Some of the phonological history of English vowels, illustrated by failed rhymes in English folk songs


  • ModE = Modern English (18th century–present)
  • EModE = Early Modern English (16th–17th centuries)
  • ME = Middle English (12th–15th centuries)
  • OE = Old English (7th–11th centuries)
  • OF = Old French (9th–14th centuries)

All of this information is from the amazingly comprehensive book English Pronunciation, 1500–1700 (Volume II) by E. J. Dobson, published in 1968, which I will unfortunately have to return to the library soon.

The transcriptions of ModE pronunciations are not meant to reflect any particular accent in particular but to provide enough information to allow the pronunciation in any particular accent to be deduced given sufficient knowledge about the accent.

I use the acute accent to indicate primary stress and the grave accent to indicate secondary stress in phonetic transcriptions. I don’t like the standard IPA notation.

Oh, the holly bears a blossom
As white as the lily flower
And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ
To be our sweet saviour
— “The Holly and the Ivy”, as sung by Shirley Collins and the Young Tradition)

In ModE flower is [fláwr], but saviour is [séjvjər]; the two words don’t rhyme. But they rhymed in EModE, because saviour was pronounced with secondary stress on its final syllable, as [séjvjə̀wr], while flower was pronounced [flə́wr].

The OF suffix -our (often spelt -or in English, as in emperor and conqueror) was pronounced /-ur/; I don’t know if it was phonetically short or long, and I don’t know whether it had any stress in OF, but it was certainly borrowed into ME as long [-ùːr] quite regularly, and regularly bore a secondary stress. In general borrowings into ME and EModE seem to have always been given a secondary stress somewhere, in a position chosen so as to minimize the number of adjacent unstressed syllables in the word. The [-ùːr] ending became [-ə̀wr] by the Great Vowel Shift in EModE, and then would have become [-àwr] in ModE, except that it (universally, as far as I know) lost its secondary stress.

English shows a consistent tendency for secondary stress to disappear over time. Native English words don’t generally have secondary stress, and you could see secondary stress as a sort of protection against the phonetic degradation brought about by English’s native vowel reduction processes, serving to prevent the word from getting too dissimilar from its foreign pronunciation too quickly. Eventually, however, the word (or really suffix, in this case, since saviour, emperor and conqueror all develop in the same way) gets fully nativized, which means loss of the secondary stress and concomitant vowel reduction. According to Dobson, words probably acquired their secondary stress-less variants more or less immediately after borrowing if they were used in ordinary speech at all, but educated speech betrays no loss of secondary stress until the 17th century (he’s speaking generally here, not just about the [-ə̀wr] suffix. Disyllabic words were quickest to lose their secondary stresses, trisyllabic words (such as saviour) a bit slower, and in words with more than three syllables secondary stress often survives to the present day (there are some dialect differences, too: the suffix -ary, as in necessary, is pronounced [-ɛ̀ri] in General American but [-əri] in RP, and often just [-ri] in more colloquial British English).

The pronunciation [-ə̀wr] is recorded as late as 1665 by Owen Price (The Vocal Organ). William Salesbury (1547–1567) spells the suffix as -wr in Welsh orthography, which could reflect a pronunciation [-ùːr] or [-ur]; the former would be the result of occasional failure of the Great Vowel Shift before final [r] as in pour, tour, while the latter would be the probable initial result of vowel reduction. John Hart (1551–1570) has [-urz] in governors. So the [-ə̀wr] pronunciation was in current use throughout the 17th century, although the reduced forms were already being used occasionally in Standard English during the 16th. Exactly when [-ə̀wr] became obsolete, I don’t know (because Dobson doesn’t cover the ModE period).

Bold General Wolfe to his men did say
Come lads and follow without delay
To yonder mountain that is so high
Don’t be down-hearted
For we’ll gain the victory
— “General Wolfe” as sung by the Copper Family

Our king went forth to Normandy
With grace and might of chivalry
The God for him wrought marvelously
Wherefore England may call and cry
— “Agincourt Carol” as sung by Maddy Prior and June Tabor

This is another case where loss of secondary stress is the culprit. The words victory, Normandy and chivalry are all borrowings of OF words ending in -ie /-i/. They would therefore have ended up having [-àj] in ModE, like cry, had it not been for the loss of the secondary stress. For the -y suffix this occurred quite early in everyday speech, already in late ME, but the secondarily stressed variants survived to be used in poetry and song for quite a while longer. Alexander Gil’s Logonomia Anglica (1619) explicitly remarks that pronouncing three-syllable, initially-stressed words ending in -y with [-ə̀j] is something that can be done in poetry but not in prose. Dobson says that apart from Gil’s, there are few mentions of this feature of poetic speech during the 17th century; we can perhaps take this an indication that it was becoming unusual to pronounce -y as [-ə̀j] even in poetry. I don’t know exactly how long the feature lasted. But General Wolfe is a folk song whose exact year of composition can be identified—1759, the date of General Wolfe’s death—so the feature seems to have been present well into the 18th century.

