It seems to me that despite the fact that Middle English long vowels have long since shifted dramatically, their descendants still pattern like long vowels in modern English. Since there's really very few cases where some kind of diagnostic alternation might be triggered, I only have two points of potentially helpful data:

  • Former long vowels can never be unstressed, even in loanwords - they always have to take at least secondary stress (eg. [ˌbɛj.ˈʤiŋ], rather than *[bɛj.ˈʤiŋ]). It also seems like you could pronounce Liberia either as [lɪ.ˈbi.ɹi.ə], with no stress on the first syllable, or as [ˌlaj.ˈbi.ɹi.ə] with secondary stress on the first syllable, but never *[ˌlɪ.ˈbi.ɹi.ə] (wrong because that's supposed to be a long vowel) or *[laj.ˈbi.ɹi.ə] (wrong because long vowels have to be stressed).

  • Long vowels occasionally appear in somewhat archaic playful renderings of words where they normally appear as short (eg. California as [ˌkæ.lɪ.ˈfoɹ.ˈnaj.ˈɛj], though maybe that's an isolated example).

I'm trying to rationalise (General American) English vowel pronunciations as a system with seven-or-so underlying vowels, varying in realisation due to length/stress (unstressed, short stressed or long stressed) and environment (e.g. being deleted before /ɹ/, and so on). I haven't come up against any counterexamples yet, but they may well be out there; and I'm not wholly sure that my methodology makes sense (where the underlying phonemes are so very far removed from any of their realisations - e.g. /aː/ typically realised as [ɛj]).

I suppose my question is this - is the fact that you can fairly well analyse Modern English vowels as having length just an artifact of history, or are length distinctions still part of Modern English's active phonology?

  • I believe it's actually the case that in languages where non-linguists believe there are vowels which differ purely in length that there generally are differences in vowel quality as well. I've read this for either or both of Finnish and Hungarian for instance. Jun 26, 2013 at 6:27
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    Some varieties of modern English do have a vowel length contrast. Wikipedia discusses the situation in Australian English. So in answer to your question, yes it is. Jun 26, 2013 at 7:50
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    Ah yes I believe my personal idiolect of Australian English has vowel length distinctions. "head" vs "haired" is /hed/ vs /he:d/ and "pull" vs "pool" is /pʊl/ vs /pʊ:l/. Jul 5, 2013 at 13:22
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    You seem to use the terms "General American English" and "Modern English" interchangeably. That is generally quite inappropriate when it comes to phonology, and especially so when discussing vowel lengths, based on proper noun examples.
    – prash
    Jul 5, 2013 at 22:07
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    Your "Former long vowels can never be unstressed, even in loanwords - they always have to take at least secondary stress" appears to be a disagreement with SPE, which tanses (makes long) unstressed non-low vowels word finally or before another vowel. They give the pair "Plato" with a seondary stress on the final versus "motto" with tense unstressed final. "Motto" is shown to have an unstressed final because the "t" flaps. The flap in "patio" makes the same point for tense vowels before another vowel.
    – Greg Lee
    Feb 26, 2018 at 17:04

2 Answers 2


Your question presupposes that "you can fairly well analyse Modern English vowels as having length", but it's not clear that that is the case. I'll get to that later, though.

First, let's be clear--if we were to divide modern American English vowels up into long and short vowels, the categories would cross-cut the categories of long and short vowels that existed in Middle English. That is, it's not the case that all the vowels in modern American English words that were long vowels in their Middle English counterparts pattern together in modern American English. As I mentioned in my comment, for example, moon and book both had a long vowel in Middle English, but we wouldn't want to analyze them both as having a long vowel in modern American English.

Further, if we were to divide modern American English vowels up into long and short vowels, it would not work to take the Middle English reflexes of the vowels that underwent the Great Vowel Shift as the underlying forms of their shifted "descendents" as well as of other instances of vowels that are realized in the same way--i.e. we wouldn't want to analyze the vowel in name and the vowel in Beijing as underlyingly /a:/, because there would be no sensible trigger for the synchronic vowel quality change. What would the rule look like? /a:/ --> [ej] ... in what environment? Everywhere?? Assuming you believe that underlying forms are stored in a speaker's grammar, how would a child ever infer the underlying form if it never surfaced?

