In Old English, vowel length was phonemic, but stress and certain kinds of consonant voicing were not. In Modern English, that situation is reversed: vowel length is no longer phonemic, but stress always, and consonant voicing in most cases now, is.
My main question is . . .
Is there any connection between losing one phonemic property but gaining another? Is there some sort of “conservation of phonemic axes” principle at work here that requires another axis of distinction to appear when one is lost? Did this cause other effects, such as for example stress or voicing or something else becoming phonemic?
Old English represented 14 simple vowels using just 7 letters (a, æ, e, i, y, o, u) in paired short and long variants. This reminds me of how Latin had 10 simple vowels using 5 letters, again in paired short and long phonemically distinct variants. But in the transformation of Latin into Spanish, that 10-vowel system was lost, leaving only 5 vowels remaining. And yet, Latin’s predictable stress was also replaced with a new phonemic stress in Spanish; for example, término, termino, terminó are a minimal triple.
Did the same thing happen to Old English as happened to Latin, as the short-vs-long vowel distinction was lost but phonemic stress was gained, or is it completely unrelated?
There is one particular similarity between the transformation of Old English to Modern English and the one from Latin to Spanish: in both cases, phonemic vowel length disappeared but phonemic stress appeared. Is this pure coincidence?
In Old English, stress was not phonemic because the stress was always on the first syllable except for verbs like forsacan (forsake) or behydan (hide) with a leading particle. But in Modern English, stress is phonemic (compare record as a noun and as a verb), but vowel length is not. Was this new phonemic stress in any way compensatory for the loss of phonemic vowel length?
It was these two postings that got me thinking about the matter:
In American English, vowel length is almost always allophonic. Generally stressed vowels before voiced consonants are held longer than those before voiceless consonants (e.g, great ~ grade pronounced [greⁱt] and [gre:ⁱd]), and that perseveres even after voicing neutralization, as in grating ~ grading, pronounced ['greⁱɾɪŋ] and ['gre:ⁱɾɪŋ]. As Neil says, real vowel length is one phenomenon which helps the listener to decode speech. But in school, everyone is taught about "long A" [eⁱ] and "short A" [æ], and this has nothing to do with Modern English speech. – John Lawler yesterday
The IPA transcriptions are US /ænt/ and UK /ant/. One can use a macron /ā/ or colon /a:/ for the UK one, depending on transcription habits, but vowel length isn't phonemic in any dialect of English, so a simple /a/ will do. I do think that questions and answers about pronunciation in a written medium should try to use standard English phonemic symbols. Otherwise, how do we avoid confusion? – John Lawler 3 hours ago
I notice that we do use vowel length a bit phonologically, even in diphthongs, at least those of us with Canadian raising, such as in the otherwise phonemically identical pairs ice cream and I scream, or writing and riding, where in each pair, the first diphthong is shorter and higher than in the second.