"...This includes changes from the split between Old English and Old Frisian (c. AD 475)..." [Wikipedia]

The reflex of Proto-Germanic *au is spelled ea in Old English, but spelled a in Old Frisian. For example:

  • Proto-Germanic: augô Old English (West Saxon) ēage Old Frisian: āge

  • Proto-Germanic: auʀā Old English (West Saxon): ēare Old Frisian: āre

How did these develop from Proto-Germanic *au? Is the reflex of *au reconstructed as remaining /au/ up until the split between Old English and Frisian? Or had *au changed to a already in Proto-Anglo-Frisian, followed by a change of a to ea in Old English, but not in Frisian?

  • 2
    Do you mean "Anglo-Frisian", or "Ingvaeonic", or "West Germanic"? There are a lot of stages that have been reconstructed between Proto-Germanic and Old English and I'm not sure what exactly you're talking about here.
    – Draconis
    Mar 20, 2021 at 16:33
  • 3
    I'm also not sure what PGmc *au has to do with anything; the famous sound change *ā > *ǣ > ea in certain environments ("near") is separate from the sound change *au > ea ("death").
    – Draconis
    Mar 20, 2021 at 16:41
  • @Draconis PGmc augô OE (West Saxonic) eage OFS age PGmc auʀā OE eare OFS are
    – fedor
    Mar 20, 2021 at 17:30
  • @Draconis I do not understand this *au > ea. I understand PGmc au > Proto-Anglo-Frisian a > OE ea
    – fedor
    Mar 20, 2021 at 17:35
  • @Draconis I did not find the reconstraction of PGmc au for Proto-Anglo-Frisian
    – fedor
    Mar 20, 2021 at 17:36

1 Answer 1


It might not be settled whether Proto-Germanic *au was monophthongized before developing to Old English *ea. A development to a monophthong (as you suggest) has been proposed by Raymond Page ("The Old English Rune Ear, Medium Ævum Vol 30, No 2. (1961), 65–79, my access through JSTOR), who I found discussed in "Palatalization of Velars:A Major Link of Old English and Old Frisian", by Stephen Laker. Laker points out that this could not have been the same monophthong as the one that developed from Proto-Germanic *ai.

Laker however also mentions three alternative proposals in the section "4.3 Palatalization in Old English before +ea, (< Gmc *au)", (pages 177-180).

  • per Karl Luick and Kurt Goblirsch : Proto-Germanic *au > Anglo-Frisian *æa, monophthongization Anglo-Frisian *æa > *ā in Pre-Old Frisian.

  • per Robert Fulk : Proto-Germanic *au > Anglo-Frisian *æu, Pre-Old Frisian reversal of this change *æu > *au followed by *au > *ā

  • *au > æa as a relatively late sound change in Old English after the split from Frisian

A side note that has some relevance. As far as I know, there is not even total consensus on the exact phonetic form of Old English ēa itself. It seems generally agreed that it started with the same quality as æ and ǣ, generally taken to be more or less IPA [æ]. The quality of the second element and the quantitative structure of the diphthong are however disputed. Many authors indicate the second element is [ɑ], like a; others instead describe it as [ə] (Donka Minkova, A Historical Phonology of English, 2014, §6.5.3 Diphthongs and Diphthongoids).

The ēa from the original diphthong *au merged in Old English with ēa from the breaking of long ǣ, but is known to be distinct from the homographic ea that developed from breaking of short æ. Some authors treat these as diphthongs that are respectively long and short (hence, they are commonly distinguished by writing the first as ēa and the second as ea). Other authors argue that the short sound should not be categorized as a genuine diphthong; it is possible to treat the short sound as some kind of allophone of /a/ (Old English short a, ea, and æ are mostly in complementary distribution), an analysis that makes it unambiguous to transcribe ēa without a length mark as [æɑ] or [æə].

We can broadly say that the Old English form seems to show fronting and raising of the initial element, and lowering and unrounding of the second element, but the ordering of these processes and exactly how they occurred seems difficult to determine.

  • By the way, In my opinion Old Frisian /ā/ is a derivative from /ia/ (by umlaut of the first element of the diphtong ia) like PIE /ou/ from /eu/, PGmc /au/ from /eu/ or Gothic /au/ from /iu/. The difference is (as I see it) that Old Frisian turned the second element /u/ to /a/ thus Old Frisian /ā/ is simply /aa/ derived from /ia/ by umlaut.
    – fedor
    Mar 21, 2021 at 9:41
  • or like Old High German /ō/ is a derivative from /io/ (by umlaut of the first element of the diphtong io) The difference is that OHG turned the second element /u/ to /o/ thus OHG /ō/ is simply /oo/ derived from /io/ by umlaut (as I see it)
    – fedor
    Mar 21, 2021 at 11:07
  • Excellent explanation! The one thing I'd add is that, to my understanding, breaking happened only in certain environments (notably before h), while the development *au > ea was universal, so the merger between those two couldn't have happened before OE.
    – Draconis
    Mar 21, 2021 at 16:00

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