Pane-pain Merger
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Pane%E2%80%93pain Merger

English diphthongs have undergone many changes since the Old and Middle English periods. The sound changes discussed here involved at least one phoneme which historically was a diphthong.

Old English

Old English diphthongs could be short or long. Both kinds arose from sound changes occurring in Old English itself, although the long forms sometimes also developed from Proto-Germanic diphthongs. They were mostly of the height-harmonic type (both elements at the same height) with the second element further back than the first. The set of diphthongs that occurred depended on dialect (and their exact pronunciation is in any case uncertain). Typical diphthongs are considered to have been as follows:

  • high, fully backing, /iu/ /i:u/, spelt ⟨io⟩ (found in Anglian dialects, but merged into /eo/ /e:o/ in Late West Saxon)
  • high, narrower, possibly /iy/ /i:y/ or /ie/ /i:e/, spelt ⟨ie⟩ (found in Late West Saxon)
  • mid, /eo/ /e:o/, spelt ⟨eo⟩
  • low, /æ?/ /æ:?/, spelt ⟨ea⟩

As with monophthongs, the length of the diphthongs was not indicated in spelling, but in modern editions of OE texts the long forms are often written with a macron: ⟨?o⟩, ⟨?e⟩, ⟨?o⟩, ⟨?a⟩.

In the transition from Old to Middle English, all of these diphthongs generally merged with monophthongs.

Middle English

Development of new diphthongs

Although the Old English diphthongs merged into monophthongs, Middle English began to develop a new set of diphthongs, in which the second element was a high [i] or [u]. Many of these came about through vocalization of the palatal approximant /j/ or the labio-velar approximant /w/ (which was sometimes from an earlier voiced velar fricative [?], an allophone of /?/), when they followed a vowel. For example:

  • OE dæg ("day") and weg ("way") (where the /?/ had been palatalized to /j/) became [dai] and [w?i]
  • OE clawu ("claw") and lagu ("law") became [klau] and [lau]

Diphthongs also arose as a result of vowel breaking before /h/ (which had allophones [x] and [ç] in this position - for the subsequent disappearance of these sounds, see h-loss). For example:

  • OE streht ("straight") became [str?içt]
  • OE þoht ("thought") became [uxt]

The diphthongs that developed by these processes also came to be used in many loanwords, particularly those from Old French. For a table showing the development of the Middle English diphthongs, see Middle English phonology (diphthong equivalents).

Vein-vain merger

Early Middle English had two separate diphthongs /?i/ and /ai/. The vowel /?i/ was typically represented orthographically with "ei" or "ey" and the vowel /ai/ was typically represented orthographically with "ai" or ay". These came to be merged, perhaps by the fourteenth century.[1] The merger is reflected in all dialects of present-day English.

In early Middle English, before the merger, way and day, which came from Old English we? and dæ?, had /ei/ and /ai/ respectively. Similarly, vein and vain (borrowings from French) were pronounced differently as /vein/ and /vain/. After the merger, vein and vain were homophones, and way and day had the same vowel.

The merged vowel was a diphthong, transcribed /?i/ or /æi/. Later (around the 17th century) this diphthong would merge in most dialects with the monophthong of words like pane in the pane-pain merger.

Late Middle English

The English of southeastern England around 1400 had seven diphthongs,[2] of which three ended in a front vowel:

  • /?i/ as in nail, day, whey (the product of the vein-vain merger)
  • /?i/ as in joy, noise, royal, coy
  • /?i/ as in boil, destroy, coin, join

and four ended in a back vowel:

  • /?u/ as in view, new, due, use, lute, suit, adieu (the product of a merger of earlier /iu/ and /eu/, also incorporating French loans that originally had /y/)
  • /?u/ as in few, dew, ewe, shrewd, neuter, beauty
  • /?u/ as in cause, law, salt, change, chamber, psalm, half, dance, aunt.
  • /?u/ as in low, soul

