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Phonological history of English consonants

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Title: Phonological history of English consonants  
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Subject: Phonological history of English vowels, Scottish English, Middle English creole hypothesis, Phonological history of English diphthongs, Phonological change
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Phonological history of English consonants

The phonological history of English consonants is part of the phonological history of the English language in terms of changes in the phonology of consonants.

Consonant clusters

H-cluster reductions

Y-cluster reductions

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


Pronunciation of in the word tongue

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] ceased to be pronounced 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]. Due to analogical changes, Ng-coalescence can also be observed in verb forms where the stem ending in -ng is followed by a vowel-initial suffix, e.g. singing and singer. Otherwise, word-internal -ng- does not show the effects of coalescence and the pronunciation [ŋɡ] is retained, as in finger and angle. Additionally, in adjectives ending in -ng the [ŋɡ] is retained when the comparative and superlative suffixes are added, so younger, strongest, etc., do not show coalescence.

As a result of the above, 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)[1]

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’, -en) for /ɪŋ/ or /iŋ/ (spelt -ing) in the English present participle and gerund. 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). The name derives from the apparent orthographic consequence of replacing the sound written ng with that normally written n.

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. (The use of a colloquial pronunciation which actually derives from a different word from the standard is not restricted to this example. For instance, ’em or em, a colloquial form of them, derives from Old English hem of the same meaning, whereas them is a borrowing from Old Norse þeim.)

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.

Fricatives and affricates

H-dropping and h-adding

  • H-dropping is 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 Scots, /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 /ai/ (as in wait) and /ɛiç/ (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/.

Dental fricatives

See also

Other sound changes involving fricatives and affricates

Vest–west merger

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/.[2]



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).

Wing–ring merger

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 homophones.[3]

Rip–lip merger

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 homophones. 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 /əɹ/ 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-vocalization and L-dropping

In Early Modern English, various circumstances of L-vocalization and L-dropping happened as a process where the postvocalic */ɫ/ in */aɫ/ or */ɔɫ/ either disappeared or vocalized, usually with some kind of diphthongalization or compensatory lengthening effect on the preceding vowel. Most of these changes were very regular (still having a fundamental influence on English spelling pronunciations), but the effects could vary widely depending on which consonant came after the */ɫ/.

