Compensatory lengthening

Compensatory lengthening in phonology and historical linguistics is the lengthening of a vowel sound that happens upon the loss of a following consonant, usually in the syllable coda. This may be considered an extreme form of fusion (Crowley 1997:46).

An example from the history of English is the lengthening of vowels that happened when the voiceless palatal fricative /ç/ and its allophone [x] were lost. For example, in Chaucer's time the word night was pronounced /niçt/; later the /ç/ was lost, but the /i/ was lengthened to /iː/ to compensate. (Later the /iː/ became /aɪ/ by the Great Vowel Shift.)

Both the Germanic spirant law and the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law show vowel lengthening compensating for the loss of a nasal.

Non-rhotic forms of English have a lengthened vowel before a historical post-vocalic */r/: in Scottish English, girl has a short /i/ followed by a light alveolar /r/, as presumably it did in Middle English; in Southern British English, the */r/ has dropped out of the spoken form and the vowel has become a "long schwa".


  • Crowley, Terry. (1997) An Introduction to Historical Linguistics. 3rd edition. Oxford University Press.

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