Typical spellings are as in the examples above. The spelling ew is ambiguous between /?u/ and /?u/, and the spellings oi and oy are ambiguous between /?i/ and /?i/. The most common words with ew pronounced /?u/ were dew, few, hew, lewd, mew, newt, pewter, sew, shew (show), shrew, shrewd and strew. Words in which /?i/ was commonly used included boil, coin, destroy, join, moist, point, poison, soil, spoil, Troy, turmoil and voice, although there was significant variation.[2]

Modern English

16th century

By the mid-16th century, the Great Vowel Shift had created two new diphthongs out of the former long close monophthongs /i:/ and /u:/ of Middle English. The diphthongs were // as in tide, and // as in house.[3] Thus, the English of south-eastern England could then have had nine diphthongs.

By the late 16th century, the inventory of diphthongs had been reduced as a result of several developments, all of which took place in the mid-to-late 16th century:[4]

  • /?u/ merged into /?u/ and so dew and due became homophones.
  • /?i/ (from the vein-vain merger) became monophthongized and merged with the /?:/ of words like name (which before the Great Vowel Shift had been long /a:/). For more information, see pane-pain merger, below.
  • /?u/, as in cause, became monophthongized to /?:/.
  • /?u/, as in low, was monophthongized to That would later rise to /o:/, which merged with the vowel of toe[dubious ]; see toe-tow merger, below.

That left /?u/, /?i/, /?i/, // and // as the diphthongs of south-eastern England.

17th century

By the late 17th century, these further developments had taken place in the dialect of south-eastern England:[4]

  • The falling diphthong /?u/ of due and dew changed to a rising diphthong, which became the sequence [ju:]. The change did not occur in all dialects, however; see Yod-dropping.
  • The diphthongs // and // of tide and house widened to /a?/ and /a?/, respectively.
  • The diphthong /?i/ merged into /a?/. Contemporary literature had frequent rhymes such as Mind-join'd in Congreve, join-line in Pope, child-spoil'd in Swift, toils-smiles in Dryden. The present-day pronunciations with // in the oi words result from regional variants, which had always had [?i], rather than [?i], perhaps because of influence by the spelling.[5]

The changes caused only the three diphthongs /a?/, /a?/ and // to remain.

Later developments

In the 18th century or later, the monophthongs /e:/ and /o:/ (the products of the pane-pain and toe-tow mergers) became diphthongal in Standard English. That produced the vowels /e?/ and /o?/. In RP, the starting point of the latter diphthong has now become more centralized and is commonly written //.

RP has also developed centering diphthongs //, /e?/, //, as a result of breaking before /r/ and the loss of /r/ when it is not followed by another vowel (see English-language vowel changes before historic /r/). They occur in words like near, square and cure.

Present-day RP is thus normally analyzed as having eight diphthongs: the five closing diphthongs /e?/, //, /a?/, /a?/, // (of face, goat, price, mouth and choice) and the three centering diphthongs //, /e?/, //. General American does not have the centering diphthongs (at least, not as independent phonemes). For more information, see English phonology (vowels).

Variation in present-day English

Coil-curl merger

The coil-curl or oil-earl merger is a vowel merger that historically occurred in some non-rhotic dialects of American English, due to an up-gliding NURSE vowel.

Cot-coat merger

The cot-coat merger is a phenomenon exhibited by some speakers of Zulu English in which the phonemes /?/ and /o?/ are not distinguished, making "cot" and "coat" homophones. Zulu English also generally has a merger of /?/ and /?:/, so that sets like "cot", "caught" and "coat" can be homophones.[6]

This merger can also be found in some broad Central Belt Scottish English accents.

