modern spellings , and respectively, but other spellings are also possible. The spellings that became established in Early Modern English are mostly still used today, but the qualities of the sounds have changed significantly. The and generally corresponded to similar Old English vowels, and came from Old English . For other possible histories, see English historical vowel correspondences. In particular, the long vowels sometimes arose from short vowels by Middle English open syllable lengthening or other processes. For example, ''team'' comes from an originally-long Old English vowel, and ''eat'' comes from an originally-short vowel that underwent lengthening. The distinction between both groups of words is still preserved in a few dialects, as is noted in the following section. Middle English was shortened in certain words. Both long and short forms of such words often existed alongside each other during Middle English. In Modern English the short form has generally become standard, but the spelling reflects the formerly-longer pronunciation. The words that were affected include several ending in ''d'', such as ''bread'', ''head'', ''spread'', and various others including ''breath'', ''weather'', and ''threat''. For example, ''bread'' was in earlier Middle English, but came to be shortened and rhymed with ''bed''. During the Great Vowel Shift, the normal outcome of was a diphthong, which developed into Modern English , as in ''mine'' and ''find''. Meanwhile, became , as in ''feed'', and of words like ''meat'' became , which later merged with in nearly all dialects, as is described in the following section.

''Meet–meat'' merger

The ''meet''–''meat'' merger or the ''fleece'' merger is the merger of the Early Modern English vowel (as in ''meat'') into the vowel (as in ''meet''). The merger was complete in standard accents of English by about 1700. As noted in the previous section, the Early Modern/New English (ENE) vowel developed from Middle English via the Great Vowel Shift, and ENE was usually the result of Middle English (the effect in both cases was a raising of the vowel). The merger saw ENE raised further to become identical to and so Middle English and have become in standard Modern English, and ''meat'' and ''meet'' are now homophones. The merger did not affect the words in which had undergone shortening (see section above), and a handful of other words (such as ''break'', ''steak'', ''great'') also escaped the merger in the standard accents and so acquired the same vowel as ''brake'', ''stake'', ''grate''. Hence, the words ''meat'', ''threat'' (which was shortened), and ''great'' now have three different vowels although all three words once rhymed. The merger results in the lexical set, as defined by John Wells. Words in the set that had ENE (Middle English ) are mostly spelled (''meet'', ''green'', etc.), with a single in monosyllables (''be'', ''me'') or followed by a single consonant and a vowel letter (''these'', ''Peter''), sometimes or (''believe'', ''ceiling''), or irregularly (''key'', ''people''). Most of those that had ENE (Middle English ) are spelled (''meat'', ''team'', ''eat'', etc.), but some borrowed words have a single (''legal'', ''decent'', ''complete''), , or otherwise (''receive'', ''seize'', ''phoenix'', ''quay''). There are also some loanwords in which is spelled (''police'', ''machine'', ''ski''), most of which entered the language later. There are still some dialects in the British Isles that do not have the merger. Some speakers in Northern England have or in the first group of words (those that had ENE , like ''meet''), but in the second group (those that had ENE , like ''meat''). In Staffordshire, the distinction might rather be between in the first group and in the second group. In some (particularly rural and lower-class) varieties of Irish English, the first group has , and the second preserves . A similar contrast has been reported in parts of Southern and Western England, but it is now rarely encountered there. In some Yorkshire dialects, an additional distinction may be preserved within the ''meat'' set. Words that originally had long vowels, such as ''team'' and ''cream'' (which come from Old English ''tēam'' and Old French ''creme''), may have , and those that had an original short vowel, which underwent open syllable lengthening in Middle English (see previous section), like ''eat'' and ''meat'' (from Old English ''etan'' and ''mete''), have a sound resembling , similar to the sound that is heard in some dialects in words like ''eight'' and ''weight'' that lost a velar fricative). In Alexander's book (2001) about the traditional Sheffield dialect, the spelling "eigh" is used for the vowel of ''eat'' and ''meat'', but "eea" is used for the vowel of ''team'' and ''cream''. However, a 1999 survey in Sheffield found the pronunciation to be almost extinct there.

Changes before and

In certain accents, when the vowel was followed by , it acquired a laxer pronunciation. In General American, words like ''near'' and ''beer'' now have the sequence , and ''nearer'' rhymes with ''mirror'' (the ''mirror''–''nearer'' merger). In Received Pronunciation, a diphthong has developed (and by non-rhoticity, the is generally lost, unless there is another vowel after it), so ''beer'' and ''near'' are and , and ''nearer'' (with ) remains distinct from ''mirror'' (with ). Several pronunciations are found in other accents, but outside North America, the ''nearer''–''mirror'' opposition is always preserved. For example, some conservative accents in Northern England have the sequence in words like ''near'', which is reduced to before a pronounced , as in ''serious''. Another development is that bisyllabic may become smoothed to the diphthong in certain words, which leads to pronunciations like , and for ''vehicle'', ''theatre/theater'' and ''idea'', respectively. That is not restricted to any variety of English. It happens in both British English and (less noticeably or often) American English as well as other varieties although it is far more common for Britons, and many Americans do not have the phoneme . The words that have may vary depending on dialect. Dialects that have the smoothing usually also have the diphthong in words like ''beer'', ''deer'', and ''fear'', and the smoothing causes ''idea'', ''Korea'', etc. to rhyme with those words.

