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Middle English and Early New English consonant system

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The most important developments in the history of English consonants were the growth of new sets of sounds, affricates and sibilants, and the new phonological treatment of fricatives. Both changes added a number of consonant phonemes to the system. some consonants were lost or vocalised, which affected both the consonant and the vowel system.

Growth of sibilants and affricates.

In OE there were no affricates and no sibilants, except [s, z]. The earliest distinct sets of these sounds appeared towards the end of OE or during the Early ME period. The new type of consonants developed from OE palatal plosives [k’, g'] (which had split from the corresponding velar plosives [k] and [g] in Early OE, and also from the consonant cluster [sk']. The three new phonemes which arose from these sources were [tʃ], [dʒ] and [ʃ]. The opposition of velar consonants to palatal - [k, k'; y, j]—had disappeared; instead, plosive consonants were contrasted to the new affricates and in the set of affricates [tʃ] was opposed to [dʒ] through sonority.

Treatment of fricative consonants

Phonologisation of voiced and voiceless fricatives was a slow process which lasted several hundred years. The first pair of consonants to become phonemes were [f] and [v]. In Late ME texts they occurred in identical phonetic environment and could be used for differentiation between words, which means that they had turned into phonemes. The two other pairs, [θ, ð] and [s, z], so far functioned as allophones. A new, decisive alteration took place in the 16th c. The fricatives were once again subjected to voicing under certain phonetic conditions. Henceforth they were pronounced as voiced if they were preceded by an unstressed vowel and followed by a stressed one. the endings took no accent but could be followed by other words beginning with an accented syllable. This supposition is confirmed by the voicing of consonants in many form-words: articles, pronouns, auxiliaries, prepositions; they receive no stress in speech but may be surrounded by notional words which are logically accented.

Loss of Consonants in certain positions and clusters.

In ME the length of the syllable was regulated by the lengthening and shortening of vowels; therefore the quantitative differences of the con-sonants became irrelevant.

The consonants [j ] and [ r ] were vocalised under certain phonetic conditions — finally and before consonants — during the ME and Early NE periods, though they continued to be used in other environments. Some consonants were lost in consonant clusters, which became simpler and easier to pronounce, e.g. the initial [x] survived in ME as an aspirate [h], when followed by a vowel, but was lost when followed by a sonorant. In Early NE the aspirate [h] was lost initially before vowels — though not in all the words.

Voicing and voiceless fricatives.

About the same time voiceless consonants were voiced in several types of words. One of the conditions for the change seems to have been the unstressed position of the preceding vowel. Voicing mainly affects the consonant [s] and the cluster [ks], which become [z] and [gz]. In a few words it also affects the consonants [f] and [tʃ], which accordingly become [v] and [dʒ].

1. [s > z]. The most well-known examples of this voicing are some words of French origin: dessert, resemble, possess, observe, dissolve.

2. [ks > gz]. The following pairs of words are illustrative of the change (in the second of each pair the vowel preceding the cluster has either primary or secondary stress: exhibit - exhibition; exhort - exhortation; executor – execute.

3. The relation between [f] and [v] can only be illustrated by one example: of and off.

4. The change [tʃ > dʒ] occurred in ME knowleche > MnE knowledge.

The exact conditions of the change have yet to be studied.

Development of [x]

We must distinguish two variants of the development of [x]: 1 - before t and 2 in final position.

[x] before t is lost, and the preceding short vowel is lengthened. For example: light [lixt > li:t], night [nixt > ni:t].


Long [i:] arising from this change took part in the vowel shift: [li:t > lait]. Spelling did not reflect this change, and these words are spelt with gh up to the present time. After the digraph gh had become silent, it was introduced into the word delight, on the analogy of the word light. In forms like brought, fought the [ou] developed into [o:]. In Northern dialects the [x] before t has been preserved to our days.

[x] final mostly changes into [f], as in rough, enough, laugh, tough, slough, trough. In a few words final [x] was lost, as in though, through.

On the other hand, the word laughter is pronounced with [f], which is probably due to influence of the word laugh.

Loss of [1] before [k, m, f, v]

[l] was lost before [k] and the labial consonants [m, f, v]. Thus the words talk, walk, folk, palm, calm, half came to be pronounced [to:k, wo:k, fouk, pa:m, ka:m, ha:f,]. However [1] before [v]was preserved in words of Latin origin, as in dissolve, resolve. [1] was also lost before [d] in should and would, which were usually unstressed. At the time when [1] was in the process of dropping and a word could be pronounced both with [1] and without it, an [1] appeared in words which had not had it in ME. This often happened in words of French origin; introduction of [1] might be supported by influence of the Latin prototype of the word and by imitation of French latinizing spelling of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Appearance and loss of [w].