Line-loin merger

The line-loin merger is a merger between the diphthongs /a?/ and // that occurs in some accents of Southern English English, Hiberno-English, Newfoundland English, and Caribbean English. Pairs like line and loin, bile and boil, imply and employ are homophones in merging accents.[7]

/a?/ // IPA
aisle oil 'l
bile boil 'bl
buy boy 'b
by boy 'b
bye boy 'b
dried droid 'drd
imply employ ?m'pl
file foil 'fl
fire foyer 'f(r)[Note 1]
grind groined '?rnd
guy goy '
heist hoist 'hst
I'll oil 'l
isle oil 'l
Jain join 'dn
kine coin 'kn
Kyle coil 'kl
liar lawyer 'l(r)
lied Lloyd 'ld
line loin 'ln
Lyle loyal 'll[Note 2]
lyre lawyer 'l(r)
pie poi 'p
pies poise 'pz
pint point 'pnt
psi soy 's
ride roid 'rd
rile roil 'rl
rile royal 'rl[Note 2]
rye Roy 'r
sigh soy 's
sire sawyer 's(r)
sire soya 's[Note 3]
Thai toy 't
tide toyed 'td
tie toy 't
tied toyed 'td
tile toil 'tl
try Troy 'tr
vice voice 'vs
vied void 'vd
wry Roy 'r

Long mid mergers

The earliest stage of Early Modern English had a contrast between the long mid monophthongs /e:, o:/ (as in pane and toe respectively) and the diphthongs /?i, ?u/ (as in pain and tow respectively). In the vast majority of Modern English accents these have been merged, so that the pairs pane-pain and toe-tow are homophones. These mergers are grouped together by Wells[8] as the long mid mergers.

Pane-pain merger

The pane-pain merger is a merger of the long mid monophthong /e:/ and the diphthong /ei/ that occurs in most dialects of English. In the vast majority of Modern English accents the vowels have been merged; whether the outcome is monophthongal or diphthongal depends on the accent. But in a few regional accents, including some in East Anglia, South Wales, and even Newfoundland, the merger has not gone through (at least not completely), so that pairs like pane/pain are distinct.

A distinction, with the pane words pronounced with [e:] and the pain words pronounced with [æ?], survived in Norfolk English into the 20th century. Trudgill describes the disappearance of this distinction in Norfolk, saying that "This disappearance was being effected by the gradual and variable transfer of lexical items from the set of /e:/ to the set of /æ?/ as part of dedialectalisation process, the end-point of which will soon be (a few speakers even today maintain a vestigial and variable distinction) the complete merger of the two lexical sets under /æ?/ -- the completion of a slow process of lexical diffusion."[9]

Walters (2001)[10] reports the survival of the distinction in the Welsh English spoken in the Rhondda Valley, with [e:] in the pane words and [?i] in the pain words.

In accents that preserve the distinction, the phoneme /ei/ is usually represented by the spellings ai, ay, ei and ey as in day, play, rain, pain, maid, rein, they etc. and the phoneme /e:/ is usually represented by aCe as in pane, plane, lane, late etc. and sometimes by é and e as in re, café, Santa Fe etc.

/e:/ /ei/ IPA
ade aid 'e?d
ale ail 'e?l
ate eight 'e?t[Note 4]
bale bail 'be?l
blare Blair 'ble?(r)
cane Cain 'ke?n
clade clayed 'kle?d
Clare Claire 'kle?(r)
bate bait 'be?t
Dane deign 'de?n[Note 4]
daze days 'de?z
e'er air 'e?(r)
e'er heir 'e?(r)
ere air 'e?(r)
ere heir 'e?(r)
fare fair 'fe?(r)
faze fays 'fe?z
flare flair 'fle?(r)
gale Gail '?e?l
gate gait '?e?t
gaze gays '?e?z
glave glaive '?le?v[Note 5]
grade grayed '?re?d
graze grays '?re?z
hale hail 'he?l
hare hair 'he?(r)
haze hays 'he?z
lane lain 'le?n
laze lays 'le?z
made maid 'me?d
Mae May 'me?
male mail 'me?l
mane main 'me?n
maze maize 'me?z
maze Mays 'me?z
page Paige 'pe?d?
pale pail 'pe?l
pane pain 'pe?n
pare pair 'pe?(r)
pear pair 'pe?(r)
phase fays 'fe?z
phrase frays 'fre?z
Rae ray 're?
raze raise 're?z
raze rays 're?z
razor raiser 're?z?(r)
re ray 're?
sale sail 'se?l
sane sain 'se?n
sane seine 'se?n
sane Seine 'se?n
spade spayed 'spe?d
stare stair 'ste?(r)
suede swayed 'swe?d
tale tail 'te?l
there their 'ðe?(r)
there they're 'ðe?(r)
trade trayed 'tre?d
vale vail 've?l
vale veil 've?l
vane vain 've?n
vane vein 've?n
wade weighed 'we?d[Note 4]
wale wail 'we?l
wales wails 'we?lz
Wales wails 'we?lz
wane wain 'we?n
waste waist 'we?st
wave waive 'we?v
waver waiver 'we?v
whale wail 'we?l[Note 6]