Other changes

In Geordie, the vowel undergoes an allophonic split, with the monophthong being used in morphologically-closed syllables (as in ''freeze'' ) and the diphthong being used in morphologically-open syllables not only word-finally (as in ''free'' ) but also word-internally at the end of a morpheme (as in ''frees'' ). Most dialects of English turn into a diphthong, and the monophthongal is in free variation with the diphthongal (with the former diphthong being the same as Geordie , the only difference lying in the transcription), particularly word-internally. However, word-finally, diphthongs are more common. Compare the identical development of the close back vowel.

Developments involving short vowels


Middle English short /i/ has developed into a lax, near-close near-front unrounded vowel, , in Modern English, as found in words like ''kit''. (Similarly, short has become .) According to Roger Lass, the laxing occurred in the 17th century, but other linguists have suggested that it took place potentially much earlier. The short mid vowels have also undergone lowering and so the continuation of Middle English (as in words like ''dress'') now has a quality closer to in most accents. Again, however, it is not clear whether the vowel already had a lower value in Middle English.

''Pin''–''pen'' merger

The ''pin''–''pen'' merger is a conditional merger of and before the nasal consonants , , and . The merged vowel is usually closer to than to . Examples of homophones resulting from the merger include ''pin–pen'', ''kin–ken'' and ''him–hem''. The merger is widespread in Southern American English and is also found in many speakers in the Midland region immediately north of the South and in areas settled by migrants from Oklahoma and Texas who settled in the Western United States during the Dust Bowl. It is also a characteristic of African-American Vernacular English. The ''pin''–''pen'' merger is one of the most widely recognized features of Southern speech. A study of the written responses of American Civil War veterans from Tennessee, together with data from the ''Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States'' and the ''Linguistic Atlas of the Middle South Atlantic States'', shows that the prevalence of the merger was very low up to 1860 but then rose steeply to 90% in the mid-20th century. There is now very little variation throughout the South in general except that Savannah, Austin, Miami, and New Orleans are excluded from the merger. The area of consistent merger includes southern Virginia and most of the South Midland and extends westward to include much of Texas. The northern limit of the merged area shows a number of irregular curves. Central and southern Indiana is dominated by the merger, but there is very little evidence of it in Ohio, and northern Kentucky shows a solid area of distinction around Louisville. Outside the South, most speakers of North American English maintain a clear distinction in perception and production. However, in the West, there is sporadic representation of merged speakers in Washington, Idaho, Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado. However, the most striking concentration of merged speakers in the west is around Bakersfield, California, a pattern that may reflect the trajectory of migrant workers from the Ozarks westward. The raising of to was formerly widespread in Irish English and was not limited to positions before nasals. Apparently, it came to be restricted to those positions in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. The ''pin''–''pen'' merger is now commonly found only in the south and the southwest of Ireland. A complete merger of and , not restricted to positions before nasals, is found in many speakers of Newfoundland English. The pronunciation in words like ''bit'' and ''bet'' is , but before , in words like ''beer'' and ''bear'', it is . The merger is common in Irish-settled parts of Newfoundland and is thought to be a relic of the former Irish pronunciation.

''Kit–bit'' split

The ''kit–bit'' split is a split of standard English (the vowel) that occurs in South African English. The two distinct sounds are: *A standard , or in broader accents, which is used before or after a velar consonant (''lick, bi, sin; kiss, kit, ift''), after (''hit''), word-initially (''inn''), generally before (''fish''), and by some speakers before (''ditch, bridge''). It is found only in stressed syllables (in the first syllable of ''chicken'', but not the second). *A centralized vowel , or in broader accents, which is used in other positions (''limb, dinner, limited, bit''). Different phonemic analyses of these vowels are possible. In one view, and are in complementary distribution and should therefore still be regarded as allophones of one phoneme. Wells, however, suggests that the non-rhyming of words like ''kit'' and ''bit'', which is particularly marked in the broader accents, makes it more satisfactory to consider to constitute a different phoneme from , and and can be regarded as comprising a single phoneme except for speakers who maintain the contrast in weak syllables. There is also the issue of the weak vowel merger in most non-conservative speakers, which means that ''rabbit'' (conservative ) rhymes with ''abbott'' . This weak vowel is consistently written in South African English dialectology, regardless of its precise quality.