Given the above, I would say that, if we even wanted to analyze modern American English as having short and long vowels (still a big if), history would have little relevance for our analysis other than the fact that some of the vowels we might analyze as long would have been long in Middle English. (But some wouldn't, and some that we would analyze as short would also have been long in Middle English.)

Which finally brings me to what I gather is the real meat of the question--does it indeed make sense to use the distinctive feature [long] in a synchronic analysis of modern American English? My answer would be: yes, but the name for the feature would just be a convenient mnemonic label and other names could just as easily be given to that feature.

The best candidates for a +/-long distinction would be the vowels in minimal pairs such as beat-bit, Luke-look, and raid-red. It's true that, all else being equal (same prosodic environment, same speech rate, etc.), the vowels in the first members of the pairs will be phonetically longer than their counterparts in the second members. The vowels of the first and second members, respectively, also pattern together phonologically (i.e. they form natural classes); for example, while the first vowel in each pair may appear in a word-final open syllable (bee, loo, ray) the second vowel in each pair may not (*[bɪ], *[lʊ], *[ɹɛ]).

In a synchronic analysis that makes use of distinctive features, then, it makes sense to posit a feature that would delineate these two natural classes. Based on the tendency of the vowels in one class to be realized as phonetically longer than those in the other class (all else being equal), we might choose the name "long" for our feature. But there are other phonetic differences that distinguish the two classes of vowels. That is, if we took recordings of the words beat, Luke, and raid and simply shortened them (using Praat's duration manipulation feature, for example), they would not be perceived by native speakers as bit, look, and red, respectively. This is because they differ in quality as well as length, as @hippietrail mentioned in her comment above. If we looked at spectrograms of the vowels in beat, Luke, and raid, we would see that the first two formants hit targets that are more "extreme" and that the formants of the vowels in bit, look, and red have relatively more "neutral" targets. Some people chalk this difference up to an articulatory difference that was historically characterized as one of "tenseness" of the articulatory muscles, and so a traditional label that was adopted for the feature was [tense].

In the end, it technically doesn't matter what we call the feature since, as I mentioned, it is really just a convenient label for characterizing natural classes (see my response to this related question about voiced consonants for further discussion). We could call it [feature 42]. It's true that calling it [long] is a sensible mnemonic choice, since duration is one dimension along which the relevant differences manifest themselves phonetically, but it wouldn't tell the whole story.

  • So it would still be the "boring" /i/ as long /ɪ/ and not long /ɛ/...is there a way to rigorously use the kindergarten "phonics" system where the pairs are most common orthographic realization = short and alphabet name = long? So for example "long A" is /ej/ and "short A" is /æ/? Maybe that is just a way to get kids used to the ridiculous English spelling system...
    – ithisa
    Jul 6, 2013 at 0:44
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    @Eric no the "kindergarten phonics system" is not a phonological analysis; it's just a series of rules-of-thumb (with many exceptions) for pronouncing English orthography. The terms short vowel and long vowel are historical relics that, frankly, confused the heck out of me when I was in school (I spoke Japanese at home, so I knew what long and short vowels were "supposed" to sound like, haha!). In fact, it's common knowledge among phoneticians that, in English, higher vowels tend to be shorter than lower ones, so [ej] is actually realized as shorter than [æ] in a comparable environment. Jul 6, 2013 at 3:39
  • So, to summarise, it's basically an [ATR] distinction, with different pairs than line up with Middle English's [long] distinction? I like that, I think it makes a lot of sense. Thank you!
    – Sjiveru
    Jul 6, 2013 at 6:34
  • @musicallinguist I sometimes wonder why they call it "phonics" given it doesn't really have anything to do with analyzing the phones of English...they should call it "spelling class".
    – ithisa
    Jul 7, 2013 at 1:52
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    @musicallinguist Great post. However, one niggle. You say "* What would the rule look like? /a:/ --> [ej] ... in what environment? Everywhere?? Assuming you believe that underlying forms are stored in a speaker's grammar, how would a child ever infer the underlying form if it never surfaced?*" <-- Whilst I agree that the general proposal is not attractive, there would perhaps be a way for such a relationship between /eɪ/ and /æ / to be stored in a speakers grammar. Compare for example: insane/insanity, grateful/gratitude, inflame/inflammatory, volcano/volcanic etc Dec 17, 2018 at 11:00

In fact, many people have been interested in exploring these kinds of ideas (that synchronic English phonology is closer to English orthography than is usually thought). It comes across to me as something that's clever but ultimately unconvincing, but there is still a lot of interesting (if you like learning about English orthography and historical linguistics, at least) data involved in the analyses. I think these kind of analyses have been associated with "Generative Phonology" in particular, and a work that is considered somewhat of a landmark (whether you find it convincing or not) is Chomsky and Halle's The Sound Pattern of English (1968), often abbreviated to "SPE".