In a few words with an initial labialized vowel there appeared an [w]. The most well-known example is the word one. The later development is not quite clear. Already in the 16th century the word was occasionally spelt wone, which points to appearance of initial [w]. The development seems to have been this: [o:n > wo:n > wu:n > wun > w^n]. Even in the late 17th century the pronunciation [w^n] was considered vulgar; in the 18th it was accepted by the literary language. A similar development took place in the adverb once [wAns < ME ones. [w] was lost in an unstressed syllable after a consonant in the words answer, Southwark, Greenwich, Norwich and so on.

In the word whole [houl] the letter w was introduced in spelling on the analogy of who, whom, whose.

Merger of [j] with preceding consonant.

The last essential phonetic change in the sphere of consonants was merger of [j] with the preceding consonant. This happened after a stressed vowel. The change affected the clusters [sj, zj, tj, dj], and a few others.

The change [sj > ʃ] occurred, for example Asia, Russia. In many words the spelling is -ti-. This spelling, borrowed from French, denoted in French the cluster [sj] and was taken over into English. nation, revolution. In a few words we find the spellings -xi- and -xu-; in these cases the changing cluster is preceded by [k]: connexion (connection, luxury. In issue and tissue both pronunciations can be heard. When the cluster [sj] preceded the stressed vowel, it usually remained unchanged: suit [sju:t], assume [a'sju:m]. However, in two words [sj] preceding the stressed vowel changed into [ʃ ]: sure and sugar.

Loss of consonants in initial clusters.

In certain cases the initial consonant of a cluster is Inst Thus, [k] and [g] are lost before[n] in knight, know, knit also in word of Greek origin: gnosis,gnomic.

When [kn] or [gn] was preceded by a vowel, it was preserved as in acknowledge, diagnosis.

Initial [w] is lost before [r]: write, wrong. The cluster [hw] or the voiceless [w] changed into [w] In present-day English pronunciation there is usually no difference between which and witch and between whether and weather. However, the pronunciation [hw] or [w] for written wh- can also be heard.

The consonant [h] was dropped in many unstressed syllables, as in forehead [ferid].


31. Middle English nouns. Unification of the ways of expressing plural number.

In ME, when the Southern traits were replaced by Central and Northern traits in the dialect of London, this pattern of noun declensions prevailed in literary English.

The declension of nouns in the age of Chaucer, in its main features, was the same as in Mod E. The simplification of noun morphology was on the whole completed. Most nouns distinguished two forms: the basic form (with the "zero" ending) and the form in -(e)s. The nouns originally descending from other types of declensions for the most part had joined this major type, which had developed from Masc. a-stems

The process of eliminating survival plural forms went on in the 15th and 16th centuries. Forms like eyen, fon, which were still used by Chaucer, were now superseded by the regular forms eyes, foes.

In several substantives with final [f] or [0] alteration of the voiceless fricative with its voiced counterpart was eliminated. This is the case with roof (plural roofs) and other words in -oof; also with belief (beliefs), death (deaths), hearth (hearths).

However, with other substantives the alternation has been preserved, as in wife (wives), life (lives), half (halves), calf (calves), wolf (wolves); bath (baths), path (paths), youth (youths). With a few words two variants are possible: scarf (scarves, scarfs), truth (truths -6z, -0s). The substantive staff (OE staef, pl. stafas, ME staf, pl. staves) split into two separate words: staff, pl. staffs, and stave, pl. staves.

The alternation [f — v] begins to extend to the word handkerchief, whose second part is of French origin; alongside the plural form handkerchiefs a new form handkerchieves is occasionally used.

A few substantives have preserved their plural forms due to the weak declension or to mutation: ox (oxen), child (children), man (men), woman (women), foot (feet), goose (geese), tooth (teeth), mouse (mice), louse (lice), dormouse (dormice); here also belong the forms brethren (alongside brothers) and kine (alongside cows). Another type of plural has been preserved in the forms of the words sheep (sheep), deer (deer), swine (swine); compare fruit (fruit), also fish (fish), and names of several kinds of fish: trout, salmon, cod, etc., which usually take no -s in the plural.

This peculiarity appears to be due to the meaning of these words. Most of them are names of animals (ox, goose, mouse, louse, dormouse, sheep, deer, trout, salmon). The plural of these nouns is used to denote a mass (a flock of sheep, a herd of swine, a shoal of fish, etc.), rather than a multitude of individuals. This semantic peculiarity appears to have influenced the plural forms of these words.

As to the other words belonging here (man, woman, tooth, etc.) there must have been some other causes which determined their peculiar fate. Isolated plural forms have also been preserved in a few phrases which coalesced into compound words: twelvemonth (ОE twelf monap, fortnight (OE feowertyne niht), sennight (obsolete) (OE seofon niht).



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