''Thank–think'' merger

The ''thank–think'' merger is the lowering of to before the velar nasal that can be found in the speech of speakers of African American Vernacular English, Appalachian English, and (rarely) Southern American English. For speakers with the lowering, ''think'' and ''thank'', ''sing'' and ''sang'' etc. can sound alike. It is reflected in the colloquial variant spelling ''thang'' of ''thing''.

Developments involving weak vowels

Weak vowel merger

The weak vowel merger is the loss of contrast between (schwa) and unstressed , which occurs in certain dialects of English. In speakers with this merger the words ''abbot'' and ''rabbit'' rhyme, and ''Lennon'' and ''Lenin'' are pronounced identically, as are ''Rosa's'' and ''roses'' and ''addition'' and ''edition''. (Speakers without the merger generally have in the final syllables of ''rabbit'', ''Lenin'', ''roses'' and the first syllable of ''edition'', distinct from the schwa heard in the corresponding syllables of ''abbot'', ''Lennon'', ''Rosa's'' and ''addition''.) If an accent having the merger is also non-rhotic, then for example ''chatted'' and ''chattered'' will be homophones. The merger also affects the weak forms of some words, causing unstressed ''it'', for instance, to be pronounced with a schwa, so that ''dig it'' would rhyme with ''bigot''. The merger is very common in the Southern Hemisphere accents. Most speakers of Australian English replace weak with schwa, although in ''-ing'' the pronunciation is frequently ; and where there is a following , as in ''paddock'' or ''nomadic'', some speakers maintain the contrast, while some who have the merger use as the merged vowel. In New Zealand English the merger is complete, and indeed is very centralized even in stressed syllables, so that it is usually regarded as the same phoneme as . In South African English most speakers have the merger, but in more conservative accents the contrast may be retained (as vs. ; see ''kit'' split, above). The merger is also commonly found in General American. In Southern American English, however, the merger is generally not present, and is also heard in some words that have schwa in RP, such as ''salad''. In Caribbean English schwa is often not used at all, with unreduced vowels being preferred, but if there is a schwa, then remains distinct from it. In RP, the contrast between and weak is maintained. In other accents of the British Isles behavior may be variable; in Irish English the merger is almost universal. The merger is not complete in Scottish English, where speakers typically distinguish ''except'' from ''accept'', but the latter can be phonemicized with an unstressed : (as can the word-final schwa in ''comma'' ) and the former with : . In other environments and are mostly merged to a quality around , often even when stressed (Wells transcribes this merged vowel with . Here, is used for the sake of consistency and accuracy) and when before , as in ''fir'' and ''letter'' (but not ''fern'' and ''fur'' - see nurse mergers). The vowel is : . Even in accents that do not have the merger, there may be certain words in which traditional is replaced by by many speakers (here the two sounds may be considered to be in free variation). In RP, is now often heard in place of in endings such as ''-ace'' (as in ''palace''), ''-ate'' (as in ''senate''), ''-less'', ''-let'', for the in ''-ily'', ''-ity'', ''-ible'', and in initial weak ''be-'', ''de-'', ''re-'', and ''e-''. Final , and also and , are commonly realized as syllabic consonants. In accents without the merger, use of rather than prevents syllabic consonant formation. Hence in RP, for example, the second syllable of ''Barton'' is pronounced as a syllabic , while that of ''Martin'' is . Particularly in American linguistic tradition, the unmerged weak -type vowel is often transcribed with the barred ''i'' , the IPA symbol for the close central unrounded vowel. Another symbol sometimes used is , the non-IPA symbol for a near-close central unrounded vowel; in the third edition of the OED this symbol is used in the transcription of words (of the types listed above) that have free variation between and in RP.

Merger of ''kit'' with the word-internal schwa

The merger of with the word-internal variety of in ''abbot'' (not called on purpose, since word-final and sometimes also word-initial can be analyzed as - see above), which in non-rhotic varieties also encompasses the unstressed syllable of ''letters'' occurs when the stressed variant of is realized with a schwa-like quality , for example in some Inland Northern American English varieties (where the final stage of the Northern Cities Vowel Shift has been completed), New Zealand English, Scottish English and partially also South African English (see kit-bit split). As a result, the vowels in ''kit'' , ''lid'' , and ''miss'' belong to the same phoneme as the unstressed vowel in ''balance'' . It typically co-occurs with the weak vowel merger, but in Scotland the weak vowel merger is not complete; see above. There are no homophonous pairs apart from those caused by the weak vowel merger, but a central tends to sound like to speakers of other dialects, which is why Australians accuse New Zealanders of saying "fush and chups" instead of "fish and chips" (which, in an Australian accent, sounds close to "feesh and cheeps"). This is not accurate, as the vowel is always more open than the central ; in other words, there is no strut-comma merger (though a kit-strut merger is possible in some Glaswegian speech). This means that varieties of English with this merger effectively contrast two stressable unrounded schwas, which is very similar to the contrast between and in Romanian, as in the minimal pair ''rău'' 'river' vs. ''râu'' 'bad'. Most dialects with this merger feature happy tensing, which means that ''pretty'' is best analyzed as in those accents. In Scotland, the vowel is commonly a close-mid , identified phonemically as : . The name ''kit-comma merger'' is appropriate in the case of those dialects in which the quality of is far removed from (the word-final allophone of ), such as Inland Northern American English. It can be misleading in the case of other accents.

