Old English phonology

Old English phonology
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Old English

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The phonology of Old English is necessarily somewhat speculative, since it is preserved purely as a written language. Nevertheless, there is a very large corpus of Old English, and the written language apparently indicates phonological alternations quite faithfully, so it is not difficult to draw certain conclusions about the nature of Old English phonology.


Sound inventory

The inventory of surface sounds (whether allophones or phonemes) of Old English is as shown below.


  Labial Dental Alveolar Postalveolar Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal m   n     (ŋ)  
Stop p  b   t  d tʃ  (dʒ)   k  ɡ  
Fricative f  (v) θ  (ð) s  (z) ʃ (ç) (x)  (ɣ) h
Approximant     r[1]   j w  
Lateral     l        

1. ^ The exact nature of Old English r is not known. It may have been an alveolar approximant [ɹ], as in most Modern English accents, an alveolar flap [ɾ], or an alveolar trill [r]. In this article we will use the symbol /r/ indiscriminately to stand for this phoneme.

Consonant allophones

The sounds marked in parentheses in the table above are allophones:

  • [dʒ] is an allophone of /j/ occurring after /n/ and when geminated
    • For example, senġan "to singe" is [sendʒɑn] < *sangijan
    • and bryċġ "bridge" is [bryddʒ] < /bryjj/ < *bruggjō < *bruɣjō
  • [ŋ] is an allophone of /n/ occurring before /k/ and /ɡ/
    • For example, hring "ring" is [r̥iŋɡ]; [ŋ] did not occur alone word-finally in Old English as it does in Modern English.
  • [v, ð, z] are allophones of /f, θ, s/ respectively, occurring between vowels or voiced consonants.
    • For example, stafas "letters" is [stɑvɑs] < /stɑfɑs/, smiþas "blacksmiths" is [smiðɑs] < /smiθɑs/, and hūses "house (genitive)" is [huːzes] < /huːses/.
  • [ç, x] are allophones of /h/ occurring in coda position after front and back vowels respectively. The evidence for the allophone [ç] after front vowels is indirect, as it is not indicated in the orthography. Nevertheless, the fact that there was historically a fronting of *k to /tʃ/ and of to /j/ after front vowels makes it very likely. Moreover, in late Middle English, /x/ sometimes became /f/ (e.g. tough, cough), but only after back vowels, never after front vowels. This is explained if we assume that the allophone [x] sometimes became [f] but the allophone [ç] never did.
    • For example, cniht "boy" is [kniçt], while ġeþōht "thought" is [jeˈθoːxt]
  • The sequences /hw hl hn hr/ were realised as [w̥ l̥ n̥ r̥].
  • [ɣ] is an allophone of /ɡ/ occurring after a vowel or liquid. Historically, [ɣ] is older, and originally appeared in word-initial position as well; for Proto-Germanic (PGmc) and probably the earliest Old English it makes more sense to say that [ɡ] is an allophone of /ɣ/ after a nasal. But after [ɣ] became [ɡ] word-initially, it makes more sense to treat the stop as the basic form and the fricative as the allophonic variant.
    • For example, dagas "days" is [dɑɣɑs] and burgum "castles (dative)" is [burɣum]
  • /l/ and /r/ apparently had velarized allophones [ɫ] and [ɹʷ], or similar, when followed by another consonant. This conclusion is based on the phenomena of breaking and retraction, which appear to be cases of assimilation to a following velar consonant.



Most dialects of Old English had 7 vowels, each with a short and long version, for a total of 14 monophthongs. Certain dialects add an eighth vowel, for a total of 16.

Front Back
unrounded rounded
Close i iː y yː u uː
Mid e eː (ø øː) o oː
Open æ æː ɑ ɑː

The front mid rounded vowels /ø(ː)/ occur in some dialects of Old English, but not in the best attested Late West Saxon dialect. This latter dialect also contained the monophthongization of the ie/īe diphthong to i known as an unstable i (note variant spellings of geliefan and gelifan). The unstable i was then rounded to a y (gelyfan), the only exceptions being those in a proximity to c, g and h (thus is the case with forms like gifan from Early West Saxon giefan). This sound change of the ie diphthong developed alongside the other y resulting from i-mutation. There is also historical evidence suggesting that short /e/ and /o/ were phonetically lower and/or more centralized (perhaps [ɛ] and [ɔ]) than the corresponding long ones.


Old English in the late West Saxon dialect had three diphthongs, each with short and long versions, for a total of 6.

First element is close iy2 iːy
Both elements are mid eo eːo
Both elements are open æɑ æːɑ

2. ^ It is uncertain whether the diphthongs spelt ie/īe were pronounced [i(ː)y] or [i(ː)e]. The fact that this diphthong was merged with /y(ː)/ in many dialects suggests the former.

Distribution of velars and palatals

The pairs /k/~/tʃ/ and /ɡ/~/j/ are almost certainly distinct phonemes synchronically in late West Saxon, the dialect in which the majority of Old English documents are written. This is suggested by such near-minimal pairs as:

  • drincan [driŋkɑn] "to drink" vs. drenċan [drentʃɑn] "to drench"
  • gēs [ɡeːs] "geese" vs. ġē [jeː] "you"

Nevertheless there are very few environments in which both the velars and the palatals can occur; in most environments only one or the other set occurs. Also, the two sets alternate with each other in ways reminiscent of allophones, for example:

  • ċēosan [tʃeːozan] "to choose" vs. curon [kuron] "chose (pl.)"
  • ġēotan [jeːotan] "to pour" vs. guton [ɡuton] "poured (pl.)"

(In the standardized orthography used on this page, c stands for /k/, ċ for /tʃ/, g for /ɡ/ and [ɣ], and ġ for /j/ and [dʒ]. The geminates of these are spelled cc, ċċ, cg, ċġ.)

The best way to explain the distribution of c~ċ and g~ġ is through historical linguistics. The PGmc ancestor of both c and ċ is *k; the ancestor of both g and ġ is . Palatalization of *k to ċ and of to ġ happened in the following environments:

  • before PGmc nonlow front vowels (*i, *ī, *e, *ē, *eu) as well as PGmc *j
    • Examples: ġifþ "(he) gives" < *ɣiβiði, ċīdan "to chide" < *kīðanaN, ċeorl "churl" < *kerlaz, ċēoce "cheek" < *keukōN; non-initially bēċ "books" < *bōkiz, sēċan "seek" < *sōkijanaN, bryċġ "bridge" < *bruɣjō
  • before OE /æ, æː/ < PGmc *a, ā (but not before OE /ɑ, ɑː/ < PGmc *a, ǣ by a-restoration)
    • Examples: ġeaf /jæf/ "gave" < *ɣaβ
  • before OE /æːɑ/ < PGmc *au
    • Examples: ċēas "chose (sg.)" < *kaus, ġēat "poured (sg.)" < *ɣaut, ċēace /tʃæːke/ "cheek" < *kaukōN
  • before OE /æɑ/ < PGmc *a by breaking
    • Examples: ċeald "cold" < *kaldaz, ġeard "yard" < *ɣarðaz
  • after OE /i, iː/, unless a back vowel followed
    • Examples: "I" < PGmc *ik, dīċ "ditch, dike" < PGmc *dīkaz (but wicu "weak")
  • after OE /e, eː/ and /æ, æː/ ( only!), unless a back vowel followed
    • Examples: weġ "way" < PGmc *weɣaz, næġl "nail" < PGmc *naɣlaz, mǣġ "relative" < PGmc *mēɣaz (but wegas "ways")

The velars remained velar, however, before back vowels that underwent i-mutation (umlaut):

  • cyning "king" < *kuningaz
  • gēs "geese" < *ɣōsi < *ɣansiz
  • cemban "to comb" < *kambijanaN

Palatalization was undone before consonants in OE:

  • sēcþ "he seeks" < *sēċþ < *sōkīþi
  • sengþ "he singes" < *senġþ < *sangīþi

The palatalization of PGmc *sk to OE /ʃ/ (spelt ) is much less restricted: word-initially it is found before back vowels and r as well as in the environments where ċ and ġ are found.[1]

  • sċuldor "shoulder" < *skuldrō
  • sċort "short" < *skurtaz
  • sċrūd (mod. "shroud") "dress" < *skrūðaN

Non-initially palatalization to is found before PGmc front vowels and j, and after front vowels in OE, but not before an OE back vowel

  • fisċ "fish" < *fiskaz
  • āscian "ask" < *aiskōnaN

In addition to /j/ from the palatalization of PGmc , Old English also has /j/ from PGmc *j, which could stand before back vowels:

  • ġeong /junɡ/ "young" < PGmc *jungaz
  • ġeoc /jok/ "yoke" < PGmc *jukaN

Many instances where a ċ/c, ġ/g, or sċ/sc alternation would be expected within a paradigm, it was levelled out by analogy at some point in the history of the language. For example, the velar of sēcþ "he seeks" has replaced the palatal of sēċan "to seek" in Modern English; on the other hand, the palatalised forms of besēċan have replaced the velar forms, giving modern beseech.

