LENGTHENING OF VOWELS BEFORE CONSONANTS

In the Old English period, the OE short vowels /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/ lengthened before consonant pairs consisting of a liquid (/l/, /r/) or nasal (/m/, /n/) plus a homorganic voiced stop--that is, a voiced stop articulated in the same part of the mouth as the liquid or nasal.

The consonant pairs in question are /mb/, /nd/, /ld/, and /rd/.

Lengthening also occurred before /rs/, /rq/, and /rl/.

This phenomenon of lengthening before consonant pairs did not occur if a third consonant followed the pair, or if the word in question rarely received full stress in a sentence (for example, lengthening did not occur in OE and or under).

Some of the OE lengthenings shortened again during the 14th century. Lengthening was maintained only before /mb/, /nd/, and /ld/. The outcome may be summarized as follows.

OE
ME
/imb/
/imb/
/omb/
/omb/
/ind/
/ind/
/und/
/und/
/ald/
/a:ld/
/eld/
/eld/
/ild/
/ild/
/old/
/old/
/uld/
/uld/

 

[Note that in most cases, the symbols used in the table to stand for the OE vowels are the same as the symbols used to stand for the ME vowels, except for color. Color is important: the different-colored symbols represent different vowels. For example, in the symbolism used here, /i/ represents ME "long i," whereas /i/ represents OE "short i."]

In some dialects, lengthening of some vowels was accompanied by a qualitative change. Thus,

OE /i/ became ME /e/, and
OE /u/ became ME /o/.