Phonology and Sound Changes


What is phonology? Well, it is a way of describing different types of sound. Some of its terms are in common use in English. We've all heard of vowels and consonants. Unfortunately, to understand some of Old English we will need to get a little more complicated than that!

Syllable Types

Firstly, as was discussed above in the section on Orthography, Old English distingushes between short vowels (like the i in Modern English hit) and long vowels (like the ī in Modern English machīne). These terms should present no difficulties, and to help you out, long vowels have been shown by drawing a line (known as a macron) over them. For example, the ā in stān "stone" is a long vowel.

Things get slightly harder when we start discussing syllables, but again, there should be few problems. The word wer "man" contains a short vowel "i", and is a short syllable. Similarly, the word stān contains a long vowel "ā ", and thus, is a long syllable. However, the length of the vowel does not alone govern the length of the syllable, words such as cniht "young man" and cræft "stength" which contain short vowels are nevertheless long syllables. This is because the vowel is followed by two consonants.

When we are talking about complete words they are characterised by the number and length of the syllables that they contain. Further, we only talk about the uninflected stem of the word. Remember that the stem of a word is the part to which the inflexional endings get added. So we get terms like these:

short-stemmed monosyllables
wer, bæc, feoh
long-stemmed monosyllables
stān, cniht
short-stemmed dissyllables
mi-ċel, y-fel (a "-" separates the two syllables)
long-stemmed dissyllables
ē-fel, eng-el (a "-" separates the two syllables)

The length of dissyllables is governed by the longer of the two syllables it contains. That is, if a dissyllabic word contains only short syllables, it is short-stemmed. Whereas if it contains any long syllables it is long-stemmed.

Not all words fall into these categories: there are also some trisyllabic words. For example the words me-to-des and by-si-ġe. The central vowel (o and i respectively) is sometimes called the medial vowel.

Returning to syllables for a moment, there is another kind of distinction that is made between different syllables: whether they are open or closed. What do I mean by open and closed? An open syllable ends with a vowel, but a closed syllable ends in a consonant. Examples of open and closed syllables are:

open syllables
hē, stā-nes (stā- is an open syllable; -nes is a closed syllable)
closed syllables
stān, lim-pan

While the definitions of open and closed are straight-forward enough, a difficulty arises with words like stānes. How should this be split into its two syllables? Try pronouncing it as stān-es and then as stā-nes. Which is more natural? Compare this with the Modern English words stone and sto-ning. Hopefully, you will have (rightly) concluded that stā-nes is the correct split! If you haven't, don't take it too hard: I have real trouble myself.

That about covers the terminology needed for words and syllables. In addition to these terms we will also need terms to cover different types of vowel sounds. However, before we cover the vowel types, let's try a few exercises:

I. VOWELS                 VOWEL LENGTH

wer                       short

āþ                        ____________

þǽr                       ____________

heom                      ____________

hār                       ____________

helm                      ____________


cniht                     long

help                      ____________

ac                        ____________

āc                        ____________

cynn                      ____________

ġear                      ____________


cniht                     closed

hē                        ____________

āþ                        ____________

him                       ____________

seah                      ____________

sēo                       ____________

IV. WORDS                 DESCRIPTION

stān                      long-stemmed monosyllable

word                      ____________________________

spearca                   ____________________________

helm                      ____________________________

guma                      ____________________________

limpan                    ____________________________

scip                      ____________________________

līc                       ____________________________

Vowel Types

Vowels are split into four categories: high, low, front and back vowels. These terms refer to the position of the tongue when saying a particular vowel.

Generally, the position of the tip of the tongue is not important. What matters is the position of the highest part of the tongue. Below is a stylised drawing showing the parts of the mouth:

Figure 1

To see where on this diagram, the vowels should be drawn, try the following experiment:

Done that? Well, you should have noticed the following:

blah, blah

If you didn't follow all that, don't worry. All you really need to know about vowel types is the following summary:

Front          i, y, e, æ
Back           a, o, u
High           i, y, e, o, u
Low            a, æ

Figure 2

Now that we have covered the phonological terminology we need, let's return to a problem I left hanging.

Neuter A-Declension

Remember the little problem with scip and word? Hopefully we can now understand why their endings differ. To recap, remember their endings run:


NOMINATIVE      scip "ship"     word "word"
ACCUSATIVE      scip            word
GENITIVE        scipes          wordes
DATIVE          scipe           worde


NOMINATIVE      scipu           word
ACCUSATIVE      scipu           word
GENITIVE        scipa           worda
DATIVE          scipum          wordum

Notice that they differ only in the Nominative and Accusative plural. Why is this so? Looking at the stems of the two words, you should notice that scip is short-stemmed, and that word is long-stemmed. In fact, this difference is there for all short- and long-stemmed neuter a-nouns.

So we have a rule that long-stemmed neuter a-nouns drop the nominative and accusative plural "-u" endings, as below:

                Short-stemmed   Long-stemmed
SINGULAR        Neuter a-       Neuter a-


In fact the rule is more general than that, but I'll discuss that later. In the mean time, try to decline a few more neuter a- nouns:

            ???             ???            ???            ???

SINGULAR NOMINATIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ ACCUSATIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ GENITIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ DATIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ PLURAL NOMINATIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ ACCUSATIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ GENITIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________ DATIVE ____________ ____________ ____________ ____________

Basic Sound Changes

Many nouns are declined exactly like stān and scip. But some differ in that, while they have perfectly standard inflexional endings, their stem changes.

These stem changes are as a result of what are known as sound laws. These laws are not hard and fast like the law of gravity. Sometimes they operate, and sometimes they don't. Confused? you will be! Ok, let's take the words dæġ (masc.) "day" and fæt (neuter) "vessel" as examples:


NOMINATIVE      dæġ       fæt
ACCUSATIVE      dæġ       fæt
GENITIVE        dæġes     fætes
DATIVE          dæġe      fæte


NOMINATIVE      dagas     fatu
ACCUSATIVE      dagas     fatu
GENITIVE        daga      fata
DATIVE          dagum     fatum

There are a few things that provide us with clues about what is going on:

Now take a closer look at those endings. In the singular, there is either no ending and the word is a single closed syllable (e.g. dæġ) or the ending begins with the front vowel "e", resulting in an open syllable followed by a front vowel (e.g. dæġes). In the plural, the endings all begin with "a" or "u" -- back vowels -- resulting in an open syllable followed by a back vowel (e.g. fatu).

<to do: finish off explanation>

In this particular case there is a simple rule to follow: monosyllabic nouns with "æ" in the singular stem have "a" in the plural stem. However, the there are many more cases where there is no such simple rule and the sound change must be understood.

<to do: add exercises; add vocabulary>

Tony Jebson <> 14th May 2001