Vowel Shifts in English and Dutch

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© Jorge Royan / royan.com.ar / CC-BY-SA-3.0

As I recently discussed, English shares its penchant for r-variability with other languages. This got me thinking about another dialect marker common to English and other tongues, namely what might be called the “close diphthongs.”

These are vowels typically found in the words “code” and “face.” In accents such as rural Irish, America’s upper Midwest, marked Canadian English and many Northern English accents, these are often pronounced as monophthongs such as o: and e: (“eh” and “oh”). In General American English, British RP, pan-regional Irish English, and many Canadian accents, these vowels are often pronounced as close diphthongs along the lines of  and . These diphthongs are even more open in accents like Cockney, Australian English, and American Southern English, but I won’t discuss those here as they indicate a further step in a vowel shift.

English is not the only language with dialects divided by this feature. I can think of a few languages that exhibit the monophthong/close dipththong schism (Quebec vs. European French comes to mind), but one of the more English-like in this respect is Dutch. Some dialects of that language have the diphthongs  and (or similar diphthongs) where others have the monophthongs e: and o:. This is a rather striking resemblance to the language’s close Germanic cousin across the sea.

While seeking explanations for why the close diphthongs emerge, I stumbled upon a thesis via Google Scholar called On variation and change in diphthongs and long vowels of spoken Dutch by Irene Jacobi. I couldn’t help noticing a very familiar looking visual toward the beginning of the paper (which I’ve shoddily recreated here):

e: –> ɛi –> ai

This represents a very common vowel shift in both Dutch and English. Readers here may recognize the similarity to shifts in English dialects wherein which the vowel in “face” gradually moves toward the vowel in “lie.” Jacobi explains the shift succinctly:

The diphthongs /Ei, œy, Ou/ are lowered to /ai, ay, au/. The lowering of these diphthongs in the articulatory-auditory space drags along the long vowels /e:, ø:, o:/, which, by being lowered as well, fill in the empty space previously occupied by the diphthongs

Hence, the close diphthongs in Dutch probably indicate a shift away from monophthongal e:. Again, this is very similar to the trajectory of English vowels in several parts of the world. Although I’ll concede that Dutch and English aren’t quite as distant from one another as, say, Finnish and Zulu!

That being said, we tend to think of vowel shifts as quintessentially English phenomena when they constitute a much more universal process. It may be hard to see them as such because there aren’t many languages with vowel inventories large enough for English-style phonemic jostling. Dutch is one example; what other languages exhibit English-style vowel shifts?

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About Ben

Ben Trawick-Smith launched his dialect fascination while working in theatre. He has worked as an actor, playwright, director, critic and dialect coach. Other passions include linguistics, urban development, philosophy and film.
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19 Responses to Vowel Shifts in English and Dutch

  1. Ed says:

    I have read about vowel shift in High German, and I think that some of the older sounds have remained in certain Swiss dialects. There is a section on this in the Wikipedia article on Middle High German.

    It’s also worth a look at http://soundcomparisons.com I like the way that this website has different regional varieties for earlier forms of English. I’ve found that some discussions of historical English pronunciation read as if there were a time when everyone in England had the same pronunciations.

  2. dw says:

    Not sure how many vowels have to shift for there to be a “vowel shift”.

    One small one that comes to mind immediately is [o] -> [u]; [u] -> [y]. Found in both Old French and pre-classical Greek.

  3. cd says:

    You should check out William Labov’s Principles of Linguistic Change. It talks about that. I know Volume 1 does at least.

    One example of a vowel shift from another language that reminds me of an English vowel shift is from North Frisian. It had the shift æːia. That one to me is like an extreme version of the Northern Cities shift.

    Czech had ei and ow. This is similar to a shift which has taken place in some parts of the Anglosphere.

  4. Czech went through several historical ‘diphothongizations’ but there is also some dialectal variation between /ou /and /oː/ and /uː/ where some Middle-Moravian dialects use /oː/ and others /uː/. We might extend some of this to Slovak which historically emerged out of the same group of West Slavic dialects that Czech has. See details here: http://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/St%C5%99edomoravsk%C3%A1_n%C3%A1%C5%99e%C4%8Dn%C3%AD_skupina

  5. Rolf says:

    In Northern Germany, the long monophthongs /e:/ and /o:/ tend to get diphthongized mainly by persons whose native language is Low German, but also by other persons who speak with a strong regional accent.
    While this is only a personal observation, the diphthongization of /o:/ is mentioned here: http://www.germsem.uni-kiel.de/ndnl/materialien/sommersemester%2012%20elmentaler/Niederdeutsch%20in%20Geschichte%20und%20Gegenwart/Niederdeutsch%208.pdf

    • Ed says:

      How many people still speak Low German as a native language?

      I think that it should be kept alive.

      • Danny Ryan says:

        The numbers of speaker are in the millions, though they tend to be of the 50 + generation and mainly in rural areas of northern Germany. There are emigrant communities in the Americas, Poland and Russia.
        Low German today is strongly influenced by Standard German. Transmission to the young generation has almost ceased, though there are attempts at revival, reading competitions, etc. but despite the large number of speakers I would consider it an endangered language because of the demographics.

  6. MCI says:

    CODE [ko:d] and FACE [fe:s] sounds like a heavy Indian accent

    • dw says:

      Or a northern English accent. Or northwest US accent.

      • Ed says:

        In truth, within England it’s only people in the far north whose GOAT vowel is [o:]. Most northerners have a GOAT vowel more like [ɔː].

        I think that the convention of writing it as [o:] started with Petyt. I suspect that he wanted to keep with the established [ɔː] for THOUGHT and NORTH, so he felt that he had to use [o:] for GOAT. The gap between GOAT and THOUGHT can be small in parts of the North. Generally, THOUGHT is more open and has less rounding.

        • Danny Ryan says:

          Traditional dialects of the northern midlands of England also have a close [o:]. The Northern Regional Standard and the modern ‘dialects’ have a more open vowel.

    • cd says:

      I’m sure code and face are a bit different in all of those accents, though, even though you might transcribe their vowels the same in all three of them.

  7. MCI says:

    ”e: –> ɛi –> ai”
    This shift is absent in Belgian Dutch.

  8. Tim says:

    It’s funny that you mention these sound shifts as something that English and Dutch share, and also the r variability (which is almost extreme in Dutch). I was rereading an older post on this blog where you discuss L-vocalisation, and can’t help but notice that’s another feature shared between these languages (Northern Dutch has [a lot of?] l-vocalisers, Southern Dutch doesn’t)

  9. Nathan Brown says:

    This isn’t exactly on topic, but one thing that has always struck me about Southern American speech is how the Southern vowel shift over the past 100 years or so has so radically changed it, and basically become the defining feature of the accent. I was listening to recordings of Confederate veterans a while back; most of them didn’t have the shift at all, or just the start of some traces of it. Their speech was recognizably old-fashioned, and you’d hear old-timey lexical exceptions in pronunciation like “barr” for “bear,” but their vowel set was a lot closer to my Northern American speech than a Southern today would be. I had an easier time understanding them than I do some modern day Southerners I know, who have shifted many of their basic vowels away from my speech.

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