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Phonological history of English close back vowels

historic sound changes
History and description of
English pronunciation
Historical stages
  • Old English
  • Middle English
General development
  • Overview
  • In Old English
  • In Scots
Development of vowels
  • Overview
  • Great Vowel Shift
  • Close front
  • A
  • Open back
  • Close back
  • Diphthongs
  • Pre-L
  • Pre-R
Development of consonants
  • Single consonants
  • Clusters
Variable features
  • Rhoticity
  • Flapping
  • L-vocalization
  • T-glottalization
  • Cot–caught merger
  • H-dropping
  • Drawl
  • TH
  • R
  • WH
Related topics
  • History of English
  • Spelling
[]This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters. For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.

Most dialects of modern English have two close back vowels: the near-close near-back rounded vowel /ʊ/ found in words like foot, and the close back rounded vowel /uː/ (realized as central [ʉː] in many dialects) found in words like goose. The

STRUT vowel /ʌ/, which historically was back, is often central [ɐ] as well. This article discusses the history of these vowels in various dialects of English, focusing in particular on phonemic splits and mergers involving these sounds.

Historical development

The Old English vowels included a pair of short and long close back vowels, /u/ and /uː/, both written ⟨u⟩ (the longer vowel is often distinguished as ⟨ū⟩ in modern editions of Old English texts). There was also a pair of back vowels of mid-height, /o/ and /oː/, both of which were written ⟨o⟩ (the longer vowel is often ⟨ō⟩ in modern editions).

The same four vowels existed in the Middle English system. The short vowels were still written ⟨u⟩ and ⟨o⟩, but long /uː/ came to be spelt as ⟨ou⟩, and /oː/ as ⟨oo⟩. Generally, the Middle English vowels descended from the corresponding Old English ones, but there were certain alternative developments: see Phonological history of Old English#Changes leading up to Middle and Modern English.

The Middle English open syllable lengthening caused short /o/ to be mostly lengthened to /ɔː/ (an opener back vowel) in open syllables; this development can be seen in words like nose. During the Great Vowel Shift, Middle English long /oː/ was raised to /uː/ in words like moon; Middle English long /uː/ was diphthongised, becoming the present-day /aʊ/, as in mouse; and Middle English /ɔː/ of nose was raised and later diphthongized, leading to present-day /oʊ ~ əʊ/.

At some point, short /u/ developed into a lax, near-close near-back rounded vowel, /ʊ/, as found in words like put. (Similarly, short /i/ has become /ɪ/.) According to Roger Lass, the laxing occurred in the 17th century, but other linguists have suggested that it may have taken place much earlier. The short /o/ remaining in words like lot has also been lowered and, in some accents, unrounded (see open back vowels).

Shortening of /uː/ to /ʊ/

In a handful of words, some of which are very common, the vowel /uː/ was shortened to /ʊ/. In a few of those words, notably blood and flood, the shortening happened early enough that the resulting /ʊ/ underwent the "foot–strut split" (see next section) and are now pronounced with /ʌ/. Other words that underwent shortening later consistently have /ʊ/, such as good, book, and wool. Still other words, such as roof, hoof, and root, are still in the process of the shift, with some speakers preferring /uː/ and others preferring /ʊ/ in such words, such as in Texan English. For some speakers in Northern England, words ending in -ook, such as book and cook still have the long /uː/ vowel.

Foot–strut split

The vowel of the word sun in England

The foot–strut split is the split of Middle English short /u/ into two distinct phonemes /ʊ/ (as in foot) and /ʌ/ (as in strut). The split occurs in most varieties of English, the most notable exceptions being most of Northern England and the English Midlands and some varieties of Hiberno-English. In Welsh English, the split is also absent in parts of North Wales, under influence from Merseyside and Cheshire accents, and south Pembrokeshire, where English replaced Welsh long before it occurred in the rest of Wales.

The origin of the split is the unrounding of /ʊ/ in Early Modern English, resulting in the phoneme /ʌ/. Usually, unrounding to /ʌ/ did not occur if /ʊ/ was preceded by a labial consonant, such as /p/, /f/, /b/, and was followed by /l/, /ʃ/, or /tʃ/, leaving the modern /ʊ/. Because of the inconsistency of the split, put and putt became a minimal pair that were distinguished as /pʊt/ and /pʌt/. The first clear description of the split dates from 1644.

