English Grammar



OE is so far removed from Mod E that one may take it for an entirely different language; this is largely due to the peculiarities of its pronunciation.

The survey of OE phonetics deals with word accentuation, the systems of vowels and consonants and their origins. The OE sound system developed from the PG system. It underwent multiple changes in the pre-written periods of history, especially in Early OE. The diachronic description of phonetics in those early periods will show the specifically English tendencies of development and the immediate sources of the sounds in the age of writing.

Word Stress

The system of word accentuation inherited from PG underwent no changes in Early OE.

In OE a syllable was made prominent by an increase in the force of articulation; in other words, a dynamic or a force stress was employed. In disyllabic and polysyllabic words the accent fell on the root-morpheme or on the first syllable. Word stress was fixed; it remained on the same syllable in different grammatical forms of the word and, as a rule, did not shift in word-building either. The forms of the Dat. case of the nouns hlaforde [‘xla:vorde], cyninge [‘kyninge] used in the text and the Nom. case of the same nouns: hlaford [‘xla:vord], cyning [‘kyning]. Polysyllabic words, especially compounds, may have had two stresses, chief and secondary, the chief stress being fixed on the first root-morpheme, e.g. the compound noun Nor?monna from the same extract, received the chief stress upon its first component and the secondary stress on the second component; the grammatical ending -a (Gen. pl) was unaccented. In words with prefixes the position of the stress varied: verb prefixes were unaccented, while in nouns and adjectives the stress was commonly thrown on to the prefix.

Cf: a’risan – arise v., ‘toweard – toward adj., ‘misd?d – misdeed n.

If the words were derived from the same root, word stress, together with other means, served to distinguish the noun from the verb, cf:

Changes of Stressed Vowels in Early Old English

Sound changes, particularly vowel changes, took place in English at every period of history.

The development of vowels in Early OE consisted of the modification of separate vowels, and also of the modification of entire sets of vowels.

It should be borne in mind that the mechanism of all phonetic changes strictly conforms with the general pattern. The change begins with growing variation in pronunciation, which manifests itself in the appearance of numerous allophones: after the stage of increased variation, some allophones prevail over the others and a replacement takes place. It may result in the splitting of phonemes and their numerical growth, which fills in the “empty boxes” of the system or introduces new distinctive features. It may also lead to the merging of old phonemes, as their new prevailing allophones can fall together. Most frequently the change will involve both types of replacement, splitting and merging, so that we have to deal both with the rise of new phonemes and with the redistribution of new allophones among the existing phonemes. For the sake of brevity, the description of most changes below is restricted to the initial and final stages.

Independent Changes. Development of Monophthongs

The PG short [a] and the long [a:], which had arisen in West and North Germanic, underwent similar alterations in Early OE they were fronted and, in the process of fronting, they split into several sounds.

The principal regular direction of the change – [a]>[?] and [a:]>[?:] – is often referred to as the fronting or palatalisation of [a, a:]. The other directions can be interpreted as positional deviations or restrictions to this trend: short [a] could change to [o]or [a] and long [a:] became [o:] before a nasal; the preservation (or, perhaps, the restoration) of the short [a ] was caused by a back vowel in the next syllable– see the examples in Table 1 (sometimes [a] occurs in other positions as well, e.g. OE macian, land, NE make, land).

Table 1

Splitting of [a] and [a:] in Early Old English

Change illustrated



other OG languages





Gt ?ata

O Iceldagr







Gt mann(a)



O Icel land




Gt magan



Gt dagos







OHG slafen

OHG mano







OI cel mana?r



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