Phonological processes

A number of phonological processes affected Old English in the period before the earliest documentation. These processes especially affected vowels, and are the reason why many Old English words look significantly different from related words in languages such as Old High German, which is much closer to the common West Germanic ancestor of both languages. The processes took place chronologically in the order described below (with uncertainty in ordering as noted).

Various conventions are used below for describing Old English words, reconstructed parent forms of various sorts, and reconstructed Proto-West-Germanic (PWG), Proto-Germanic (PG) and Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forms:

  • Forms in italic denote either Old English words as they appear in spelling, or reconstructed forms of various sorts. Where phonemic ambiguity occurs in Old English spelling, extra diacritics are used (ċ, ġ, ā, ǣ, ē, ī, ō, ū, ȳ).
  • Forms between /slashes/ or [brackets] indicate, respectively, broad (phonemic) or narrow (allophonic) pronunciation. Sounds are indicated using standard IPA notation.
  • Long vowels appear as e.g. ō but /oː/.
  • Nasal vowels appear as e.g. oN but /õ/.
  • Overlong vowels appear as e.g. ô but /oːː/.
  • Nasal overlong vowels appear as e.g. ôN but /õːː/.
  • "Long" diphthongs appear as e.g. ēa but /æa/.
  • "Short" diphthongs appear as e.g. ea but /æ̆ă/, [æ̆ɑ̆].
  • Velar /k/ appears c in old English spelling and sometimes in reconstructed intermediate forms, but k elsewhere.

A-fronting ("Anglo-Frisian brightening"), part 1

The Anglo-Frisian languages underwent a sound change in their development from Proto-West Germanic by which ā [ɑː], unless followed by /n, m/ or nasalized, was fronted to ǣ [æː]. This is part of a process known in the literature as Anglo-Frisian brightening. Note that nasalized āN was unaffected, and was later raised to ōN (see below). Similarly, the sequences ān, ām were unaffected and later raised to ōn, ōm. (It can be assumed, therefore, that a nasal consonant n, m caused a preceding long vowel to nasalize.)

Monophthongization of /ai/

Proto-Germanic /ai/ was monophthongized to /aː/ ([ɑː]). This occurred after the fronting of West Germanic [ɑː] to [æː] by Anglo-Frisian brightening. Examples are numerous, e.g. stān "stone" ← Proto-Germanic *stainaz (cf. Old Frisian stēn vs. Gothic stáin, Old High German stein). In many cases the resulting [ɑː] was later fronted to [æː] by i-mutation, e.g. dǣlan "to divide" (cf. Old Frisian dēla vs. Gothic dáiljan, Old High German teilen).

A-fronting ("Anglo-Frisian brightening"), part 2

Part two of a-fronting (or "Anglo-Frisian brightening") is very similar to part one except that it affects short a [ɑ] instead of long ā [ɑː]. a [ɑ] is fronted to æ [æ] unless followed by /n, m/ or nasalized — the same conditions as applied in part one.

See a-restoration below for examples.

Importantly, a-fronting was blocked by n, m only in stressed syllables, not unstressed syllables. This accounts for forms like ġefen (archaic ġefæn) "given" from Proto-Germanic *gebanaz. However, the infinitive ġefan retains its back vowel because it was followed by a nasal vowel in Proto-Germanic, which blocked the fronting: *gebanaN. This provides evidence that the fronting occurred before the loss of final -aN, which occurred before the earliest written records of any West Germanic language.

Diphthong height harmonization

Diphthongs in most languages are of the "closing" type, where the second segment is higher (if possible) than the first, e.g. Modern English /ai, au, oi, ei, ou/. Proto-Germanic likewise had /ai, au, eu/ and [iu] ([iu] was an allophone of /eu/ when an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable). Old English, however, had unusual "harmonic" diphthongs, where both segments were of the same height: ea /æɑ/, eo, /eo/, io /iu/, ie /iy/. Note that all of these diphthongs could occur both short (monomoraic), i.e. /æ̆ă, ĕŏ, ĭŭ, ĭy̆/, and long (bimoraic), i.e. /æa, eo, iu, iy/. Note also that the spelling of the diphthongs differs somewhat from their assumed pronunciation. The interpretations ea /æa/ and eo /eo/ are generally accepted (evidence for the former comes from various sources, e.g. the behavior of breaking and back mutation [see below]) and the Middle English development of ea into the short low-central vowel /a/). However, the interpretations io /iu/ and especially ie /iy/ are controversial, with many (especially more traditional) sources assuming that the pronunciation matched the spelling, i.e. io /io/ and ie /ie/ — that is, these diphthongs were of the "opening" rather than harmonic type.

The process that produced harmonic diphthongs from earlier closing diphthongs is called diphthong height harmonization. Specifically, the second segment of a diphthong was changed to be the same height as the first segment. Proto-Germanic diphthongs were affected as follows:

  • /ai/ [ɑi] had earlier been monophthongized to /aː/ ([ɑː]).
  • /au/ [ɑu] was fronted by a-fronting (aka Anglo-Frisian brightening) to /æu/, and then harmonized to /æɑ/, spelled ea
  • /eu/ [eu] was harmonized to eo /eo/
  • [iu] was already harmonic; it became phonemic, and remained as io /iu/ (this interpretation is somewhat controversial; see above)

Note that the remaining Old English diphthongs were due to other processes, such as breaking, back mutation and i-mutation.

Late in the development of the standard West Saxon dialect, io (both long and short) became eo, merging with existing eo. This is in fact one of the most noticeable differences between early Old English (c. 900 AD) and late Old English (c. 1000 AD).

Breaking and retraction

Breaking in Old English is the diphthongization of the short front vowels /i, e, æ/ to short (monomoraic) /ĭŭ, ĕŏ, æ̆ɑ̆/ when followed by /h/ or by /r/ or /l/ plus another consonant. Long ī, ǣ similarly broke to iu, ea, but only when followed by /h/. Note that /l/ in coda position has a velar quality (the "dark l" allomorph on present-day English all, cold), and is therefore indicated as [ɫ]. The geminates rr and ll usually count as r or l plus another consonant, although ll produced by West Germanic gemination doesn't count. (More correctly, /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable prevents breaking from occurring.)

Note that /ĭŭ, iu/ were lowered to /ĕŏ, eo/ in late Old English (see above).

The exact conditions for breaking vary somewhat depending on the sound being broken:

  • Short /æ/ breaks before h, rC, lC, where C is any consonant.
  • Short /e/ breaks before h, rC, lh, lc, w, i.e. compared to /æ/ it's also broken before w, but is broken before l only in the combination lh and sometimes lc.
  • Short /i/ breaks before h, rC, w. However, breaking before wi does not happen, and in the Anglian dialect breaking before rCi happens only in the combination *rzi (e.g. Anglian iorre "anger" from *irzijaN but afirran from *a+firrijanaN).
  • Long ī and ǣ break only before h.