In non-splitting accents, cut and put rhyme, putt and put are homophonous as /pʊt/, and pudding and budding rhyme. However luck and look may not necessarily be homophones since many accents in the area concerned have look as /lk/, with the vowel of goose. In the Coventry area, a schwa is often hypercorrected to /ʊ/, such as /ˈbʊtʊn/ for 'button'.

The absence of the split is a less common feature of educated Northern English speech than the absence of the trap–bath split. The absence of the foot–strut split is sometimes stigmatized, and speakers of non-splitting accents may try to introduce it into their speech, which sometimes resultes in hypercorrection, such as by pronouncing butcher /ˈbʌə/.

The name "foot–strut split" refers to the lexical sets introduced by Wells (1982) and identifies the vowel phonemes in the words. From a historical point of view, however, the name is inappropriate because the word foot did not have short /ʊ/ when the split happened, but it underwent shortening only later.

Middle Englishuu
Great Vowel Shiftuu
Early Shorteninguuu
Quality adjustmentʊʊʊ
Foot–Strut Splitɤɤʊ
Later Shorteningʊɤɤʊ
Quality adjustmentʊʌʌʊ
RP Outputʊʌʌʊ
Stages of the Foot–Strut split, as described by Wells (1982:199)

In modern standard varieties of English, such as Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA), spelling is a reasonably good guide to whether a word is in the FOOT or STRUT lexical sets. The spellings o (apart from the regular LOT /ɒ/) and u nearly always indicate the STRUT set (common exceptions are wolf, woman, pull, bull, full, push, bush, cushion, puss, put, pudding and butcher), and the spellings oo and ould usually indicate the FOOT set (common exceptions are blood and flood). The spellings of some words changed in accordance with that pattern: wull became wool, and wud became wood. In some recent loanwords such as Muslim both pronunciations are found.

Strut–comma merger

The strut–comma merger or the strut–schwa merger is a merger of /ʌ/ with /ə/ that occurs in Welsh English and some higher-prestige Northern England English. Also usual in General American, the merger causes minimal pairs such as unorthodoxy /ʌnˈɔːrθədɒksi/ and an orthodoxy /ənˈɔːrθədɒksi/ to be merged. The phonetic quality of the merged vowel depends on the accent. For instance, merging General American accents have [ʌ] as the stressed variant, [ɐ] as the word-final variant. Elsewhere, the vowel surfaces as [ə] or even [ɪ̈] (GA features the weak vowel merger). That can cause words such as hubbub (/ˈhʌbʌb/ in RP) to have two different vowels ([ˈhʌbəb]) even though both syllables contain the same phoneme in both merging and non-merging accents. On the other hand, in Birmingham, Swansea and Miami, at least the non-final variant of the merged vowel is consistently realized as mid-central [ə], with no noticeable difference between the stressed and the unstressed allophones.

The merged vowel is typically written with ⟨ə⟩, regardless of its phonetic realization. That largely matches an older canonical phonetic range of the IPA symbol ⟨ə⟩, which used to be described as covering a vast central area from near-close [ɪ̈] to near-open [ɐ].

Because of the unstressed nature of /ə/, the merger occurs only in unstressed syllables. Word-finally, the two vowels do not contrast in any accent of English (Middle English /u/, the vowel from which /ʌ/ was split, could not occur in that position), and the vowel that occurs in that position approaches [ɐ] (the main allophone of STRUT in many accents). However, there is some dialectal variation, with varieties such as broad Cockney using variants that are strikingly more open than in other dialects. It is usually identified as belonging to the /ə/ phoneme, even in accents without the /ʌ–ə/ merger, but native speakers may perceive the phonemic makeup of words such as comma to be /ˈkɒmʌ/, rather than /ˈkɒmə/. The open variety of /ə/ occurs even in Northern English dialects (such as Geordie) that have not undergone the foot–strut split, but in Geordie, it can be generalised to other positions and so not only comma but also commas can be pronounced with [ɐ] in the second syllable, which is rare in other accents. In contemporary General British the final /ə/ is often mid [ə], rather than open [ɐ].

All speakers of General American neutralise /ʌ/, /ə/ and /ɜː/ (the NURSE vowel) before /r/, which results in an r-colored vowel [ɚ]. GA lacks a truly contrastive /ɜː/ phoneme (furry, hurry, letters and transfer (n.), distinguished in RP as /ɜː/, /ʌ/, /ə/ and /ɜː/ all have the same r-colored [ɚ] in GA), and the symbol is used only to facilitate comparisons with other accents. See hurry–furry merger for more information.