  • Most of the "alf" and "alv" series (/æf/ and /æv/) dropped the /l/ completely and genuinely without a trace. Affected examples include calf, half, halve, salve. Ralph is a more complex case, with regional pronunciations of /rælf/, /rɑːlf/, /rɑːf/ and /reɪf/. At least one significant word of the "olf" series, golf, dropped the /l/ in some British accents (/ɡɒf/), but most other accents retained the /l/ (/ɡɒlf/ or /ɡɔːlf/). Other irregularly affected examples include salmon and solder, both with short vowels but a silent /l/. The "olv" series (such as solve) was not affected, retaining both its regular vowel and its pronounced /l/.
  • The "alm" and "olm" series dropped the /l/ while broadly lengthening the vowel, initially as *[ɑːm] and *[oːm], with the latter becoming modern /oʊm/ with the toe–tow merger. Affected examples include alms, balm, calm, Chalmers, qualm, palm, psalm and Holmes, the last of which is a homophone with homes. Some accents (including many of American English) still pronounce the /l/ in these words as a spelling pronunciation.
  • The word-final "all" and "oll" series underwent partial L-vocalization, initially as *[ɔʊɫ] and *[oʊɫ], then arriving at modern /ɔːl/ and /oʊl/. Affected examples of the "all" series include all, ball, call, fall, gall, hall, mall, pall, small, squall, stall, tall, thrall and wall, and these syllables all rhyme with bawl, brawl, caul, crawl, drawl, haul, maul, Paul, Saul, scrawl, shawl and trawl. The word shall is not affected, irregularly keeping its otherwise regular short vowel. Affected examples of the "oll" series include control, droll, knoll, poll, roll, scroll, stroll, toll and troll, all of whose syllables came to rhyme with bowl, Rowling and soul, and since the toe–tow merger have also rhymed with coal, cole, foal, goal, hole, mole, pole, role, shoal, sole, stole, tole and vole. Certain words of more recent origin didn't undergo these changes, and are mostly distinguished by being spelled with just one l, such as in Al, alcohol, doll, Hal, pal and Sal.
  • Most other "alC" and "olC" series (where C is an arbitrary coronal consonant or velar consonant) initially followed the same trend as "all" and "oll", with /ɔːlC/ and /oʊlC/ pronunciations affecting a wide variety of words. Affected words of the "alC" series include alter, bald, Balt, false, falter, halt, malt, palsy, salsa, salt, scald, Walsh, Walter and waltz, joining similar words such as fault and vault. The word shalt is not affected, irregularly keeping its otherwise regular short vowel. Affected words of the "olC" series include bold, bolt, cold, colt, dolt, fold, Folger, gold, hold, holt, jolt, mold, molt, old, polder, scold, smolder, sold, told and wold (as in "country"), joining similar words such as boulder (or bowlder), mould (alt. sp. of mold), moult (alt. sp. of molt), shoulder and smoulder (alt. sp. of smolder).
  • But "alk" and "olk" went even further, becoming modern /ɔːk/ and /oʊk/ with no pronunciation of /l/. Homophone "aulk" words also dropped their /l/ at this time. Affected examples of the "alk" (and "aulk") series include balk, caulk, chalk, Dundalk, falcon (not in all accents), talk and walk, and these relevant syllables all rhyme with auk, Faulkner, Fawkes, gawk and hawk. Affected examples of the "olk" series include folk, Polk, polka and yolk, which since the toe–tow merger also rhyme with bloke, broke, choke, coke, croak, joke, oak, poke, smoke, soak, woke and yoke. The /l/ in certain words like caulk, polka and yolk are still pronounced in some accents, but this is considered a spelling pronunciation. Certain words of more recent origin were not always systematically affected by these changes, so words like talc retain both their short vowel and their pronounced /l/.
  • The "alp" series was not affected at all, keeping its short vowel and its pronounced /l/. This includes words like Alps and scalp. The effect on the "alb" series is less predictable, owing to its rare occurrence in English; Albany uses /ɔːl/, while Albania uses /æl/.
  • In Hiberno-English there is L-vocalization, and the vowels are generally affected as stated, but L-dropping virtually never occurs; the /l/ is pronounced in all these circumstances. The city Dundalk is pronounced /dʌndɔːlk/ in Hiberno-English, but is pronounced /dʌndɔːk/ in most of the rest of the Anglosphere.

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.[4]


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 disyllabic dial, royal and vowel. L-breaking is also common in rhotic varieties of English, after /ɜɹ/ and /ɹ/, hence pronunciations like /ˈwɜɹəld/ for world.

See also
H-cluster reductions

Let–net merger

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.[2]

Jet–yet merger

The jet–yet merger is a phenomenon occurring for some speakers of Chicano English where /d͡ʒ/ and /j/ are pronounced the same in word initial position. As a result, jet and yet are homophonous.[5]

Sound changes involving final consonants

Lick–lip–lit merger

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".[4]

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 [bæd̥ kʰæt]). 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[4] 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 stops 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 or a stop. Final-consonant deletion is much less frequent than the more common final-cluster reduction.

Consonants can also be deleted at the end of a morpheme boundary, leading to pronunciations like [kɪːz] for kids.

Bilabial-stop and labiodental-fricative mergers

Ban–van merger

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/ or /βan/.

This merger is also common for young children throughout the Anglosphere, and is one of the last phonological distinctions commonly learnt.

Pit–fit merger

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.[6] The lack of contrast between /f/ and /p/ explains why there are so many spellings used for "Filipino" and "Filipina" used on the internet, ranging from "filipina", "philipina", "philippina", and "pilipina".

Because of the commonness of both /p/ and /f/ in the English language, the pit–fit merger creates a very large number of homophonous pairs.

Syllable coda

The muddling of /b~v/ and /p~f/ is common in much of the English-speaking world when these consonants are in the syllable coda, leading to weak mergers like dribble-drivel. Native English-speakers are taught to differentiate these when they enunciate words, but casual homophony can persist through adulthood.

Deletion after high back vowels

In the same vein, when /b~v/ occurs after high back vowels like /oʊ/ and /uː/ and before a consonant or at the end of a word, it can sound more like /w/ and effectively disappear:

  • /oʊb~oʊv//oʊβ//oʊw/ = /oʊ/
  • /uːb~uːv//uːβ//uːw/ = /uː/
This forms weak mergers like robe-rove-roe.

See also


  1. ^  
  2. ^ a b
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Phonological Features of African American Vernacular English
  5. ^ Yonder Lies It
  6. ^ Filipino English can be hard to understand at first
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