  • weorpan [wĕŏrpɑn] "to throw" < */werpan/
  • wearp [wæ̆ɑ̆rp] "threw (sing.)" < */wærp/
  • feoh [fĕŏx] "money" < */feh/
  • feaht [fæ̆ăxt] "fought (sing.)" < */fæht/
  • healp [hæ̆ăɫp] "helped (sing.)" < */hælp/ (but no breaking in helpan "to help" because the consonant after /l/ is not /h/)
  • feorr [fĕŏrr] "far" < */ferr/
  • feallan [fæ̆ɑ̆llɑn] "to fall" < */fællan/ (but tellan < earlier */tælljan/ is not broken because of the following /j/)
  • eolh [ĕŏɫx] "elk" < */elh/
  • liornian, leornian [lĭŭrniɑn], [lĕŏrniɑn] "to learn" < earlier */lirnoːjan/
  • nēah "near" [næːɑx] (cf. "nigh") < */næːh/
  • lēon "to lend" [leon] (cf. "nigh") < */liun/ < */liuhan/ < */liːhan/

The i-mutation of broken /iu, eo, æa/ (whether long or short) is spelled ie (possibly /iy/, see above).


  • hwierfþ "turns" (intr.) < /hwĭŭrfiθ/ + i-mutation < /hwirfiθ/ + breaking < Proto-Germanic *hwirbiþi < early Proto-Germanic *hwerbiþi
  • hwierfan "to turn" (tr.) < /hwæ̆ărfijan/ + i-mutation < /hwærfijan/ + breaking < /hwarfijan/ + a-fronting < Proto-Germanic *hwarbijanaN
  • nīehst "nearest" (cf. "next") < /næahist/ + i-mutation < /næːhist/ + breaking < /naːhist/ + a-fronting < Proto-Germanic *nēhist
  • līehtan "to lighten" < /liuhtijan/ + i-mutation < /liːhtijan/ + breaking < Proto-Germanic *līhtijanaN

Note that in some dialects /æ/ was backed (retracted) to /a/ (/ɑ/) rather than broken, when occurring in the circumstances described above that would normally trigger breaking. This happened in the dialect of Anglia that partially underlies Modern English, and explains why Old English ceald appears as Modern English "cold" (actually from Anglian Old English cald) rather than "*cheald" (the expected result of ceald).

Both breaking and retraction are fundamentally phenomena of assimilation to a following velar consonant. Note that /w/ is in fact a velar consonant, while /h/, /l/, and /r/ are less obviously so. It is therefore assumed that, at least at the time of the occurrence of breaking and retraction, /h/ was pronounced [x] or similar — at least when following a vowel — and /l/ and /r/ before a consonant had a velar or retroflex quality and were pronounced [ɫ] and [ɹ], or similar. Breaking and retraction occurred several hundred years before recorded Old English. However, based on evidence from Middle and Modern English, it is assumed that /l/ and /r/ maintained the same velar/retroflex allophones in the same contexts into recorded Old English. As for /h/, the later changes of h-loss and palatalization indicate that some changes occurred in the allophones of /h/; see above.


After breaking occurred, short /æ/ (and in some dialects long /æː/ as well), was backed to /a/ (/ɑ/) when there was a back vowel in the following syllable. This is called "a-restoration" because it partly restored original /a/, which had earlier been fronted to /æ/ (see above). (Note: The situation is complicated by a later change in some dialects called "Second Fronting" that fronted short restored /a/ to /æ/ for the second time, while raising /æ/ to /e/. This did not affect the standard West Saxon dialect of Old English.)

Because strong masculine and neuter nouns have back vowels in the plural, alternations like /æ/ in the singular vs. /a/ in the plural are common in this noun class:

/æ/~/a/ alternation in masculine and neuter strong nouns
Case Masculine Neuter
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative dæġ dagas fæt fatu
Accusative dæġ dagas fæt fatu
Genitive dæġes daga fætes fata
Dative dæġe dagum fæte fatum

A-restoration occurred before the *ō of the weak verb suffix *-ōj-, although this surfaces in Old English as the front vowel i, as in macian "to make" < *makōjan-.

Breaking (see above) occurred between a-fronting and a-restoration. This order is necessary to account for words like slēan "to slay" (actually pronounced /slæɑn/) from original *slahan: /slahan/ > /slæhan/ (a-fronting) > /slæ̆ɑ̆hɑn/ (breaking; inhibits a-restoration) > /slæ̆ɑ̆ɑn/ (h-loss) > /slæɑn/ (vowel coalescence, compensatory lengthening).

A-restoration interacted in a tricky fashion with a-fronting (Anglo-Frisian brightening) to produce e.g. brecan "to break" from Proto-Germanic *brekanaN but brecen "broken" from Proto-Germanic *brekanaz. Basically:

Step "to break" "broken" Reason
1 /brekanaN/ /brekanaz/ original form
2 /brekanaN/ /brekana/ loss of final z
3 /brekænaN/ /brekænæ/ Anglo-Frisian brightening
4 /brekanaN/ /brekænæ/ a-restoration
5 /brekan/ /brekæn/ loss of final short vowels
6 /brekan/ /breken/ collapse of unstressed short front vowels to /e/
7 brecan brecen spelled normally

Note that the key difference is in steps 3 and 4, where nasalized aN is unaffected by a-fronting even though the sequence an is in fact affected, since it occurs in an unstressed syllable. This leads to a final-syllable difference between a and æ, which is transferred to the preceding syllable in step 4.


Palatalization of velars occurred before, and sometimes after, front vowels. This occurred after a-restoration and before i-mutation, but it is unclear whether it occurred before or after h-loss. Thus, it did not occur in galan "to sing" (cf. modern English "regale"), with the first /a/ backed from /æ/ due to a-restoration. Nor did it occur in cyning "king", with front /y/ developed from /u/ due to i-mutation.

The exact circumstances in which palatalization occurred are complicated; see the above section on the distribution of velars and palatals for more information.

Second fronting

Second fronting fronted /a/ to /æ/, and /æ/ to /e/, later than related processes of a-fronting and a-restoration. Second fronting did not affect the standard West Saxon dialect. In fact, it took place only in a relatively small section of the area (English Midlands) where the Mercian dialect was spoken. Mercian itself was a subdialect of the Anglian dialect (which includes all of Central and Northern England).

Palatal diphthongization

The vowels ie/īe and ea/ēa generally occur in Old English after ċ, ġ, where the vowels e/ē and æ/ǣ would be expected.


  • sċieran "to cut", sċear "cut (past sing.)", sċēaron "cut (past pl.)", which belongs to the same conjugation class (IV) as beran "to carry", bær "carried (sing.)", bǣron "carried (pl.)"
  • ġiefan "to give", ġeaf "gave (sing.)", ġēafon "gave (pl.)", ġiefen "given", which belongs to the same conjugation class (V) as tredan "to tread", træd "trod (sing.)", trǣdon "trod (pl.)", treden "trodden"

A similar process produces eo in place of o or u, and ea in place of a, when following ċ, ġ, :

  • *ġung > ġeong "young" (cf. German jung)
  • *sċolde > sċeolde "should" (cf. German sollte)
  • *sċadu > *sċeadu "shadow" (cf. Dutch schaduw)

It is generally agreed that the second process (affecting a, o, u) is purely an orthographic convention, i.e. the vowels continued to be pronounced a, o, u despite their spelling as diphthongs. Evidence from this comes from Middle and Modern English. For example, if ġeong and sċeolde were really pronounced as written, they should appear in Modern English as *yeng and *shield instead of young and should.

The traditional view of the first process (e.g. Campbell 1959, Mitchell and Robinson 2001) is that the vowels e/ē and æ/ǣ were actually diphthongized in this position.

A minority view (e.g. Lass 1994) is that this phenomenon is purely orthographic, and that no diphthongization took place. Under this view, the words listed above have the following pronunciations:

  • sċieran [ʃerɑn]
  • sċear [ʃær]
  • sċēaron [ʃæːron]
  • ġiefan [jevɑn]
  • ġeaf [jæf]
  • ġēafon [jæːvon]
  • ġiefen [jeven]

The main arguments in favor of this view are the fact that the corresponding process involving back vowels is indeed purely orthographic, and that diphthongizations like /æ/[æɑ] and /e/[iy] (if this is the correct interpretation of orthographic ie) are phonetically unmotivated in the context of a preceding palatal or postalveolar consonant.

