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For many dialects of English (including my own) multiple historical lexical sets are merged into one "FLEECE" set (this diaphoneme can be represented with IPA /iː/).

I've read about the basics of the "MEET-MEAT" merger, but apparently the situation is more complicated than I understood and involves a greater number of lexical sets than just two. Furthermore, the orthography does not always indicate which lexical set a word belongs/belonged to.

According to Wikipedia, the "meet-meat" merger actually has acted on the the following, originally distinct, lexical sets:

In accents with the distinction, the vowel /ɪə/ is usually represented by the spellings ea and eCe, as in neat and complete, and the vowel /ɛɪ/ is usually represented by the spellings ei and ey, as in receive and key, and the vowel /iː/ is usually represented by the spellings ee, ie and iCe as in feet, thief and suite, as well as plain e in the monosyllabic words be, he, me, she, the (when stressed), we and ye.

So according to Wikipedia, some dialects make, or at least made, distinctions that overall require at least four lexical sets:

FEET /iː/: mostly from Middle English monophthongal /eː/ (which in turn mostly corresponds to the Old English long monophthong /ē/); sometimes corresponds to orthographic <ie> for reasons unclear to me

  • <ee> (feet)
  • <ie> (thief)
  • <i>, apparently in recent-ish borrowings from foreign languages (suite)

TEAM~CREAM /ɪə/: from vowels in English and French that originally had a lower vowel quality, but were still long

  • Old English long diphthong /ēa/ (team)
  • Old English long monophthong /ǣ/ (apparently, if spelling is an accurate guide)
  • French /ɛ/, which seems to have been lengthened as a rule when taken into English (cream)

EAT /ɛɪ/: from original short /e/ lengthened by Middle English open syllable lengthening

  • Old English short vowel /e/ subsequently lengthened in an open syllable (meat, eat)

Apparently distinguishing CREAM and EAT is rare; most dialects (and the orthography) have merged the above two categories into a single MEAT lexical set.

KEY~RECEIVE /ɛɪ/: from /ɛɪ/ diphthongs, apparently

  • from Old English /ǣġ/ (key) (possibly irregular development?)
  • from /ɛɪ/ diphthong in French/Norman (receive and similar words)

Wikipedia is very unclear about which dialects have this as a distinct lexical set, and how dialects that don't merge it with other lexical sets. A World Heritage Encyclopedia entry hosted by Project Gutenberg suggests that for (at least some) Yorkshire accents, KEY is actually not a distinct lexical set from EAT.

[eɪ] may take the place of /iː/, especially in words such as key, meat, speak.


I feel like the Wikipedia article didn't completely explain the historical development or the synchronic distribution of forms in different dialects, so I was wondering if anyone is more familiar with this topic (or knows how I can access more detailed data about the pronunciation of different words in non-merged dialects.)

My main question is: in dialects that generally don't exhibit a complete FLEECE merger, are there any neutralizations between the various lexical sets in particular environments?

One particular example I've been wondering about: does anybody know which lexical set the stressed vowels in words like idea, urea and diarrh(o)ea belongs (or belonged) to for non-merged speakers? That is, a phonetically lengthened, but orthographically single <e> located before another vowel in a Latinate word. (I have not heard of any English dialects that have a general distinction between <e>, <ae> and <oe> in words derived from Latin, so I'd assume the same pronunciation patterns apply to these digraphs as for the single letter.)

Since the vowel here seems to be lengthened, not originally long, I would guess it to be in the EAT set. But I also thought that perhaps learned words like this might tend to be influenced by the pronunciation used in "standard" dialects, which tend to have a complete merger.

I also wondered because in Received Pronunciation, FLEECE when followed by a schwa behaves in a special way: it may be "smoothed" into a centering diphthong /ɪə̯/ (lexical set NEAR). I get the impression that smoothing of a vowel-schwa sequence to a diphthong is even more common for the unstressed happY vowel followed by schwa, as in the word arboreal.

Another situation where vowel reduction (and neutralization of contrasts) seems likely to me is in words like create, where the vowel is unstressed and comes directly before a stressed vowel (in Received Pronunciation, "create" has the "happY" vowel /ɪ/).

In fact, I have more questions about non-merged dialects, but I think that should be enough for now; I'll wait first to see if anyone can help me with this one.

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sometimes corresponds to orthographic <ie> for reasons unclear to me

well, at least in the case of thief this shouldn't be from Old English /ē/ but from /ēo/ (not to be confused with the breaking as in eorth- that corresponds to Old Norse ).

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  • I thought that the reflexes of OE /ēo/ just merged with the reflexes of OE /ē/. Are you saying that they remained distinct in some accents of late ME/early modern English? I'd appreciate more info; regardless, thanks for pointing this out! – brass tacks Dec 11 '18 at 12:38
  • It is at least interesting that the diphthong from /*eu was also later spelled ie in Dutch and German (eu> io> ie). – tobiornottobi Dec 11 '18 at 13:17
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    I have downvoted this becuse I believe it should have been a comment, not an answer. – LjL Dec 11 '18 at 16:36
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    LjL, I would have commented. But I can't comment yet. Do you think it would have been better not to comment? I don't. – tobiornottobi Dec 11 '18 at 16:53
  • -Well obviously except for commenting on my own answer. – tobiornottobi Dec 11 '18 at 16:55
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English words have been respelled in pronunciation key.One needs to standardize all dialects in to broadcast dialects.

fleece meet meat feet thief suite team cream eat key speak idea urea diarrhea arboreal near

IPA phonetic transcription:

flis mit mit fit θif swit tim krim it ki spik aɪˈdiə jəˈriə ˌdaɪəˈriə ɑrˈbɔriəl nɪr ..................American

fliːs miːt miːt fiːt θiːf swiːt tiːm kriːm iːt kiː spiːk aɪˈdɪə ˈjʊərɪə ˌdaɪəˈrɪə ɑːˈbɔːrɪəl nɪə ....British

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    I am familiar with the major standardized varieties of American and British English. My question is about obscure dialects which have different sound systems. – brass tacks Feb 7 '17 at 21:02
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    Why does "one need to standardize all dialects in to broadcast dialects"? That premise seems faulty, or at least elitist in the extreme. – OmarL Dec 11 '18 at 15:01

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