The phonological history of English consonants
is part of the phonological history of the English language
in terms of changes in the phonology
Other initial cluster reductions
- The rap-wrap merger is a reduction that causes the historical initial cluster /wr/ to be reduced to /r/.
- The not-knot merger is a reduction that causes the historical initial cluster /kn/ to be reduced to /n/.
- The nome-gnome merger is a reduction that causes the historical initial cluster /ɡn/ to be reduced to /n/.
Final cluster reductions
Phonological history of ng
Ng-coalescence (or the singer-finger split) is the name given to a sound change in the history of English
by which word-final [ɡ] was deleted after [ŋ] in words like sing
; this sound change happened around the end of the 16th century
As a result of Ng-coalescence, Middle English [sɪŋɡ] sing came to be pronounced [sɪŋ]. As well as in word-final position, Ng-coalescence was applied also in cases where a verb ending in -ng was followed by a vowel-initial suffix, so singing and singer also underwent the change. Otherwise, word-internal -ng- did not undergo coalescence and the pronunciation [ŋɡ] was retained, as in finger and angle. Additionally, in certain adjectives ending in -ng the [ŋɡ] is retained when the comparative and superlative suffixes are added, so younger, strongest, etc., do not show coalescence, but wronger does.
As a result of the differing effects of this sound change word-internally, the words finger and singer do not rhyme in most varieties of English, although they did in Middle English.
Some accents, however, do not show the full effects of Ng-coalescence as described above, and in these accents sing may be found with [ŋɡ], the suffix -ing may be pronounced [ɪŋɡ], and pairs like singer and finger may rhyme. This is particularly associated with English English accents in an area of northern England and the Midlands, including the cities of Birmingham (see Brummie), Manchester, Liverpool (see Scouse), Sheffield and Stoke-on-Trent. It is also associated with some American English accents in the New York area. Some of the accents of these areas may be considered to lack the phoneme /ŋ/, as the sound [ŋ] can be thought of as an allophone of /n/ before /ɡ/ or /k/. (Wells 1982)
In some accents of the west of Scotland and Ulster, Ng-coalescence is extended to word-internal position, so that finger is pronounced /fɪŋər/.
G-dropping is a popular name for the substitution of /ɪn/ or /ən/ (spelt -in’
) for (spelt -ing
) in the English present participle
due to the orthographic changes. Except in dialects which do not show NG coalescence
, no sound is actually dropped; a different one is simply used (the alveolar nasal
instead of the velar nasal
This is an old substitution which derives from the generalisation of what were once two different morphemes in Old English: the present participle -ende and the gerund -inge. The orthography of the merged form, -ing, reflects a derivation from the Old English gerund, but the /ɪn/ pronunciation is also an old one.
It is currently a feature of colloquial and non-standard speech of all regions, and stereotypically of Cockney, Southern American English and African American Vernacular English. Historically, it has also been used by members of the educated upper-class, as reflected by the phrase huntin’, fishin’ and shootin’. That this pronunciation was once regarded as standard can also be seen from old rhymes, as for example, in this couplet from John Gay's 1732 pastoral, Acis and Galatea, set to music by Handel:
- Shepherd, what art thou pursuing,
- Heedless running to thy ruin?
Which was presumably pronounced "shepherd, what art thou pursuin', heedless runnin' to thy ruin" although this would sound very odd in an opera today. Such a rhyme would today be appropriate only in a comic context.
In the poetry of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), participles consistently rhyme with words in [ɪn]:
- But Weston has a new-cast gown
- On Sundays to be fine in,
- And, if she can but win a crown,
- 'Twill just new dye the lining.
The pronunciation with [ɪŋ] only became standard in the nineteenth century.
The use of a colloquial pronunciation which derives from a different word from the standard is not uncommon; ’em or em, a colloquial form of them, derives from Old English him of the same meaning, whereas them was a borrowing from Old Norse þeim.