It is disputed whether there is Middle English evidence of the reality of this change in Old English.

Metathesis of r

Original sequences of an r followed by a short vowel metathesized, with the vowel and r switching places. This normally only occurred when the next following consonant was s or n, and sometimes d.

  • Before s: berstan "to burst" (Swedish brista), gærs "grass" (Gothic gras), þerscan "to thresh"(Gothic þriskan)
  • Before n: byrnan ~ beornan "to burn (intrans)" (Gothic brinnan), irnan "to run" (Gothic rinnan), īren "iron" (< *īsren < īsern; Gothic eisarn), wærna "wren" (Icelandic rindill), ærn "house" (Gothic razn)
  • Before d: þirda "third" (Gothic þridja), Northumbrian bird "chick, nestling" (standard bryd)

Not all potential words to which metathesis can apply are actually affected, and many of the above words also appear in their unmetathesized form (e.g. græs "grass", rinnan "to run", wrenna "wren", rare forms brustæn "burst (past part.)", þrescenne "to thresh", onbran "set fire to (past)", īsern "iron", ren- "house", þridda "third"; briddes "birds" in Chaucer). Note also that many of the words have come down to Modern English in their unmetathesized forms.

Metathesis in the other direction occasionally occurs before ht, e.g. wrohte "worked" (cf. obsolescent wrought; Gothic wurhta), Northumbrian breht ~ bryht "bright" (Gothic baírhts), fryhto "fright" (Gothic faúrhtei), wryhta "maker" (cf. wright; Old Saxon wurhtio). Unmetathesized forms of all of these words also occur in Old English. The phenomenon occurred in most Germanic languages.

I-mutation (i-umlaut)

See i-mutation in Old English.

Anglian smoothing

In the Anglian (i.e. Mercian and Northumbrian) dialects of Old English, a process called smoothing undid many of the effects of breaking. In particular, before a velar (/h/, /g/, /k/) or before an /r/ or /l/ followed by a velar, diphthongs were reduced to monophthongs. Note that the context for smoothing is similar to the context for the earlier process of breaking that produced many of the diphthongs in the first place. In particular:

  • ea > æ before a velar, e before /r/ or /l/ + velar
  • ēa > ē
  • eo > e
  • ēo > ē
  • io > i
  • īo > ī

This change preceded h-loss and vowel assimilation.

Note also that the diphthongs ie and īe did not exist in Anglian (or in fact in any dialect other than West Saxon).


In the same contexts where the voiceless fricatives /f, θ, s/ become voiced, i.e. between vowels and between a voiced consonant and a vowel, /h/ is lost, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel if it is short. This occurs after breaking; hence breaking before /rh/ and /lh/ takes place regardless of whether the /h/ is lost by this rule. An unstressed short vowel is absorbed into the preceding long vowel.


  • sċōs "shoe" (gen.) < /ʃoːes/ < /ʃoːhes/, cf. sċōh (nom.)
  • fēos "money" (gen.) < /feoes/ < /fĕŏhes/ < /fehes/, cf. feoh (nom.)
  • wēalas "foreigners, Welsh people" < /wæ̆ălhas/ < /wælhas/, cf. wealh (sing.)

Vowel assimilation

Two vowels that occurred in hiatus (i.e. next to each other, with no consonant separating) collapsed into a single long vowel. Many occurrences were due to h-loss, but some came from other sources, e.g. loss of /j/ or /w/ after a front vowel. (Loss of /j/ occurred early, in Proto-Germanic times. Loss of /w/ occurred later, after i-umlaut.) If the first vowel was e or i (long or short), and the second vowel was a back vowel, a diphthong resulted. Examples:

  • sċōs "shoe" (gen.) < Proto-Germanic *skōhas (see under h-loss)
  • fēos "money" (gen.) < Proto-Germanic *fehas (see under h-loss)
  • frēond "friend" < frīond < Proto-Germanic *frijōndz (two syllables, cf. Gothic frijōnds)
  • sǣm "sea" (dat. pl.) < sǣum < *sǣwum < *sǣwimiz < Proto-Germanic *saiwimiz

Back mutation

Back mutation (sometimes back umlaut, guttural umlaut or u-umlaut) is a change that took place in late prehistoric Old English and caused short e, i and sometimes a to break into a diphthong (eo, io, ea respectively, similar to breaking) when a back vowel (u, o, ō, a) occurred in the following syllable. Examples:

  • seofon "seven" < *sebun (cf. Gothic sibun)
  • heol(o)stor "hiding place, cover" < earlier helustr < *hulestr < *hulistran (cf. Gothic hulistr)
  • eofor "boar" < *eburaz (cf. Old High German ebur)
  • heorot "hart" < *herutaz (cf. Old High German hiruz)
  • mioluc, meoluc "milk" < *melukz (cf. Gothic miluks)
  • liofast, leofast "you (sg.) live" < *libast
  • ealu "ale" < *aluþ

Note that io turned into eo in late Old English.

A number of restrictions governed whether back mutation took place:

  • Generally it only took place when a single consonant followed the vowel being broken.
  • In the standard West Saxon dialect, back mutation only took place before labials (f, b, w) and liquids (l, r). In the Anglian dialect, it took place before all consonants except c, g (Anglian meodu "mead", eosol "donkey" vs. West Saxon medu, esol). In the Kentish dialect, it took place before all consonants (Kentish breogo "price" vs. West Saxon, Anglian bregu, brego).
  • Back mutation of a normally took place only in the Mercian subdialect of the Anglian dialect. Standard ealu "ale" is a borrowing from Mercian. Similar borrowings are poetic beadu "battle" and eafora "son, heir", cf. Gothic afar (many poetic words were borrowed from Mercian). On the other hand, standard bealu "evil" (arch. bale) and bearu "grove" owe their ea due to breaking — their forms at the time of breaking were *balwaN, *barwaz, and the genitive singulars in Old English are bealwes, bearwes.

Palatal umlaut

Palatal umlaut is a process whereby short e, eo, io appear as i (occasionally ie) before final ht, hs, hþ. Examples:

  • riht "right" (cf. German recht)
  • cniht "boy" (mod. knight) (cf. German Knecht)
  • siex "six" (cf. German sechs)
  • briht, bryht "bright" (cf. non-metathesized Old English forms beorht, (Anglian) berht, Dutch brecht)
  • hlihþ "(he) laughs" < *hlehþ < *hlæhiþ + i-mutation < Proto-Germanic *hlahiþ (cf. hliehhan "to laugh" < Proto-Germanic *hlahjanaN)


As noted in the main page on Old English, there were four major dialect groups in Old English: West Saxon, Mercian, Northumbrian, and Kentish. West Saxon and Kentish occurred in the south, approximately to the south of the Thames river. Mercian constituted the middle section of the country, divided from the southern dialects by the Thames and from Northumbrian by the Humber river. In the south, the easternmost portion was Kentish and everywhere else was West Saxon. Mercian and Northumbrian are often grouped together as "Anglian".

The biggest differences occurred between West Saxon and the other groups. The differences occurred mostly in the front vowels, and particularly the diphthongs. (However, Northumbrian was distinguished from the rest by much less palatalization. Forms in Modern English with hard /k/ and /g/ were a palatalized sound would be expected from Old English are due either to Northumbrian influence or to direct borrowing from Scandinavian. Note that, in fact, the lack of palatalization in Northumbrian was probably due to heavy Scandinavian influence.)