They’ve let him stand till midsummer day
Till he looked both pale and wan
And Barleycorn, he’s grown a beard
And so become a man
— “John Barleycorn” as sung by The Young Tradition

In ModE wan is pronounced [wɒ́n], with a different vowel from man [man]. But both of them used to have the same vowel as man; in wan the influence of the preceding [w] resulted in rounding to an o-vowel. The origins of this change are traced by Dobson to the East of England during the 15th century. There is evidence of the change from the Paston Letters (a collection of correspondence between members of the Norfolk gentry between 1422 and 1509) and the Cely Papers (a collection of correspondence between wealthy wool merchants owning estates in Essex between 1475 and 1488); the Cely Papers only exhibit the change in the word was, but the change is more extensive in the Paston Letters and in fact seems to have applied before the other labial consonants [b], [f] and [v] too for these letters’ writers.

There is no evidence of the change in Standard English until 1617, when Robert Robinson in The Art of Pronunciation notes that was, wast (as in thou wast) and what have [ɒ́] rather than [á]. The restriction of the change to unstressed function words initially, as in the Cely Papers suggests the change did indeed spread from the Eastern dialects. Later phoneticians during the 17th century record the [ɒ́] pronunciation in more and more words, but the change is not regular at this point; for example, Christopher Cooper (1687) has [ɒ́] in watch but not in wan. According to Dobson, relatively literary words such as wan and quality, not often used in everyday speech, did not reliably have [ɒ́] until the late 18th century.

Note that the change also applied after [wr] in wrath, and that words in which a velar consonant ([k], [g] or [ŋ]) followed the vowel were regular exceptions (cf. wax, wag, twang).

I’ll go down in some lonesome valley
Where no man on earth shall e’er me find
Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices
And every moment blows blusterous winds
— “The Banks of the Sweet Primroses” as sung by the Copper family

The expected ModE pronunciation of OE wind ‘wind’ would be [wájnd], resulting in homophony with find. Indeed, as far as I know, every other monosyllabic word with OE -ind has [-ájnd] in Modern English (mind, grind, bind, kind, hind, rind, …), resulting from an early ME sound change that lengthened final-syllable vowels before [nd] and various other clusters containing two voiced consonants at the same place of articulation (e.g. [-ld] as in wild).

It turns out that [wájnd] did use to be the pronunciation of wind for a long time. The OED entry for wind, written in the early 20th century, actually says that the word is still commonly taken to rhyme with [-ajnd] by “modern poets”; and Bob Copper and co. can be heard pronouncing winds as [wájndz] in their recording of “The Banks of the Sweet Primroses”. The [wínd] pronunciation reportedly became usual in Standard English only in the 17th century. It is hypothesized to be a result of backformation from the derivatives windy and windmill, in which lengthening never occurred because the [nd] cluster was not in word-final position. It is unlikely to be due to avoidance of homophony with the verb wind, because the words spent several centuries being homophonous without any issues arising.

Meeting is pleasure but parting is a grief
And an inconstant lover is worse than a thief
A thief can but rob me and take all I have
But an inconstant lover sends me to the grave
— “The Cuckoo”, as sung by Anne Briggs

As the spelling suggests, the word have used to rhyme with grave. The word was confusingly variable in form in ME, but one of its forms was [haːvə] (rhyming with grave) and another one was [havə]. The latter could have been derived from the former by vowel reduction when the word was unstressed, but this is not the only possible sources of it (e.g. another one would be analogy with the second-person singular form hast, where the a was in a closed open syllable and therefore would have been short); there does not seem to be any consistent conditioning by stress in the forms recorded by 16th- and 17th-century phoneticians, who use both forms quite often. There are some who have conditioning by stress, such as Gil, who explicitly describes [hǽːv] as the stressed form and [hav] as the unstressed form. I don’t know how long [hǽːv] (and its later forms, [hɛ́ːv], [héːv], [héjv]) remained a variant usable in Standard English, but according to the Traditional Ballad Index, “The Cuckoo” is attested no earlier than 1769.

Now the day being gone and the night coming on
Those two little babies sat under a stone
They sobbed and they sighed, they sat there and cried
Those two little babies, they laid down and died
— “Babes in the Wood” as sung by the Copper family

In EModE there was occasional shortening of stressed [ɔ́ː], so that it developed into ModE [ɒ́] rather than [ów] as normal. It is a rather irregular and mysterious process; examples of it which have survived into ModE include gone (< OE ġegān), cloth (< OE clāþ) and hot (< OE hāt). The 16th- and 17th-century phoneticians record many other words which once had variants with shortening that have not survived to the present-day, such as both, loaf, rode, broad and groat. Dobson mentions that Elisha Coles (1675–1679) “knew some variant, perhaps ŏ in stone“; the verse from “Babes in the Wood” above would be additional evidence that stone at some point by some people was pronounced as [stɒn], thus rhyming with on. As far as I know, there is no way it could have been the other way round, with on having [ɔ́ː]; the word on has always had a short vowel.

