Vowel breaking

Sound change and alternation

In historical linguistics, vowel breaking, vowel fracture,[1] or diphthongization is the change of a monophthong into a diphthong or triphthong.


Vowel breaking may be unconditioned or conditioned: triggered by the presence of another sound, or by stress, or not triggered in any way.


Sometimes vowel breaking is defined as a subtype of diphthongization, in which case it refers to harmonic (i.e., assimilatory) process involving diphthongization triggered by a following vowel or consonant.

The original pure vowel typically breaks into two segments, where the first segment matches the original vowel and the second segment is harmonic with the nature of the triggering vowel or consonant. For example, the second segment may be /u/ (a back vowel) if the following vowel or consonant is back (e.g., velar or pharyngeal), and the second segment may be /i/ (a front vowel) if the following vowel or consonant is front (e.g., palatal). Thus, vowel breaking in this restricted sense can be viewed as an example of assimilation of a vowel to a following vowel or consonant.


Vowel breaking is sometimes not assimilatory, or not triggered by a neighboring sound. This is the case with the Great Vowel Shift in English: all cases of /iː uː/ changed to diphthongs.


Sometimes vowel breaking occurs only in stressed syllables. For instance, Vulgar Latin open-mid /ɛ ɔ/ changed to diphthongs only when stressed.



Vowel breaking is a very common sound change in the history of the English language, occurring at least three times (with some varieties adding a fourth) listed here in reverse chronological order:

Southern American English

Vowel breaking is characteristic of the "Southern drawl" of Southern American English, where the short front vowels have developed a glide up to [j], and then in some areas back down to schwa: pat [pæjət], pet [pɛjət], pit [pɪjət].

Great Vowel Shift

Main article: Great Vowel Shift

The Great Vowel Shift changed the long vowels /iː uː/ to diphthongs. They became Modern English /aɪ aʊ/.

Middle English

In early Middle English, a vowel /i/ was inserted between a front vowel and a following /h/ (pronounced [ç] in this context), and a vowel /u/ was inserted between a back vowel and a following /h/ (pronounced [x] in this context). This is a prototypical example of the narrow sense of "vowel breaking" as described above: The original vowel breaks into a diphthong that assimilates to the following consonant, gaining a front /i/ before a palatal consonant and /u/ before a velar consonant.

Old English

In Old English, two forms of harmonic vowel breaking occurred: breaking and retraction, and back mutation.

In prehistoric Old English, breaking and retraction changed stressed short and long front vowels i, e, æ to short and long diphthongs spelled io, eo, ea when followed by h or by r, l + another consonant (short vowels only), and sometimes w (only for certain short vowels).

Examples are:[2]

In late prehistoric Old English, back mutation changed short front i, e, æ to short diphthongs spelled io, eo, ea before a back vowel in the next syllable, if the intervening consonant is of a certain nature. The specific nature of which consonants trigger back umlaut and which block them varies from dialect to dialect.

Old Norse

Proto-Germanic stressed short e becomes ja or (before u) regularly in Old Norse except after w, r, l. Examples are:

According to some scholars,[3] the diphthongisation of e is an unconditioned sound change, whereas other scholars speak about epenthesis[4] or umlaut.[5]

Scottish Gaelic

Vowel breaking is present in Scottish Gaelic with the following changes occurring often but variably between dialects: Archaic Irish → Scottish Gaelic and Archaic Irish → Scottish Gaelic [6] Specifically, central dialects have more vowel breaking than others.

Romance languages

Many Romance languages underwent vowel breaking. The Vulgar Latin open vowels e /ɛ/ and o /ɔ/ in stressed position underwent breaking only in open syllables in French and Italian, but in both open and closed syllables in Spanish. Vowel breaking was completely absent in Portuguese and Catalan. The result of breaking varies between languages: e and o became ie and ue in Spanish, ie and uo in Italian, and ie and eu /ø/ in French.

In the table below, words with breaking are bolded.

Syllable shape Latin Spanish French Italian Portuguese Catalan
Open petram, focum piedra, fuego pierre, feu pietra, fuoco pedra, fogo pedra, foc
Closed festam, portam fiesta, puerta fête, porte festa, porta festa, porta festa, porta


Romanian underwent the general Romance breaking only with /ɛ/, since it did not have /ɔ/.

It underwent a later breaking of stressed e and o to ea and oa before a mid or open vowel:

Sometimes a word underwent both forms of breaking in succession:

The diphthongs that resulted from the Romance and the Romanian breakings were modified when they occurred after palatalized consonants.

Quebec French

In Quebec French, long vowels are generally diphthongized in the last syllable.


Some scholars[7] believe that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) i, u has a kind of breaking before an original laryngeal in Greek, Armenian and Tocharian, whereas the other Indo-European languages have monophthongs. Typical examples are:

However, the hypothesis is not adopted by most handbooks.

See also


  1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. Robert B. Howell 1991. Old English breaking and its Germanic analogues (Linguistische Arbeiten, 253.). Tübingen: Max Niemeyer
  3. J. Svensson, Diftongering med palatalt förslag i de nordiska språken, Lund 1944.
  4. H. Paul, "Zur Geschichte des germanischen Vocalismus", Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Kultur 6 (1879) 16-30.
  5. K. M. Nielsen, Acta Philologica Scandinavica 24 (1957) 33-45.
  6. Martin John Ball, James Fife. The Celtic Languages. p. 152.
  7. F. Normier, in: Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung 91 (1977) 171-218; J.S. Klein, in: Die Laryngaltheorie und die Rekonstruktion des indogermanischen Laut- und Formensystems, Heidelberg 1988, 257-279; J.E. Rasmussen, in: Selected Papers on Indo-European Linguistics, Copenhagen 1999, 442-458.
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