The early history of Kentish was similar to Anglian, but sometime around the ninth century all of the front vowels æ, e, y (long and short) merged into e (long and short). The further discussion concerns the differences between Anglian and West Saxon, with the understanding that Kentish, other than where noted, can be derived from Anglian by front-vowel merger. The primary differences were:

  • Original (post Anglo-Frisian brightening) ǣ was raised to ē in Anglian but remained in West Saxon. This occurred before other changes such as breaking, and did not affect ǣ caused by i-umlaut of ā. Hence, e.g., dǣlan "to divide" < *dailijan appears the same in both dialects, but West Saxon slǣpan "to sleep" appears as slēpan in Anglian. (Note the corresponding vowel difference in the spelling of "deal" < dǣlan vs. "sleep" < Anglian slēpan.)
  • The West Saxon vowels ie/īe, caused by i-umlaut of long and short ea,eo,io, did not appear in Anglian. Instead, i-umlaut of ea and rare eo is spelled e, and i-umlaut of io remains as io.
  • Breaking of short /æ/ to ea did not happen in Anglian before /l/+consonant; instead, the vowel was retracted to /a/. When mutated by i-umlaut, it appears again as æ (vs. West Saxon ie). Hence, Anglian cald "cold" vs. West Saxon ċeald.
  • Merger of eo and io (long and short) occurred early in West Saxon, but much later in Anglian.
  • Many instances of diphthongs in Anglian, including the majority of cases caused by breaking, were turned back into monophthongs again by the process of "Anglian smoothing", which occurred before c,h,g, alone or preceded by r or l. This accounts for some of the most noticeable differences between standard (i.e. West Saxon) Old English and Modern English spelling. E.g. ēage "eye" became ēge in Anglian; nēah "near" became Anglian nēh, later raised to nīh in the transition to Middle English by raising of ē before h (hence "nigh" in Modern English); nēahst "nearest" become Anglian nēhst, shortened to nehst in late Old English by vowel-shortening before three consonants (hence "next" in Modern English).

As mentioned above, Modern English derives mostly from the Anglian dialect rather than the standard West Saxon dialect of Old English. However, since London sits on the Thames near the boundary of the Anglian, West Saxon, and Kentish dialects, some West Saxon and Kentish forms have entered Modern English. For example, "bury" has its spelling derived from West Saxon and its pronunciation from Kentish (see below).

Changes leading up to Middle and Modern English

For a detailed description of the changes between Old English and Middle/Modern English, see the article on the phonological history of English. A summary of the main vowel changes is presented below. Note that the spelling of Modern English largely reflects Middle English pronunciation. Note also that this table presents only the general developments. Many exceptional outcomes occurred in particular environments, e.g. vowels were often lengthened in late Old English before /ld/, /nd/, /mb/; vowels changed in complex ways before /r/, throughout the history of English; vowels were diphthongized in Middle English before /h/; new diphthongs arose in Middle English by the combination of vowels with Old English w, g /ɣ/ > /w/, and ġ /j/; etc. The only conditional development considered in detail below is Middle English open-syllable lengthening. Note that, in the column on modern spelling, CV means a sequence of a single consonant followed by a vowel.

NOTE: In this table, abbreviations are used as follows:

  • leng. = lengthened by open-syllable lengthening
  • occ. = occasionally
  • superl. = superlative
  • > = produces by regular sound change
  • >> = produces by analogy or irregular change
Late Old English (Anglian), c. 1000 Middle English pronunciation, c. 1400 Modern English spelling, c. 1500 Early Modern English pronunciation, c. 1600 Modern English pronunciation, c. 2000 Source Example
a; æ; ea; ā+CC; often ǣ+CC,ēa+CC; occ. ē+CC (WS ǣ+CC) /a/ a /a/ /æ/ OE a OE mann > "man"; OE lamb > "lamb"; OE sang > "sang"; OE sacc > "sack"; OE assa > "ass" (donkey)
OE æ OE fæþm "embrace" > "fathom"; OE sæt > "sat"; OE æt > "at"; OE mæsse > "mass" (at church)
OE ea OE weax > "wax"; OE healf > "half" /hæf/
OE +CC OE fǣtt > "fat"; OE lǣstan > "to last"; OE blēddre (WS blǣddre) > "bladder"; OE brēmbel (WS brǣmbel) > "bramble"
(w+, not +g,ck,ng,nk) GA /ɑ/, RP /ɒ/ OE a OE swan > "swan"; OE wasċan > "to wash"; OE wann "dark" > "wan"
OE æ OE swæþ > "swath"
OE ea OE wealwian > "to wallow"
(+r) /ar/ > GA /ɑr/, RP /ɑː/ OE heard > "hard"
(w+ and +r) /ɔr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE ea OE swearm > "swarm"; OE sweart > old poetic "swart" >> "swarthy"; OE weardian > "to ward"; OE wearm > "warm"; OE wearnian > "to warn"
(+lC,l#) /ɔː/ OE smæl > "small"; OE all (WS eall) > "all"; OE walcian (WS wealcian) "to roll" > "to walk"
(+lm) GA /ɑ/, RP /ɑː/ OE ælmesse > "alms"; Latin palma > OE palm > "palm"
(RP, often +f,s,th) /ɑː/ OE glæs > "glass"; OE græs > "grass"; OE pæþ > "path"; OE æfter > "after"; OE āscian > "to ask"
(leng.) /aː/ [æː] aCV /ɛː/ /eː/ > /ei/ OE a OE nama > "name"; OE nacod > "naked"; OE bacan > "to bake"
OE æ OE æcer > "acre"; OE hwæl > "whale"; OE hræfn > "raven"
(+r) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE a OE caru > "care"; OE faran > "to fare"; OE starian > "to stare"
e; eo; occ. y; ē+CC; ēo+CC; occ. ǣ+CC,ēa+CC /e/ e /ɛ/ /ɛ/ OE e OE helpan > "to help"; OE elh (WS eolh) > "elk"; OE tellan > "to tell"; OE betera > "better"; OE streċċan > "to stretch"
OE eo OE seofon > "seven"
OE y OE myriġ > "merry"; OE byrġan > "to bury" /bɛri/; OE lyft- "weak" > "left" (hand)
OE +CC OE cēpte > "kept"; OE mētte > "met"; OE bēcnan (WS bīecnan) > "to beckon"; OE clǣnsian > "to cleanse"; OE flǣsċ > "flesh"; OE lǣssa > "less"; OE frēond > "friend" /frɛnd/; OE þēofþ (WS þīefþ) > "theft"; OE hēold > "held"
(+r) ar /ar/ GA /ɑr/, RP /ɑː/ OE heorte > "heart"; OE bercan (WS beorcan) > "to bark"; OE teoru (WS teru) > "tar"; OE steorra > "star"; OE erc (WS earc) > "ark"
(w+ and +r) /ɔr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ AN werra > "war"; AN werbler > "to warble"
(occ. +r) er /ɛr/ /ər/ > GA /ər/, RP /ɜː/ OE e OE sterne (WS stierne, styrne) > "stern"
OE eo OE eorl > "earl"; OE eorþe > "earth"; OE liornian, leornian > "to learn"
OE +CC OE hērde (WS hīerde) > "heard"
(leng.) /ɛː/ ea,eCV /eː/ /iː/ OE specan > "to speak"; OE mete > "meat"; OE meotan (WS metan) > "to mete" /miːt/; OE eotan (WS etan) > "to eat"; OE meodu (WS medu) > "mead"
(+r) /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE spere > "spear"; OE mere > "mere" (lake)
(occ.) /ei/ OE brecan > "to break" /breik/
(occ. +r) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE beoran (WS beran) > "to bear"; OE pere, peru > "pear"; OE swerian > "to swear"; OE wer "man" > "were-"
(often +th,d,t,v) /ɛ/ OE leþer > "leather" /lɛðɚ/; OE stede > "stead"; OE weder > "weather"; OE heofon > "heaven"; OE hefiġ > "heavy"
i; y; ī+CC,ȳ+CC; occ. ēoc,ēc; occ. ī+CV,ȳ+CV /i/ i /ɪ/ /ɪ/ OE i OE writen > "written"; OE sittan > "to sit"; OE dyde > "did"; OE fisċ > "fish"; OE lifer > "liver"
OE y OE bryċġ > "bridge"; OE cyssan > "to kiss"; OE synn > "sin"; OE gyldan > "to gild"; OE bysiġ > "busy" /bɪzi/
OE +CC OE wīsdōm > "wisdom"; OE fīftiġ > "fifty"; OE wȳsċan > "to wish"; OE cȳþþ(u) > "kith"; OE fȳst > "fist"
OE ȳ+CV,ī+CV OE ċīcen > "chicken"; OE lȳtel > "little"
OE ēoc,ēc OE sēoc > "sick"; OE wēoce > "wick"; OE ēc + nama >> "nickname"
(+r) /ər/ > GA /ər/, RP /ɜː/ OE gyrdan > "to gird"; OE fyrst > "first"; OE styrian > "to stir"
(leng. — occ.) /eː/ ee /iː/ /iː/ OE wicu > "week"; OE pilian > "to peel"; OE bitela > "beetle"
o; ō+CC /o/ o /ɔ/ GA /ɑ/, RP /ɒ/ OE o (o) OE god > "god"; OE beġeondan > "beyond"
OE +CC OE gōdspell > "gospel"; OE fōddor > "fodder"; OE fōstrian > "to foster"
(GA, +f,s,th,g,ng) /ɔː/ OE moþþe > "moth"; OE cros > "cross"; OE frost > "frost"; OE of > "off"; OE oft > "oft"; OE sōfte > "soft"
(+r) /ɔr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE corn > "corn"; OE storc > "storc"; OE storm > "storm"
(leng.) /ɔː/ oa,oCV /oː/ GA /ou/, RP /əu/ OE fola > "foal"; OE nosu > "nose"; OE ofer > "over"
(+r) /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE borian > "to bore"; OE fore > "fore"; OE bord > "board"
u; occ. y; ū+CC; w+ e,eo,o,y +r /u/ u,o /ʊ/ /ʌ/ OE u OE bucc > "buck" /bʌk/; OE lufian > "to love" /lʌv/; OE uppe > "up"; OE on bufan > "above"
OE y OE myċel >> "much"; OE blysċan > "to blush"; OE cyċġel > "cudgel"; OE clyċċan > "to clutch"; OE sċytel > "shuttle"
OE +CC OE dūst > "dust"; OE tūsc > "tusk"; OE rūst > "rust"
(b,f,p+ and +l,sh) /ʊ/ OE full > "full" /fʊl/; OE bula > "bull"; OE bysċ > "bush"
(+r) /ər/ > GA /ər/, RP /ɜː/ OE u OE spurnan > "to spurn"
OE y OE ċyriċe > "church"; OE byrþen > "burden"; OE hyrdel > "hurdle"
OE w+,+r OE word > "word"; OE werc (WS weorc) > "work"; OE werold > "world"; OE wyrm > "worm"; OE wersa (WS wiersa) > "worse"; OE weorþ > "worth"
(leng. — occ.) /oː/ oo /uː/ /uː/ OE guma >> "groom"
(+r) /uːr/ > /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE duru > "door"
(often +th,d,t) /ʌ/  ?
(occ. +th,d,t) /ʊ/ OE wudu > "wood" /wʊd/
ā; often a+ld,mb /ɔː/ oa,oCV /oː/ GA /ou/, RP /əu/ OE ā OE āc > "oak"; OE hāl > "whole"
OE +ld,mb OE camb > "comb"; OE ald (WS eald) > "old"; OE haldan (WS healdan) > "to hold"
(+r) /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE ār > "oar", "ore"; OE māra > "more"; OE bār > "boar"; OE sār > "sore"
ǣ; ēa /ɛː/ ea,eCV /eː/ /iː/ OE ǣ OE hǣlan > "to heal" /hiːl/; OE hǣtu > "heat"; OE hwǣte > "wheat"
OE ēa OE bēatan > "to beat" /biːt/; OE lēaf > "leaf"; OE ċēap > "cheap"
(+r) /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE rǣran > "to rear" ; OE ēare > "ear"; OE sēar > "sere"; OE sēarian > "to sear"
(occ.) /ei/ OE grēat > "great" /greit/
(occ. +r) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE ǣr > "ere" (before)
(often +th,d,t) /ɛ/ OE ǣ OE brǣþ "odor" > "breath"; OE swǣtan > "to sweat"; OE -sprǣdan > "to spread"
OE ēa OE dēad > "dead" /dɛd/; OE dēaþ "death"; OE þrēat "menace" > "threat"; OE rēad > "red"; OE dēaf > "deaf"
ē; ēo; often e+ld /eː/ ee,ie(nd/ld) /iː/ /iː/ OE ē OE fēdan > "to feed"; OE grēdiġ (WS grǣdiġ) > "greedy"; OE > "me"; OE fēt > "feet"; OE dēd (WS dǣd) > "deed"; OE nēdl (WS nǣdl) > "needle"
OE ēo OE dēop "deep"; OE fēond > "fiend"; OE betwēonum > "between"; OE bēon > "to be"
OE +ld OE feld > "field"; OE ġeldan (WS ġieldan) "to pay" > "to yield"
(often +r) /ɛːr/ ear,erV /eːr/ /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE ē OE hēr > "here"; OE hēran (WS hīeran) > "to hear"; OE fēr (WS fǣr) > "fear"
OE ēo OE dēore (WS dīere) > "dear"
(occ.) /eːr/ > GA /ɛr/, RP /ɛə/ OE þēr (WS þǣr) > "there"; OE hwēr (WS hwǣr) > "where"
(occ. +r) /eːr/ eer /iːr/ /iːr/ > GA /ɪr/, RP /ɪə/ OE bēor > "beer"; OE dēor > "deer"; OE stēran (WS stīeran) > "to steer"; OE bēr (WS bǣr) > "bier"
ī; ȳ; often i+ld,mb,nd; often y+ld,mb,nd /iː/ i,iCV /əi/ /ai/ OE ī OE rīdan > "to ride"
OE ȳ OE mȳs > "mice"
OE +ld,mb,nd OE findan > "to find"; OE ċild > "child"; OE climban > "to climb"; OE mynd > "mind"
(+r) /air/ > GA /air/, RP /aiə/ OE fȳr > "fire"; OE hȳrian > "to hire"; OE wīr > "wire"
ō; occ. ēo /oː/ oo /u:/ /u:/ OE ō OE mōna > "moon"; OE sōna > "soon"; OE fōd > "food" /fuːd/; OE dōn > "to do"
OE ēo OE cēosan > "to choose"; OE sċēotan > "to shoot"
(+r) /uːr/ > /oːr/ > GA /ɔr/, RP /ɔː/ OE flōr > "floor"; OE mōr > "moor"
(occ. +th,d,v) /ʌ/ OE blōd > "blood" /blʌd/; OE mōdor > "mother" /mʌðə(r)/; OE glōf > "glove" /glʌf/
(often +th,d,t,k) /ʊ/ OE gōd > "good" /gʊd/; OE bōc > "book" /bʊk/; OE lōcian > "to look" /lʊk/; OE fōt > "foot" /fʊt/
ū; often u+nd /uː/ ou /əu/ /au/ OE ū OE mūs > "mouse"; OE ūt, ūte > "out"; OE hlūd > "loud"
OE +nd OE ġefunden > "found"; OE hund > "hound"; OE ġesund > "sound" (safe)
(+r) /aur/ > GA /aur/, RP /auə/ OE OE ūre > "our"; OE sċūr > "shower"; OE sūr > "sour"
(occ. +t) /ʌ/ OE būtan > "but"; OE strūtian > ME strouten > "to strut"

Note that the Modern English vowel usually spelled au (British /ɔː/, American /ɔ/) does not appear in the above chart. Its main source is late Middle English /au/, which come from various sources: Old English aw and ag ("claw" < clawu, "law" < lagu); diphthongization before /h/ ("sought" < sōhte, "taught" < tāhte, "daughter" < dohtor); borrowings from Latin and French ("fawn" < Old French faune, "Paul" < Latin Paulus). Other sources are Early Modern English lengthening of /a/ before /l/ ("salt, all"); occasional shortening and later re-lengthening of Middle English /ɔː/ ("broad" < /brɔːd/ < brād); and in American English, lengthening of short o before unvoiced fricatives and voiced velars ("dog, long, off, cross, moth", all with /ɔ/ in American English, at least in dialects that still maintain the difference between /a/ and /ɔ/).