Some other minimal pairs apart from unorthodoxyan orthodoxy include unequal /ʌnˈkwəl/ vs. an equal /ənˈkwəl/ as well as a large untidy room /ə ˈlɑːr ʌnˈtdi ˈrm/ vs. a large and tidy room /ə ˈlɑːr ənˈtdi ˈrm/. However, there are few minimal pairs like that, and their use as such has been criticized by scholars such as Geoff Lindsey because the members of such minimal pairs are structurally different. There also are words for which RP always used /ʌ/ in the unstressed syllable, such as pick-up /ˈpɪkʌp/ or sawbuck /ˈsɔːbʌk/, which merging accents use the same /ə/ as the second vowel of balance. In RP, there is a consistent difference in vowel height; the unstressed vowel in the first two words is a near-open [ɐ] (traditionally written with ⟨ʌ⟩), but in balance, it is a mid [ə].

Homophonous pairs
a large untidy rooma large and tidy room/ə ˈlɑː(r)dʒ ənˈtaɪdi ˈruːm/
unequalan equal/ənˈiːkwəl/
unorthodoxyan orthodoxy/ənˈɔː(r)θədɒksi/

Development of /juː/

Earlier Middle English distinguished the close front rounded vowel /y/ (occurring in loanwords from Anglo-Norman like duke) and the diphthongs /iu/ (occurring in words like new), /eu/ (occurring in words like few) and /ɛu/ (occurring in words like dew).

In Late Middle English, /y/, /eu/, and /iu/ had merged as /ɪu/. In Early Modern English, /ɛu/ merged into /ɪu/ as well.

/ɪu/ has remained as such in some Welsh, some northern English and a few American accents. Thus, those varieties of Welsh English keep threw /θrɪu/ distinct from through /θruː/. In most accents, however, the falling diphthong /ɪu/ turned into a rising diphthong, which became the sequence /juː/. The change had taken place in London by the late 17th century. Depending on the preceding consonant and on the dialect, it either remained as /juː/ or developed into /uː/ by the processes of yod-dropping or yod-coalescence. That has caused the standard pronunciations of duke /d(j)uːk/ (or /dʒuːk/), new /n(j)uː/, few /fjuː/ and rude /ruːd/.

Foot–goose merger

The foot–goose merger is a phenomenon that occurs in Scottish English, Ulster varieties of Hiberno-English, Malaysian English and Singapore English, where the vowels /ʊ/ and /uː/ are merged. As a result, pairs like look/Luke are homophones and good/food and foot/boot rhyme. The quality of the merged vowel is usually [ʉ] or [y] in Scottish English and [u] in Singapore English. The use of the same vowel in "foot" and "goose" in those dialects is caused by not phonemic merger but the appliance of different languages' vowel system to the English lexical incidence. The full–fool merger is a conditioned merger of the same two vowels before /l/, which causes pairs like pull/pool and full/fool to be homophones.

The foot-goose merger does not occur in dialects without the foot-strut split.

Other changes

In Geordie, the GOOSE vowel undergoes an allophonic split, with the monophthong [uː ~ ʉː] being used in morphologically-closed syllables (as in bruise [bɹuːz ~ bɹʉːz]) and the diphthong [ɵʊ] being used in morphologically-open syllables at the very end of a word (as in brew [bɹɵʊ]) but also word-internally at the end of a morpheme (as in brews [bɹɵʊz]).

Most dialects of English diphthongise /uː/. In those dialects, the monophthongal [uː ~ ʉː ~ ɨː] is in free variation with the diphthongal [ʊu ~ ʊ̈ʉ ~ əʉ ~ ɪ̈ɨ], particularly in the word-internal position. Word-finally, diphthongs are more usual.

Compare the identical development of the close front FLEECE vowel.

The change of /uː.ɪ/ to [ʊɪ] is a process that occurs in many varieties of British English in which bisyllabic /uː.ɪ/ has become the diphthong [ʊɪ] in certain words. As a result, "ruin" is pronounced as monosyllabic [ˈɹʊɪn] and "fluid" is pronounced [ˈflʊɪd].

Other topics

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Phonological history of English close back vowels, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License (view authors).

Date of last edit: 2021-01-29T12:58:03.000Z