Toe-tow merger

The toe-tow merger is a merger of the Early Modern English vowels /o:/ (as in toe) and /ou/ (as in tow) that occurs in most dialects of English. (The vowels in Middle English and at the beginning of the Early Modern English period were /?:/ and /?u/ respectively, and they shifted in the second phase of the Great Vowel Shift.)

The merger occurs in the vast majority of Modern English accents; whether the outcome is monophthongal or diphthongal depends on the accent. The traditional phonetic transcription for General American and earlier Received Pronunciation in the 20th century is /o?/, a diphthong. But in a few regional accents, including some in Northern England, East Anglia and South Wales, the merger has not gone through (at least not completely), so that pairs like toe and tow, moan and mown, groan and grown, sole and soul, throne and thrown are distinct.

In 19th century England, the distinction was still very widespread; the main areas with the merger were in the northern Home Counties and parts of the Midlands.[11]

The distinction is most often preserved in East Anglian accents, especially in Norfolk. Peter Trudgill[9] discusses this distinction, and states that "...until very recently, all Norfolk English speakers consistently and automatically maintained the nose-knows distinction... In the 1940s and 1950s, it was therefore a totally unremarkable feature of Norfolk English shared by all speakers, and therefore of no salience whatsoever."

In a recent investigation into the English of the Fens,[12] young people in west Norfolk were found to be maintaining the distinction, with back [?u] or [] in the toe set and central [] in the tow set, with the latter but not the former showing the influence of Estuary English.

Walters[10] reports the survival of the distinction in the Welsh English spoken in the Rhondda Valley, with [o:] in the toe words and [ou] in the tow words.

Reports of Maine English in the 1970s reported a similar toad-towed distinction among older speakers, but was lost in subsequent generations.

In accents that preserve the distinction, the phoneme descended from Early Modern English /ou/ is usually represented by the spellings ou, and ow as in soul, dough, tow, know, though etc. or through L-vocalization as in bolt, cold, folk, roll etc., while that descended from Early Modern English /o:/ is usually represented by oa, oe, or oCe as in boat, road, toe, doe, home, hose, go, tone etc.

This merger did not occur before r originally, and only later occurred (relatively recently) as the horse-hoarse merger. This merger is not universal, however, and thusly words with our and oar may not sound the same as words with or in some dialects.

/o:/ /ou/ IPA
Bo bow 'bo?
bode bowed 'bo?d
borne bourn(e) 'bo?(r)n
borne Bourne 'bo?(r)n
coaled cold 'ko?ld
coarse course 'ko?(r)s
do (note) dough 'do?
doe dough 'do?
does doughs 'do?z
dos doughs 'do?z
doze doughs 'do?z
floe flow 'flo?
foaled fold 'fo?ld
fore four 'fo?(r)
forth fourth 'fo?(r)?
fro frow 'fro?
froe frow 'fro?
froes frows 'fro?z
froze frows 'fro?z
groan grown '?ro?n
holed hold 'ho?ld
moan mown 'mo?n
mode mowed 'mo?d
Moe mow 'mo?
no know 'no?
noes knows 'no?z
nose knows 'no?z
O owe 'o?
ode owed 'o?d
oh owe 'o?
pole poll 'po?l
pore pour 'po?(r)
road rowed 'ro?d
rode rowed 'ro?d
roe row 'ro?
roes rows 'ro?z
role roll 'ro?l
rose rows 'ro?z
shone shewn '?o?n
shone shown '?o?n
so sew 'so?
so sow 'so?
sole soul 'so?l
soled sold 'so?ld
soled souled 'so?ld
throe throw '?ro?
throne thrown '?ro?n
toad towed 'to?d
toe tow 'to?
toed towed 'to?d
tole toll 'to?l