As mentioned above, Modern English is derived from the Middle English of London, which is derived largely from Anglian Old English, with some admixture of West Saxon and Kentish. One of the most noticeable differences among the dialects is the handling of original Old English /y/. By the time of the written Old English documents, the Old English of Kent had already unrounded /y/ to /e/, and the late Old English of Anglia unrounded /y/ to /i/. In the West Saxon area, /y/ remained as such well into Middle English times, and was written u in Middle English documents from this area. Some words with this sound were borrowed into London Middle English, where the unfamiliar /y/ was substituted with /u/. Hence:

  • "gild" < gyldan, "did" < dyde, "sin" < synn, "mind" < mynd, "dizzy" < dysiġ "foolish", "lift" < lyft "air", etc. show the normal (Anglian) development.
  • "much" < myċel shows the West Saxon development.
  • "merry" < myriġ shows the Kentish development.
  • "build" < byldan and "busy" < bysiġ have their spelling from West Saxon but pronunciation from Anglian.
  • "bury" /bɛri/ < byrġan has its spelling from West Saxon but its pronunciation from Kentish.

Note that some apparent instances of modern e for Old English y are actually regular developments, particularly where the y is a development of earlier (West Saxon) ie from i-mutation of ea, as the normal i-mutation of ea in Anglian is e; for example, "stern" < styrne < *starnijaz, "steel" < stȳle < *stahlijaN (cf. Old Saxon stehli). Also, some apparent instances of modern u for Old English y may actually be due to the influence of a related form with unmutated u, e.g. "sundry" < syndriġ, influenced by sundor "apart, differently" (cf. "to sunder" and "asunder").

Vowel changes in accented syllables

NOTE: Another version of this table is available at Phonological history of English#Through Middle English. This covers the same changes from a more diachronic perspective. It includes less information on the specific differences between the Anglian and West Saxon dialects of Old English, but includes much more information on the Proto-Indo-European changes leading up to the vowels below, and the Middle English vowels that resulted from them.

NOTE: This table only describes the changes in accented syllables. Vowel changes in unaccented syllables were very different and much more extensive. In general, long vowels were reduced to short vowels (and sometimes deleted entirely) and short vowels were very often deleted. All remaining vowels were reduced to only the vowels /u/, /a/ and /e/, and sometimes /o/. (/o/ also sometimes appears as a variant of unstressed /u/.)

West Germanic Condition Process Old English Examples
*a   Anglo-Frisian brightening æ e *daga(z) > dæġ "day"; *batizôN > betera "better"; *taljanaN > tellan "to tell"
+n,m   a,o e *mann(z), manni(z) > man, mon "man", plur. men "men"
+nf,nþ,ns Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law ō ē *tanþ(z), tanþi(z) > tōþ, plur. tēþ "tooth"; *gans, gansi(z) > gōs "goose", plur. gēs "geese"
(West Saxon) +h,rC,lC breaking ea ie *alda(z), aldizôN > eald "old", ieldra "older" (cf. "elder")
(Anglian) +h breaking, Anglian smoothing æ e
(Anglian) +lC retraction a æ *alda(z), aldizôN > ald "old", ældra "older" (cf. "elder")
(Anglian) +rc,rg,rh breaking, Anglian smoothing e e
(Anglian) +rC (C not c,g,h) breaking ea e
(West Saxon) +hV,hr,hl breaking, h-loss ēa īe *slahanaN, -iþ > slēan "to slay"; *stahlijaN > stīele "steel"
(Anglian) +hV,hr,hl breaking, Anglian smoothing, h-loss ēa ē *slahanaN, -iþ > slēan "to slay, 3rd sing. pres. indic. slēþ "slays"; *stahlijaN > stēle "steel"
(West Saxon) k,g,j+ palatal diphthongization ea ie Lat. castra > ċeaster "town, fortress" (cf. names in "-caster, -chester"); *gasti(z) > ġiest "guest"
before a,o,u1 a-restoration a (by analogy) æ plur. *dagôs > dagas "days"; *talō > talu "tale"; *bakan, -iþ > bacanaN "to bake", 3rd sing. pres. indic. bæcþ "bakes"
(mostly non-West-Saxon) before later a,o,u back mutation ea eo2 *alu > ealu "ale"; *awī > eowu "ewe", *asilu(z) > non-West-Saxon eosol "donkey"
before hs,ht,hþ + final -i(z) palatal umlaut N/A i (occ. ie) *nahti(z) > nieht > niht "night"
*e3     e N/A3 *etanaN > etan "to eat"
+m   i N/A *nemanaN > niman "to take"
(West Saxon) +h,rC,lc,lh,wV breaking eo N/A *fehtanaN > feohtan "to fight"; *berkanaN > beorcan "to bark"; *werþanaN > weorðan "to become"
(Anglian) +h,rc,rg,rh breaking, Anglian smoothing e N/A *fehtanaN > fehtan "to fight"; *berkanaN > bercan "to bark"
(Anglian) +rC (C not c,g,h); lc,lh,wV breaking eo N/A *werþanaN > weorðan "to become"
+hV,hr,hl breaking, (Anglian smoothing,) h-loss ēo N/A *seh(w)anaN > sēon "to see"
+ late final hs,ht,hþ palatal umlaut i (occ. ie) N/A *sehs > siex "six"; *rehta(z) > riht "right"
(West Saxon) k,g,j+ palatal diphthongization ie N/A *skeranaN > sċieran "shear"
*i     i i *fiskaN > fisċ "fish"; *itiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. iteþ "eats"; *nimiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. nimeþ "takes"; *skiriþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. sċirþ "shears"
+ nf,nþ,ns Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law ī ī *finf > fīf "five"
(West Saxon) +h,rC breaking io > eo ie *Pihtôs > Piohtas, Peohtas "Picts"; *lirnōjanaN > liornian, leornian "to learn"; *hirdija(z)2 > hierde "shepherd"; *wirþiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. wierþ "becomes"
(Anglian) +h,rc,rg,rh breaking, Anglian smoothing i i *stihtōjanaN > stihtian "to establish"
(Anglian) +rC (C not c,g,h) breaking io > eo i *a + firrijanaN > afirran "to remove" (cf. feorr "far")
(West Saxon) +hV,hr,hl breaking, h-loss īo > ēo īe *twihōjanaN > twīoġan, twēon "to doubt"
(Anglian) +hV,hr,hl breaking, Anglian smoothing, h-loss īo > ēo ī *twihōjanaN > twīoġan, twēon "to doubt"; *sih(w)iþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. sīþ "sees"
before w breaking io > eo i *niwulaz > *niowul, neowul "prostrate"; *spiwiz > *spiwe "vomiting"
before a,o,u back mutation i (io, eo) N/A *miluk(z) > mioluc,meolc "milk"
*u     u y *sunu(z) > sunu "son"; *kuman, -iþ > cumanaN "to come", 3rd sing. pres. indic. cymþ "comes"; *guldijanaN > gyldan "to gild"
+ nf,nþ,ns Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law ū ȳ *munþ(z) > mūþ "mouth"; *wunskijanaN > wȳsċan "wish"
before non-nasal + a,e,o4 a-mutation o (by analogy) e *guldaN > gold "gold"; *duhter, duhtri(z) > dohter "daughter", plur. dehter "daughters"
+hV,hr,hl h-loss ū ȳ *uhumista(z) > ȳmest "highest"
(*ē >) *ā   Anglo-Frisian brightening (West Saxon) ǣ ǣ *slāpanaN > slǣpan "to sleep", Lat. strāta > strǣt "street"; *dādi(z) > dǣd "deed"
(Anglian) ē ē *slāpanaN > slēpan "to sleep", Lat. strāta > strēt "street"; *dādi(z) > dēd "deed"; Lat. cāseus > ċēse "cheese"; *nāha(z), nāhista(z) > nēh "near" (cf. "nigh"), superl. nēhst "nearest" (cf. "next")
(West Saxon) k,g,j+ palatal diphthongization ēa īe *jārō > ġēar "year"; Lat. cāseus > ċīese "cheese"
+n,m   ō ē *mānôN > mōna "moon"; *kwāni(z) > kwēn "queen"
(West Saxon) +h breaking ēa īe *nāha(z), nāhista(z) > nēah "near" (cf. "nigh"), superl. nīehst "nearest" (cf. "next")
+w;ga,go,gu;la,lo,lu a-restoration ā ǣ *knāwan, -iþ > cnāwanaN "to know", 3rd sing. pres. indic. cnǣwþ "knows"
    ē ē *mēdaN > mēd "reward"
    ō ē *fōt(z), fōti(z) > fōt "foot", plur. fēt "feet"
    ī ī *wībaN > wīf "wife"; *līhiþ > Anglian 3rd sing. pres. indic. līþ "lends"
(West Saxon) +h breaking īo > ēo īe *līhanaN, -iþ > lēon "to lend", 3rd sing. pres. indic. līehþ "lends"
    ū ȳ *mūs, mūsi(z) > mūs "mouse", plur. mȳs "mice"
*ai     ā ǣ *staina(z) > stān "stone", Lat. Caesar > cāsere "emperor", *hwaitijaN > hwǣte "wheat"
*au     ēa (West Saxon) īe *auzōN > ēare "ear"; *hauzijanaN > hīeran "to hear"; *hauh, hauhist > hēah "high", superl. hīehst "highest"
(Anglian) ē *auzōN > ēare "ear"; *hauzijanaN > hēran "to hear"
(Anglian) +c,g,h;rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh Anglian smoothing ē ē *hauh, hauhist > hēh "high", superl. hēhst "highest"
*eu5     ēo N/A5 *deupa(z) > dēop "deep"; *fleugōN > flēoge "fly"; *beodanaN > bēodan "to command"
(Anglian) +c,g,h;rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh Anglian smoothing ē N/A *fleugōN > flēge "fly"
*iu5     N/A (West Saxon) īe *biudiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. bīett "commands"; *liuhtijanaN > līehtan "to lighten"
(Anglian) īo *biudiþ > 3rd sing. pres. indic. bīott "commands"
(Anglian) +c,g,h;rc,rg,rh;lc,lg,lh Anglian smoothing N/A ī *liuhtijanaN > līhtan "to lighten"