''Happy'' tensing

''Happy'' tensing is a process whereby a final unstressed ''i''-type vowel becomes tense rather than lax . That affects the final vowels of words such as ''happy'', ''city'', ''hurry'', ''taxi'', ''movie'', ''Charlie'', ''coffee'', ''money'', ''Chelsea''. It may also apply in inflected forms of such words containing an additional final consonant sound, such as ''cities'', ''Charlie's'' and ''hurried''. It can also affect words such as ''me'', ''he'' and ''she'' when used as clitics, as in ''show me'', ''would he?'' Until the 17th century, words like ''happy'' could end with the vowel of ''my'' (originally but diphthongized in the Great Vowel Shift), it alternated with a short ''i'' sound, which led to the present-day realizations. (Many words spelt ''-ee'', ''-ea'', ''-ey'' formerly had the vowel of ''day''; there is still alternation between that vowel and the ''happy'' vowel in words such as ''Sunday'', ''Monday''.) It is not entirely clear when the vowel underwent the transition. The fact that tensing is uniformly present in South African English, Australian English, and New Zealand English implies that it was present in southern British English already at the beginning of the 19th century. Yet it is not mentioned by descriptive phoneticians until the early 20th century, and even then at first only in American English. The British phonetician Jack Windsor Lewis believes that the vowel moved from to in Britain the second quarter of the 19th century before reverting to in non-conservative British accents towards the last quarter of the 20th century. Conservative RP has the laxer pronunciation. This is also found in Southern American English, in much of the north of England, and in Jamaica. In Scottish English an sound, similar to the Scottish realization of the vowel of ''day'', may be used. The tense variant, however, is now established in General American, and is also the usual form in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in the south of England and in some northern cities (e.g. Liverpool, Newcastle). It is also becoming more common in modern RP. The lax and tense variants of the ''happy'' vowel may be identified with the phonemes and respectively. They may also be considered to represent a neutralization between the two phonemes, although for speakers with the tense variant, there is the possibility of contrast in such pairs as ''taxis'' and ''taxes'' (see English phonology – vowels in unstressed syllables). Modern British dictionaries represent the ''happy'' vowel with the symbol (distinct from both and ). considers the tensing to be a neutralization between and , while regards the tense variant in modern RP still as an allophone of on the basis that it is shorter than, and resistant to diphthongization unlike, . regards the phenomenon to be simply a switch from to and criticizes the notation for causing "widespread belief in a specific 'happY vowel that "never existed".

Merger of with and with

Old English had the short vowel and long vowel , which were spelled orthographically with , contrasting with the short vowel and the long vowel , which were spelled orthographically with . By Middle English the two vowels and merged with and , leaving only the short-long pair . Modern spelling therefore uses both and for the modern KIT and PRICE vowels. Modern spelling with vs. is not an indicator of the Old English distinction between the four sounds, as spelling has been revised since after the merger occurred. After the merger occurred, the name of the letter acquired an initial sound in it, to keep it distinct from the name of the letter .

Additional mergers in Asian and African English

The ''mitt''–''meet'' merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English and Singaporean English in which the phonemes and are both pronounced . As a result, pairs like ''mitt'' and ''meet'', ''bit'' and ''beat'', and ''bid'' and ''bead'' are homophones.Tony T. N. Hung
English as a global language: Implications for teaching
Retrieved 27 September 2008.
The ''met''–''mat'' merger is a phenomenon occurring in Malaysian English, Singaporean English and Hong Kong English in which the phonemes and are both pronounced . For some speakers, it occurs only in front of voiceless consonants, and pairs like ''met'', ''mat'', ''bet'', ''bat'' are homophones, but ''bed'', ''bad'' or ''med'', ''mad'' are kept distinct. For others, it occurs in all positions. The ''met''–''mate'' merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Zulu English in which and are both pronounced . As a result, the words ''met'' and ''mate'' are homophonous as .

See also

*Phonological history of the English language *Phonological history of English vowels



* * * * * * {{History of English Category:English phonology Category:History of the English language Category:Splits and mergers in English phonology