Fricatives and affricates
H-dropping and h-adding
- H-dropping is a colloquial term used to describe the omission of initial /h/ in words like house, heat and hangover in many dialects of English. H-dropping in English is found in all dialects in the weak forms of function words like he, him, her, his, had and have.
- The opposite of h-dropping, so-called h-adding is a hypercorrection found in typically h-dropping accents of English.
Elimination of velar fricatives in English
- The taut-taught merger is a process that occurs in modern English that causes /x/ to be dropped in words like thought, night, daughter etc. In traditional-dialect of the north of England and Scotland, /x/ may remain in many of the words in which it was found in Middle English. Quite apart from traditional dialect, a fair number of names in the Celtic countries contain /x/ in the local pronunciation. Even in England /x/ can be said to hold a tenuous and marginal position in the consonant system of educated speakers, though certainly no longer found in Standard English in words which contained it in Middle English. Here it is clearly a loan-phoneme.
- The wait-weight merger is the merger of the Middle English sound sequences /ɛi/ (as in wait) and /ɛix/ (as in weight) that occurs in most dialects of English.
- The lock-loch merger is a phonemic merger of /k/ and /x/ that is starting to occur in some Scottish English dialects, making lock and loch homonyms as /lɔk/.
Other sound changes involving fricatives and affricates
The vest-west merger is a phenomenon occurring in Hong Kong English
where the phonemes /v/ and /w/ are both pronounced /w/ at the beginning of a word. In other positions, /v/ can either become /f/ or /w/ depending on the word. "even", "leaving" and "rover" have /f/ and "advice", "event" and "revoke" have /w/.
Y-dropping is the dropping of the initial /j/ from words like "year" and "yeast" occurring for some speakers in south-western counties of England (Wakelin 1984: 75).
W-dropping is the dropping of the initial /w/ from words like "woman" and "wool" occurring for some speakers in south-western counties of England (Wakelin 1984: 75).
The wing-ring merger is a phenomenon occurring in Hong Kong English
where the phonemes /w/ and /r/ are both pronounced /w/ at the beginning of a word, making pairs like "wing" and "ring" homonyms.
The rip-lip merger is a phenomenon occurring in Singaporean English
where the phonemes /r/ and /l/ are not distinguished, making pairs like "rip" and "lip" homonyms. The merger is evinced by TV personality Phua Chu Kang
's oft-repeated refrain to "Use your blain!".
R-rolling refers to an alveolar trill
production of /r/ by many speakers of Scottish English
. For these speakers, "red" is pronounced [rɛd] rather than [ɹɛd].
R-tapping refers to an alveolar tap
realisation of /r/ by Scottish English
speakers. For these speakers, "very" is pronounced [ˈvɛɾɪ]. R-tapping historically occurred in English English
and still occurs recessively for some speakers of northern accents in Yorkshire, as well as among younger speakers in Liverpool English.
R-labialization is a process occurring in Cockney
speech where the /r/ phoneme is realized as a labiodental approximant
[ʋ] in contrast to an alveolar approximant
[ɹ]. To speakers who are not used to [ʋ], this can sound like a /w/.
R-breaking is a process occurring in Modern English
in which historical /r/ becomes syllabic /ɚ/ or /ə/ after certain vowels. R-breaking occurs generally after the diphthongs /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/ and /aʊ/. As a result, historically monosyllabic "hire", "coir" and "sour" come to rhyme with historically bisyllabic "higher", "employer" and "power".
L-dropping is a process where postvocalic /l/ in many words was dropped in Middle English
. This generally happened in "olk" words, like "folk", "polka", "yolk", "alk" words, like "talk", "walk", "chalk" etc. and "alm" words, like "palm", "calm" and "psalm". Some people may pronounce "yolk" with an /l/ sound today, but that would be a spelling pronunciation
. It is also not uncommon in certain dialects of the United States to pronounce the /l/ sound in "alm" words, such as palm, calm, and psalm.
In AAVE, l-dropping may occur when the /l/ sound comes after a vowel and before a labial consonant in the same syllable, causing pronunciations like /hɛp/ for "help" and /sɛf/ for "self".