1 The process of a-restoration, as described here, reversed the previous process of Anglo-Frisian brightening, leaving an /a/. However, it was blocked when an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable; instead, /a/ was converted to /æ/ by Anglo-Frisian brightening, and then umlauted to /e/. This accounts for the outcomes of PG *talō > talu "tale" vs. the related PG *taljanaN > tellan "to tell". However, in some instances when a-restoration was blocked, the /æ/ that remained from Anglo-Frisian brightening was still reverted to /a/ by analogy with related words where a-restoration did apply; this /a/ was then umlauted to /æ/. This happened especially in verbs when some forms (e.g. the third-person singular present indicative) had umlaut, and other forms (e.g. the infinitive) did not; for example, PG *bakanaN > OE bacan "to bake" vs. PG *bakiþi > OE bæcþ "(he) bakes". This accounts for the "(by analogy)" notation in the i-umlaut column. The following diagrams show the processes involved in more detail:

No analogy:

Step "tale" "to tell" Reason
1 /talō/ /taljanaN/ original forms
2 /talu/ /talljan/ after various changes, irrelevant here (e.g. West Germanic gemination)
3 /tælu/ /tælljan/ Anglo-Frisian brightening
4 /talu/ /tælljan/ a-restoration
5 /talu/ /tælljan/ unaffected by analogy
6 /talu/ /telljan/ i-mutation
7 talu tellan after further changes, irrelevant here


Step "to bake" "(he) bakes" Reason
1 /bakanaN/ /bakiþi/ original forms
2 /bakan/ /bakiþ/ after various changes, irrelevant here
3 /bækan/ /bækiþ/ Anglo-Frisian brightening
4 /bakan/ /bækiþ/ a-restoration
5 /bakan/ /bakiþ/ by analogy with the infinitive
6 /bakan/ /bækiþ/ i-mutation
7 bacan bæcþ after further changes, irrelevant here

Analogy took place between related forms of a single lexical item, e.g. different forms of the same verb or noun. It generally did not take place between related lexical items derived from the same root, e.g. between talu "tale" and tellan "to tell".

2 This entry is misleading. Back mutation actually took place after i-mutation; this is why the result of applying both i-mutation and back mutation to a is eo rather than ie, the normal i-mutation of ea. Note also that back mutation applies only when the following syllable contains a, o, u, while i-mutation applies only when the following syllable contains i, j; hence you would not expect both back mutation and i-mutation to apply in a single word. All instances in which this occurs had one suffix substituted for another between the operation of the two processes. For example:

  • Latin asellum "donkey" > Proto-Germanic *asilu (replacement of Latin diminutive suffix -ell- with similar Proto-Germanic diminutive suffix -il) > *æsil (a-fronting) > *esil (i-mutation) > *esel (a normal change in unstressed syllables) > esol (substitution of more common -ol for less common -el) > eosol (back mutation)
  • Proto-Germanic *awī "ewe" > *awi (vowel reduction in unstressed syllables) > *ewi (i-mutation) > ewu (feminine -i disappeared in prehistoric Old English and was replaced with -u; a similar change occurred in e.g. menigu "multitude", cf. Gothic managei /managī/) > eowu (back mutation)

3 Proto-Indo-European /e/ was already mutated to /i/ in Proto-Germanic in two contexts: When occurring before /n/ plus consonant, and when occurring before /i/ or /j/. The more general i-mutation that applied to all vowels in Old English is a separate process that occurred many centuries later, although it had the same effect on /e/. (Note that due to this earlier change there were few instances of /e/ that could be affected by Old English i-mutation. For this reason, the i-mutations of /e/ are listed in parens, e.g. (i), to indicate that the given results are not due directly to i-mutation of /e/, but to i-mutation of /i/ or of some vowel derived from it, e.g. io.) This is also why the Proto-West-Germanic form of hierde "shepherd" appears already as *hirdija(z) with /i/ in the root even though it's clearly related to heord "herd" (Proto-West-Germanic *herdō). It's also why there's no entry for "+nf,nþ,ns" under /e/ even though it occurs for all other vowels. Furthermore, describing i as the i-mutation of e, or ie as the i-mutation of eo, is misleading at best. In fact, as just described, e was not mutated to i by i-mutation, but rather in an i-mutation environment i already appeared due to the earlier mutation of /e/ to /i/. Similarly, eo from earlier /e/ in a "breaking" environment was not mutated to ie by i-mutation. In this case again, /i/ already appeared in the i-mutation environment, which was broken to io due to the "breaking" environment it was in, and this io was then mutated to ie by i-mutation. Note further that the breaking environments for /i/ were more restrictive than those for /e/. Hence it's possible for post-breaking non-umlaut-context eo to correspond to umlaut-context i rather than io (e.g. before lh or lc), and therefore for a post-umlaut alternation between eo and i to exist. Presumably, these anomalous alternations were mostly eliminated by analogy.

4 A very similar process to what's described in note 1 resulted in the umlaut of /o/ sometimes appearing as /y/ (the "normal" outcome), and sometimes as /e/ (by analogy). Just like a-restoration, a-mutation (which lowered /u/ to /o/ before /a, e, o/) was blocked by a following /i/ or /j/, and the /u/ that was left over was sometimes changed into /o/ by analogy, and sometimes not changed.

5 Proto-Germanic mutation of /e/ to /i/ before /i/ or /j/ also affected /eu/, producing /iu/. In fact, /iu/ occurs only before /i/ or /j/ in the following syllable, and /eu/ never occurs in these circumstances. That is, /iu/ is in fact an allophone of /eu/. It is typically written as /iu/, rather than [iu], because in the later Germanic dialects the reflexes of the sound do in fact become separate phonemes.


  1. ^ See also Fausto Cercignani, The Development of */k/ and */sk/ in Old English, in "Journal of English and Germanic Philology", 82/3, 1983, pp. 313-323.


  • Baker, Peter S. (2007). Introduction to Old English (2nd edition ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-5272-3. 
  • Campbell, A. (1959). Old English Grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-811943-7. 
  • Cercignani, Fausto. The Development of */k/ and */sk/ in Old English, in "Journal of English and Germanic Philology", 82/3, 1983, pp. 313–323.
  • Lass, Roger (1994). Old English: A historical linguistic companion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43087-9. 
  • Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson (2001). A Guide to Old English (6th edition ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-22636-2. 

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