Looking through various aspects of Old English grammar, one gets the sense that Old English seemed to be made almost purposely difficult. To every rule there are almost more exceptions. They occur without rhyme, reason, or even basic consistency. Words that exist regularly in modern English morph into these hideous beasts of irregularity when compared with their Old English equivalents. Like Mark Twain in his essay The Awful German Language (an appropriate comparison document, by the way, since many of the problems that stymie modern English speakers in Old English have parallels in modern German). Throwing up one's hands and judging the whole system just one bed of primative nonsense is not the correct response, however. Every irregularity, without exception, can be explained, and predicted by means of rules. Specifically, the intricate sound changes undergone by Old English during its development from West Germanic (previously Germanic, previously Indo-European) help to shed light on the reasons for many changes in the language. The topic is worthy of far more than just a pathetic node on E2, barely able to cover the complexities, but a brief summary and catalogue of the changes over time may aid understanding of other aspects of Old English grammar, and perhaps alleviate frustration a bit.

As follows is a chronological list of sound changes, broken into specific units. Many of these are general to Germanic languages as a whole, and so have better, more thorough explanations under their own writeups.

Indo-European to Germanic Sound Changes

Grimm's Law
Grimm's Law is an extremely general soundshift applying to all Germanic languages, and very helpful in linking some seemingly unrelated words to their common Indo-European backgrounds. In general correspondance, voiceless stops 'p', 't', and 'k' became the voiceless fricatives 'f', 'þ', and 'h'; for example, Latin: piscis to Old English: fisc (fish). Voiced stops, under different transformation, became their voiceless counterparts; for example Latin: genu to Old English: cnéow (knee). Aspirates 'bh', 'dh', and 'gh' also became voiced stops. These changes applied merely to root sounds, not really forming irregularities.

Verner's Law
Verner's Law, another old change occurring during the evolution of Indo-European into Germanic, spoke of changes in stress. In disyllable or polysyllable words with a voiceless fricative between voiced sounds (vowels), they became voiced if the stress follows the fricative. This is found in modern English pronunciation differences between such words as dissolute/dissolve and exercise/exert. This law did cause irregularities in Old English, where stress could sometimes shift from the root syllable to the inflected ending of a strong verb's past tense and past participle form. Thus, the principal parts for sníðan (cut) are not sníðan, snáþ, sniþon, sniþen, but instead sníðan, snáþ, snidon, sniden.

Germanic to West Germanic Sound Changes

Palatal Umlaut
Umlaut, which is the way in which a vowel in one syllable affects the vowel in a preceding syllable, was extremely common in Old English. Note, it was not marked by an umlaut, just spelled out phonetically (modern German, which underwent the same process, does mark instances of umlaut with an umlaut diacretical mark, oddly enough). There were different types, but palatal was one of the most important. Palatal umlaut in Old English was an extention of a process already began in Germanic, where a short 'i' or 'j' (with 'j' being intended to mean the 'y' sound as it does in all other Germanic languages except modern English) in a following syllable morphed the preceeding short 'e' into a twin short 'i'. Carrying on the tradition, Old English made copious changes based on similar circumstances:

  • ú to ý, as in túnjan to týnan
  • u to y, as in trummjan to trymman
  • ó to é, as in dómjan to déman
  • o to e, as in morgin to mergen
  • nasal a or o to e, as in frammjan to fremman
  • á to áé, as in lárjan to láéran
  • a to æ, as in ladin to lædin
  • æ to e, as in ægi to ege
  • diphthongs purified to í or i, as in hiordi to hirde or géléafjan to gelífan
Phonetically, all of these mutations are called palatal because they occurred under a circumstance where the consonant following the umlauted vowel was palatized. Something akin to ñ of Spanish, except for all consonants. This kind of palatization did not occur throughout all Germanic, merely Western. The shifts all marked movements from Back or Low vowels to High, Front vowels. Because past participle and past tense forms of verbs sometimes contained palatals when their stems did not, this process would initiate irregularity in strong verbs via umlaut.

This process, which derives from the Latin word gemini meaning 'twins', explains the development of doubled consonants in Old English (doubled consonants strongly changed pronunciation, unlike modern English, refer to Old English pronunciation). Basically, all single consonants except 'r' preceeded by a short vowel doubled in length and added a palatal. These words were then subject to umlaut in many circumstances.

West Germanic to Old English Sound Changes

Fronting of 'a'
This describes the introduction of the æ sound in Old English, a front vowel. Basically, in closed, self contained syllables, the vowel was fronted, but if the syllable was open at all, it remained 'a'. The rules for this closing and opening were the same as in modern Dutch, so a final consonant caused a closed syllable, but a consonant followed by a vowel caused an open syllable. Two vowel combinations closed the syllable again. For example, dag became dæg, but dagas remained dagas. Gladra became glædra, but gladum remained gladum. This explains many irregular forms of adjectives compared to nouns.

Fronting of 'á'
In exactly the same circumstances as the fronting of 'a', 'á' became 'áé'.

Responsible for a buttload of headaches with verb tense changes, breaking referred to the process of certain pure sounds becoming diphthongs before certain consonants or consonant clusters. Æ became 'ea' before an 'l' or 'r' consonant cluster, for example æld to eald, or wærm to wearm. 'E' became the diphthong eo and 'i' became 'io' before 'l' followed by 'c' or 'h', 'r' consonant clusters, and 'h' alone or followed by a consonant. For example, melcan to meolcan, erþe to eorþe, feh to feoh.

Early Old English Sound Changes

Velar Umlaut
Occurring in about the year 700, front vowels 'i', 'e', and 'æ' were shifted into diphthongs 'io', 'eo', and 'ea' by the presence of a back vowel ('u', 'o', or 'a') in the next syllable.

Dental Assimilation
A process marking irregular comparative adjectives and other inflectional endings, dental assimulation referred to the process by which a voiced sound, followed by an unvoiced ending, would lose voice itself. For example, findst to fintst. If you speak these outloud, you'll notice the 't' is barely present, causing most standardized spellings to leave it out to produce finst, an irregular form. This was also extremely common to 2nd person personal verb endings, since the 'st' ending was a very common cause of assimilation.

Loss of Intervocalic H
At about the same time, an 'h' between a diphthong and vowel or diphtong and liquid disappeared, causing lengthening of the preceeding vowel to make up for the consonant absense. This process can be observed in modern German as well, where old spellings reflect an unpronounced 'h' that causes vowel lengthening.

Marckwardt, Albert H. Old English Language and Literature. New York: Norton & Company, 1972.

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