“So come riddle to me, dear mother,” he said
“Come riddle it all as one
Whether I should marry with Fair Eleanor
Or bring the brown girl home” (× 2)

“Well, the brown girl, she has riches and land
Fair Eleanor, she has none
And so I charge you do my bidding
And bring the brown girl home” (× 2)
— “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” as sung by Peter Bellamy

In “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor”, the rhymes on the final consonant are often imperfect (although the consonants are always phonetically similar). These two verses, however, are the only ones where the vowels aren’t the same in the modern pronunciation—and there’s good reason to think they were the same once.

The words one and none are closely related. The OE word for ‘one’ was ān; the OE word for ‘none’ was nān; the OE word for ‘not’ was ne; the second is simply the result of adding the third as a prefix to the first: ‘not one’.

OE ā normally becomes ME [ɔ́ː] and then ModE [ów] in stressed syllables. If it had done that in one and none, it’d be a near-rhyme with home today, save for the difference in the final nasals’ places of articulation. Indeed, in only, which is a derivative of one with the -ly suffix added, we have [ów] in ModE. But the standard ModE pronunciations of one and none are [wʌ́n] and [nʌ́n] respectively. There are also variant forms [wɒ́n] and [nɒ́n] widespread across England. How did this happen? As usual, Dobson has answers.

The [nɒ́n] variant is the easiest one to explain, at least if we consider it in isolation from the others. It’s just the result of sporadic [ɔ́ː]-shortening before [n], as in gone (see above on the onstone rhyme). As for [nʌ́n]—well, ModE [ʌ] is the ordinary reflex of short ME [u], but there is a sporadic [úː]-shortening change in EModE besides the sporadic [ɔ́ː]-shortening one. This change is quite common and reflected in many ModE words such as blood, flood, good, book, cook, wool, although I don’t think there are any where it happens before n. So perhaps [nɔ́ːn] underwent a shift to [nóːn] somehow during the ME period, which would become [núːn] by the Great Vowel Shift. As it happens there is some evidence for such a shift in ME from occasional rhymes in ME texts, such as hoom ‘home’ with doom ‘doom’ and forsothe ‘forsooth’ with bothe ‘bothe’ in the Canterbury Tales. However, there is especially solid evidence for it in the environment after [w], in which environment most instances of ME [ɔ́ː] exhibit raising that has passed into Standard English (e.g. who < OE hwā, two < OE twā, ooze < OE wāse; woe is an exception in ModE, although it, too, is listed as a homophone of woo occasionally by Early Modern phoneticians). Note that although all these examples happen to have lost the [w], presumably by absorption into the following [úː] after the Great Vowel Shift occurred, there are words such as womb with EModE [úː] which have retained their [w], and phoneticians in the 16th and 17th centuries record pronunciations of who and two with retained [w]. So if ME [ɔ́ːn] ‘one’ somehow became [wɔ́ːn], and then raising to [wóːn] occurred due to the /w/, then this vowel would be likely to spread by analogy to its derivative [nɔ́ːn], allowing for the emergence of [wʌ́n] and [nʌ́n] in ModE. The ModE [wɒ́n] and [nɒ́n] pronunciations can be accounted for by assuming the continued existence of an un-raised [wɔ́ːn] variant in EModE alongside [wuːn].

As it happens there is a late ME tendency for [j] to be inserted before long mid front vowels and, a little less commonly, for [w] to be inserted before word-initial long mid back vowels. This glide insertion only happened in initial syllables, and usually only when the vowel was word-initial or the word began with [h]; but there are occasional examples before other consonants such as John Hart’s [mjɛ́ːn] for mean. The Hymn of the Virgin (uncertain date, 14th century), which is written in Welsh orthography and therefore more phonetically transparent than usual, evidences [j] in earth. John Hart records [j] in heal and here, besides mean, and [w] in whole (< OE hāl). 17th-century phoneticians record many instances of [j]- and [w]-insertion, giving spellings such as yer for ‘ere’, yerb for ‘herb’, wuts for ‘oats’ (this one also has shortening)—but they frequently condemn these pronunciations as “barbarous”. Christopher Cooper (1687) even mentions a pronunciation wun for ‘one’, although not without condemning it for its barbarousness. The general picture seems to be that glide insertion was widespread in dialects, and filtered into Standard English to some degree during the 16th century, but there was a strong reaction against it during the 17th century and it mostly disappeared—except, of course, in the word one, which according to Dobson the [wʌ́n] pronunciation becomes normal for around 1700. The [nʌ́n] pronunciation for ‘none’ is first recorded by William Turner in The Art of Spelling and Reading English (1710).

Finally, I should mention that sporadic [úː]-shortening is also recorded as applying to home, resulting in the pronunciation [hʌ́m]; and Turner has this pronunciation, as do many English traditional dialects. So it’s possible that the rhyme in “Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor” is due to this change having applied to home, rather than preservation of the conservative [-ówn] forms of one and none.


One response to “Some of the phonological history of English vowels, illustrated by failed rhymes in English folk songs

  1. David Marjanović

    which is written in Welsh orthography and therefore more phonetically transparent than usual

    Ai’l sbend ddy rest yf ddy dei lamenting ddat ddis didn’t catsj on.

    (Yeah, had to cheat there by resorting to Dutch.)

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