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Ash in Old English and Today: Exemplifying Language Variation and Change

Hey everyone, I’m back.

Here’s an outline of a presentation on /æ/ variation and change I just put together for an Old English literature class I’m taking. About half of the students are non-linguists, so it starts with basic principles of vocalic variation and change and uses them to make a conceptual link from Old English variation to modern American English examples. I just thought it might be sort of fun to share. I apologize for any inaccuracies; I haven’t studied historical linguistics and I’m honestly quite terrible at history in general. Enjoy.

Megan L. Risdal

Ash in Old English
•Low, front, & unrounded vowel.
Long and short varieties:
–/æ:/ (e.g., dæl) and /æ/ (e.g., Þæt).
•<Æ/æ> originated from the Latin alphabet.
What does Ash look like?

Many of the sound changes that occurred to ash, e.g., raising (or lowering of F1) to be discussed later, involved variation in configurations of F1 and F2 values over vowel duration.

•First and second formants (acoustic resonances of the human vocal tract) measured in Hz.
F1 = height (inverse relationship). F2 = frontness (higher freq. = fronter).
Systemic Vocalic Changes

It’s important to keep in mind that vowel changes weren’t isolated, they were systemic. A change in an individual vowel led to subsequent changes in the neighboring vowel space. A few possible types of individual vocalic variation are merging, splitting, and breaking. Splitting and breaking are implicated in a few changes in ash in Old English and today.

•Affect entire vowel systems (e.g., Northern Cities Shift, Great Vowel Shift).
–Each of a series of vowels receives a new place of articulation trigged by an individual vocalic change.
•Individual Vocalic Changes: Merging, Splitting, and Breaking.
•Occurs when allophones of a phoneme change from complementary distribution to contrastive (different phonemes).
•For example, the nasal and oral vowel contrast in modern French.
Phonetic: Vowel –> Nasalized / __ nasal C. This is a conditioning environment.
Today: chat = /ʃa/ and chant = /ʃã/ without a conditioning environment (nasal versus oral consonant).
Breaking: One vowel, e.g., short-a, broken into several parts with a  glide in-between.
•For example, the Southern Drawl in the US.
–/æ/ –> [ajə] / __ voiceless aspirants & nasals.
Southern breaking ANAE 2006
Breaking in Old English
•Short /æ/ broke before h, rC, lC, and sometimes w.
•Long /æ:/ broke only before h.
•/æ/ –> <ea> / __ in the above contexts.
Back umlaut in Old English

This process, also known as back mutation, is similar to breaking. It’s important to note, though, that the phonological context is different in back umlaut versus that of breaking although it has a similar result. There was a lot of dialectal variation present and back umlaut of short /æ/ was most common in Mercian.

•Short /æ/ sometimes became the short diphthong <ea> before a back vowel in the next syllable.
–Short /æ/ –> <ea> / __ C + back vowel
•Certain intervocalic consonants trigger this process while others block it (varied by dialect).
Raising in Old English
•Vowel changes from a low tongue position to a higher tongue position (e.g., pre-nasal short-a in most varieties of modern American English).
•Second Fronting: /a/ fronted to /æ/ and long /æ:/ raised to /e/.
–/æ/-raising spread from the 5th through 9th centuries. Later dates = umlaut.
Ash and Old English Dialects

Systematic vocalic changes spread through dialect regions over time, revealing synchronic phonological variation.

(1 & 2)  For example, in the Southwest c.6-700AD , long  /æ:/ raised to   /e/ first, followed by umlaut whereby /ɑ/ fronted to /æ/.

–Therefore, dæl = dæd in SW England, but elsewhere dæl =/= ded.

–Evident in class 4 and 5 strong verbs: spræcon in West Saxon, but sprecun in non-West Saxon dialects.

(3)   Next, short /æ/ raised to short /e/ circa late 7th century and spread northward.

(4)   Finally, umlauted /ɑ/ (at this point /æ/) also raised to /e/ a century   later. Prior to this, it was a split.

Fast forward at least 1,000 years…
Go to the website for the Atlas of North American English (ANAE) by Labov, Ash, and Boberb (2006). From there, click on North American English Dialects. On the left-hand side, click on word comparison and in the window that opens to the right, change the word token to that. For an example of Southern breaking, click on the dot from Fayetteville, North Carolina (south of Raleigh). Next, click on the light blue dot in Eau Claire, Wisconsin (western Wisconsin, near the border of Minnesota) for an example of ash-raising typical of the Northern Cities Shift.
Why is ash important?
Click here for a YouTube clip from a documentary in which Bill Labov is interviewed about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift. This short video showcases the significance of this ongoing sound change. Listen to the words that Bill Labov plays from his gating experiment and see if you can determine what the speaker is saying.

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