L-breaking is a process occurring in Modern English
in which historical /l/ becomes syllabic /əl/ after certain vowels. L-breaking occurs generally after the diphthongs /aɪ/, /ɔɪ/ and /aʊ/. As a result, historically monosyllabic "tile", "boil" and "fowl" come to rhyme with historically bisyllabic "dial", "royal" and "vowel". L-breaking is also common in rhotic
varieties of English, after /ɚ/ and /ɹ/, hence pronunciations like /ˈwɚəld/ for "world".
The let-net merger is a phenomenon occurring in Hong Kong English
where the phonemes /l/ and /n/ are not distinguished at the onset of a syllable and [l] and [n] are free-variation allophones at the onset of a syllable.
The jet-yet merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Chicano English
where /ʤ/ and /j/ are both pronounced the same in word initial position. As a result, jet
Sound changes involving intervocalic consonants
Money-smoothing is a process occurring for some Wisconsinites
where intervocalic /n/ is deleted when it comes before an unstressed /i/ producing a nasalized diphthong, resulting in pronunciations such as:
- money - /mʌɪ̃/
- any - /ɛɪ̃/
- penny - /pɛɪ̃/
- funny - /fʌɪ̃/
Mettle-smoothing is a process occurring for some Wisconsinites where intervocalic /t/, /d/, and /v/ are deleted when they come before syllabic /l/, /n/, and /ɚ/ which become nonsyllabic /l/, /n/, and /ɹ/ resulting in pronunciations such as:
- little - /lɪl/
- mettle - /mɛl/
- rotten - /ɹɑn/
- driven - /drɪn/
- matter - /mæɹ/
- better - /bɛɹ/
Sound changes involving final consonants
The lick-lip-lit merger is a merger of final /k/, /p/ and /t/ occurring for some speakers of English English
. (Wells: 323). For these speakers, "lick", "lip" and "lit" are homophonous as [lɪʔ].
Final obstruent devoicing
Final obstruent devoicing is the full devoicing of final obstruents that occurs in Singaporean English
and for some AAVE
speakers in Detroit where obstruents are devoiced at the end of a word. The preceding length of the vowel is maintained when the final obstruents are devoiced in AAVE, hence the pronunciations [bɪːk] and [bæːt] for "big" and "bad".
Most varieties of English don't have full devoicing of final voiced obstruents. Nevertheless voiced obstruents are partially devoiced in final position in English, especially when phrase-final or when followed by a voiceless consonant (for example, bad cat ). The most salient distinction between bad and bat is not the voicing of the final consonant but rather the duration of the vowel and the glottalization of final [t]: bad is pronounced [bæːd̥] while bat is [bætˀ].
Final consonant deletion
Final consonant deletion is the nonstandard deletion of single consonants in syllable-final position occurring for some AAVE
speakers resulting in pronunciations like:
- bad - /bæː/
- con - /kɑ̃/
- foot - /fʊ/
- five - /faɪ/
- good - /ɡʊː/
When final nasal consonants are deleted, nasality is maintained on the preceding vowel. When voiced obstruents are deleted, length of the preceding vowel is maintained. Consonants remaining from reduced final clusters may be eligible for deletion. The deletion occurs especially if the final consonant is a nasal consonant or a stop consonant. Final consonant deletion is much less frequent than the more common final consonant cluster reduction.
Consonants can also be deleted at the end of a morpheme boundary, leading to pronunciations like /kɪːz/ for kids.
Bilabial plosive and labiodental fricative mergers
The ban-van merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Caribbean English
and Chicano English
where the phoneme /v/ becomes /b/. As a result, "ban" and "van" are homophones as /ban/.
The pit-fit merger is phenomenon occurring in Philippine English
where the phonemes /f/ and /p/ are both pronounced /p/ making "pit" and "fit" homophones. The lack of contrast between /f/ and /p/ explains why there are so many spellings used for "Filopino" and "Filopina" used on the internet, ranging from "filipina", "philipina", "philippina", and "pilipina".