By Alaric Hall
Quaestio 2: Selected Proceedings of the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon Norse and Celtic (2001)
Introduction: It is widely accepted that the Old English diphthong /e(:)o/ generally monophthongized, around the eleventh century, to the central rounded /ø(:)/. In much of England, /ø(:)/ soon unrounded to /e(:)/, but in the dialects of the south-west and west Midlands, which had a greater predilection for rounded vowels, the /ø(:)/ reflex of /e(:)o/ was retained. Since the development /e(:)o/ > /ø(:)/ took place after /ø(:)/ < i-mutation had been unrounded, it had no effect on the phonemic system of Old English: the change led to no collapse or creation of phonemic distinctions. Accordingly, <eo> remained as useful a graph for /ø(:)/ as for /e(:)o/, and it was used to represent that sound into the fourteenth century (as in the thirteenth century AB language). The dating of the monophthongization of /e(:)o/, therefore, relies on the appearance, largely in the eleventh century, of <e> spellings, attesting to a phonemic shift caused by unrounding. Thus, although the eleventh century is usually given as the time of the monophthongization, it could in fact date from any time after the loss of /ø(:)/ < i-mutation.