Mare-mayor merger

The mare-mayor merger occurs in many varieties of British English, in the Philadelphia dialect, and the Baltimore dialect. The process has bisyllabic /e?.?/ pronounced as the centering diphthong /e?/ in many words. Such varieties pronounce mayor as /'me?(r)/, homophonous with mare.

North American English accents with the merger allow it to affect also sequences without /r/ since some words with the /e?.?/ sequence merge with /e?/, which is associated with æ-tensing. Particularly in the case of /e?/ derived from /æ/, such words are frequently hypercorrected with /æ/. The best-known examples are mayonnaise (/'me?ne?z~'mæne?z/) and graham (/'?re?m~'?ræm/, a homophone of gram).

/e?/ /e/ IPA
bare Bayer 'be?(r)[Note 7]
flare flayer 'fle?(r)
flair flayer 'fle?(r)
gram, gramme Graham '?re?m[Note 8]
lair layer 'le?(r)
mare mayor 'me?(r)
pair payer 'pe?(r)
pare payer 'pe?(r)
pear payer 'pe?(r)
prayer prayer 'pre?(r)
stare stayer 'ste?(r)
sware swayer 'swe?(r)
swear swayer 'swe?(r)
there they're 'ðe?(r)

Pride-proud merger

The pride-proud merger is a merger of the diphthongs /a?/ and /a?/ before voiced consonants into monophthongal /a/ occurring for some speakers of African American Vernacular English making pride and proud, dine and down, find and found etc. homophones. Some speakers with this merger, may also have the rod-ride merger hence having a three-way merger of /?/, /a?/ and /a?/ before voiced consonants, making pride, prod, and proud and find, found and fond homophones.[13]

Rod-ride merger

The rod-ride merger is a merger of /?/ and /a?/ occurring for some speakers of Southern American English and African American Vernacular English, in which rod and ride are merged as /rad/.[13] Some other speakers may keep the contrast, so that rod is /r?d/ and ride is /rad/.

Smoothing of /a?.?/

Smoothing of /a?.?/ is a process that occurs in many varieties of British English where bisyllabic /a?.?/ becomes the triphthong /a/ in certain words with /a?.?/. As a result, "scientific" is pronounced /san't?f.?k/ with three syllables and "science" is pronounced /'sa(?)?ns/ with one syllable.[14]

See also


  1. ^ Foyer may also be pronounced /'fe?/ or /'fw?:je?/.
  2. ^ a b With vile-vial merger
  3. ^ Non-rhotic accents
  4. ^ a b c With wait-weight merger
  5. ^ Homonyms
  6. ^ With wine-whine merger
  7. ^ North American English pronunciation of Bayer
  8. ^ With æ-tensing


  1. ^ Wells (1982), p. 192
  2. ^ a b Barber (1997), pp. 112-116
  3. ^ Barber (1997), p. 108
  4. ^ a b Barber (1997), pp. 108, 116
  5. ^ Barber (1997), pp. 115-116
  6. ^ "Rodrik Wade, MA Thesis, Ch 4: Structural characteristics of Zulu English". Archived from the original on May 17, 2008. Retrieved .CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
  7. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 208-210
  8. ^ Wells (1982), pp. 192-194, 337, 357, 384-385, 498
  9. ^ a b "Norfolk England Dialect Orthography". Friends of Norfolk Dialect. Archived from the original on 2008-02-22. Retrieved .
  10. ^ a b Walters (2001)
  11. ^ Britain (2001)
  12. ^ Britain (2002)
  13. ^ a b Wells (1982), p. 557
  14. ^ Wells, John "Whatever happened to received pronunciation?" Wells: Whatever happened to received pronunciation? Author's webpage; accessed 19 April 2011.


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