There are actually a fairly large number (not enormous compared to the entire phonology, but not just a handful) of alternations, mainly but not exclusively in Latinate words, between /æ/ and /eɪ/, /ɛ/ and /iː/, /ɒ/ and /oʊ/, and /ɪ/ and /aɪ/. (There are fewer alternations between /ʌ/ and /juː/, because unlike /æ/, /ɛ/, /ɒ/ and /ɪ/, which can occur in orthographically "open" (that is, vowel-final) syllables in Latinate words, /ʌ/ is usually restricted to orthographically "closed" (consonant-final) syllables in Latinate words. Although there are a few /ʌ/-/juː/ alternations--like conduct and conduce--there are also a few alternations between things like /ʌ/ and /aʊ/ (pronounce--pronunciation) or /ʌ/ and /ɔɪ/ (join-junction), which make the analysis a bit less straightforward, so I've never felt fully convinced that /ʌ/, /juː/ should be considered to be paired in the same way as the other four, although it often seems to be assumed that they are in the literature that I've read).

A common example is "shortening" before the suffix -ity, as in sane/sanity, divine/divinity, serene/serenity. The more general phenomenon is that "short" vowels tend to show up in stressed syllables that are followed by an unstressed syllable and then another syllable; this has been given various names like "Luick's law", "Three-syllable shortening", and "Trisyllabic laxing".

Other examples:

  • "Short" vowels tend to show up before certain suffixes, mostly spelled with the letter -i before a consonant (like the verb suffix -ish and the adjective suffixes -ic and -id), and we have variation related to this in pairs of words like tone/tonic or lyre/lyric.

  • The letters "a", "e" and "o" (the "non-high-vowel" letters) tend be pronounced as "long" before a single consonant followed by the letter "i" or "e" and then another vowel letter (e.g. creation, facetious, ferocious) but "i" is almost always pronounced "short" in this context (e.g. ignition). There are some related alternations (e.g. voracious/voracity, ferocious/ferocity, ignite/ignition).

  • In native English vocabulary, we see alternation between "long e" in the present and "short e" in the past tense of some "irregular" weak verbs like sleep/slept, keep/kept, sweep/swept, leave/left.

You can see more description of these kinds of alternations and linguistic analysis of them in "English Syllable Structure and Vowel Shortening" by Balogné Bérces Katalin (1998).

Of course, the presence of alternations between [eɪ] and [æ] doesn't require us to analyze words pronounced with [eɪ] like "sane" as underlyingly having the phoneme /aː/. People differ with regard to how much they think the phonology should account for alternations like this. From user6726's answer to my question "What are current perspectives on analyzing word-final /i/ in English words like “potency” as synchronically derived from /j/?":

The primary reason why these relations are no longer seen as central to the concerns of phonology is that the sound patterns are not clearly part of a system of grammatical rules (which is what most phonologists are interested in) with a reasonable degree of generality. Because there is the viable alternative of simply saying that “supreme” and “supremacy” are separate words, each of which has to be learned (i.e. there is no rule), we can say that [ɪj] and [ɛ] as stem vowels are part of what you learn when you learn the words “supreme” and “supremacy”. Under SPE-era analytic standards, there was a feeling that all ‘linguistically significant’ generalizations had to be captured in the formal grammar, whereas now there is more tolerance of leaving some generalizations to be captured by linguistic theories outside of grammar (especially by historical linguistics – “because that word comes from Latin, where it was pronounced X” is a possible answer).

Since the possibility of affixing, the choice of affix, and pronunciation of resulting form is somewhat word-specific, there have to be separate lexical entries for “supreme” and “supremacy”, and we no longer view grammars as data-compression devices (whereby you can only have one root underlying a half-dozen words). In some cases (e.g. un-, pre-, -ing, -s, -er, -ness… affixation) there is good reason to claim that we are looking at current rule-governed behavior, but that cannot be said about supreme / supremacy and ilk.

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