Short vowels

In late Middle English there were six phonemes for short vowels, namely: i, e, a, ɔ, ʊ and ə. In general, short vowels in accented syllables changed little in the transition from ME to EModE. Some vowels, however, changed their pronunciation. (Cf. Hook 1975: 155) The ME high vowel /i/ like in bit or ship was raised to /I/ in Early Modern English. (Cf. Nevalainen 2006: 124) In Present Day English words with this sound usually have spellings with i or y.

Other short vowels like /ɜ/ and /a/ were raised, too. (Cf. Nevalainen 2006: 124) The phoneme /ɜ/ moved up. It has the present- day spelling e as in set or bed. (Cf. Barber 1976: 295) Consequently, this left room for the Middle English /a/ to raise to // after 1500, examples are: bag, that and at. (Cf. Nevalainen 2006: 124) As an exception the raising after /w/ only took place if a velar- a class of sound produced by raising the back of the tongue to the soft palate, i.e. k, g and ŋ- consonant followed as in wax or twang. In some words the /wa/ sequence remained and thus the vowel was raised and retracted to /ɒ/ i.e. was, wand, and water. Further, in words like water, warden and war a subsequent lengthening to /ɔ:/ has taken place. In the 17th century the // was lengthened to /:/ if it was followed by a voiceless fricative, a f, θ, ʃ, s or h. After the 18th century it was lowered to /a:/ in BE, whereas in AmE this vowel remained in words like staff and glass.

Moving on to the back vowels, the low- mid /ɔ/ was lowered; it occurred in words like dog, hot and pot. It became unrounded and changed to /ɒ/ in the late 17th or early 18th century. (Nevalainen 2006: 125)

After the beginning of the 17 century the short /u/ was lowered, centralized and unrounded to /v/ in words like cup, hut or come. This phoneme split into two distinct phonemes: In some phonetic contexts, the vowel /ʊ/ remained rounded, especially when followed by /l/ or when preceded by labials such as /w/, /p/, /b/, or /f/. Examples would be bull, bush or full. In words like cup, cut and dull it was lowered and unrounded to /ʌ/. First, there was still only one phoneme as /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ were in most contexts allophones. In the 17th century /ʊ/ appeared in contexts contrasting /ʌ/ and thus two different phonemes developed. (Cf. Barber 1976: 296) This split took place in the south: The /u:/ sound that had been derived from /o:/ and occurred in words like book, foot or look became shortened to [ʊ] in special contexts. (Cf. Nevalainen 2006: 125) Sometimes this short /ʊ/ could also be found in phonetic contexts in which // also could be found, yielding minimal pairs such as book and buck, look and luck. (Ibid) As a consequence there merged pairs of words like /lʊk/ and /lʌk/. (Cf. Barber 1976: 296)

Further, the ME vowel /ə/ appearing in words like father, first occurred only in unstressed syllables since it had developed out of ME /ɜ/,/a/,/o/, and/ u/ when unstressed by the 15th century. Before /r/ the /ə/ sound retrained like in the word better 'bɜtər → bEtə. In the course of our period, however, it also occurred in stressed positions. (Cf. Barber 1976: 296f)

The unstressed /i/ did not become /ə/; for if one takes into consideration the tendency in the 15th and 16th century for /ə/ to change to /i/ i.e. the morpheme ed or in first syllables in words like before, embark, eleven etc. (Cf. Barber 1976: 297)

Middle EnglishEarly Modern EnglishPDEExamples
[e][ɜ:][e]bed, set
[a][]half, fast, answer[:] when preseding voiceless fricatives and [n] or [s] or [t] → in BE: [ɑ:]hat, man
[ʊ][ʊ][ʊ] when followed by /l/ or when preceded by labials such as /w/, /p/, /b/, or /f/put
[ə][ə]-id, -əd[ə] -idbetter, -ed