I was just looking at build on Wiktionary and I noticed that in Middle English the word was bilden. Where did the u come from? I can understand why words such as guide have a u; it's to make the g "hard" (/ɡaɪd/) instead of "soft" like a "j": *gide (*/dʒaɪd/).

In Modern English, changing the spelling to bild to follow the earlier spelling wouldn't change the pronunciation (/bɪld/), so how did build gain a u between Middle English and Modern English?


3 Answers 3


I think part of the premise of this question is incorrect: build did not gain a "u" between Middle English and Modern English. Modern English spelling is standardized, so we can talk about "the" spelling of most specific words. But in Middle English, there are usually multiple attested spellings for the same word; this is partly due to overall lack of standardization (some writers might even spell the same word several different ways on a single page), and partly due to the existence of conflicting standards (Middle English is a cover term that encompasses many different regional varieties over a pretty wide range of time, traditionally from the Norman Conquest of 1066 up until the Great Vowel Shift around the 1500s).

Dictionaries, such as Wiktionary, need to choose one written form to use as the headword (in this case, "bilden"), but this doesn't mean that no other forms existed during this time period. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), forms of this word spelled with "ui" or "uy" actually date back to Middle English, but their origin is unclear:

Etymology: Middle English bulden(ü), bylden, bilden < Old English *byldan to build (recorded only in past participle gebyld), < bold a dwelling. Hence the two fundamental senses are ‘to construct a dwelling’ and ‘to take up one's abode, dwell’. The normal modern spelling of the word would be bild (as it is actually pronounced); the origin of the spelling bui- (buy- in Caxton), and its retention to modern times, are difficult of explanation.

My guess is that it has something to do with phonetic rounding, as the letter "u" is generally associated with rounded vowels. This could be due to the preceding rounded consonant /b/, the historical rounding of the root vowel (Old English y was the rounded counterpart of i) or some combination of both. I'm not at all sure of this, because as the OED says, the regular development of Old English y is complete loss of rounding and merger with i, as in words like kiss v. (from Old English cyssan v.) or lice n. (from Old English lȳs n.).

However, modern standard English vocabulary does also show some influence, in both pronunciation and spelling, from dialects where y developed differently. (I'll describe this in more detail later by quoting the etymologies of specific words.) According to the link that Ricky found (Notes on Etymology by Walter W. Skeat 1901), the digraph "ui/uy" was used in Southern Middle English to represent the sound that developed from older /yː/. Skeat says this is the reason for the spelling of build (which apparently had a long vowel at this point due to homorganic lengthening before the consonant cluster -ld). To support this, he lists the words bruise, from Old English brȳsan, and buy, from a form of Old English bycgan.

I was not able to find any other examples of "ui/uy" being used this way in modern spelling. However, the OED does list muys, muyse as Middle-English spellings of the word mice (from Old English mȳs). For comparison, ice (from Old English īs, without historical rounding) does not have any spellings listed with "ui" or "uy."

Buy seems to be particularly relevant because, like build, it is pronounced with an unrounded vowel in modern English. The OED gives the following information about the etymology:

Old English bycg(e)an, bohte, geboht, corresponding to Old Saxon buggjan, *bohta, giboht, Gothic bugjan, bauhta, bauhts; of unknown origin, not found outside Germanic, and not to be connected, so far as can be seen, with the stem bug- bow n.1 The inflection was imperative byge, bycgað; indicative present bycge, bygest, bygeþ, plural bycgað; subjunctive present bycge, bycgen; whence Middle English s.w. buye, buggeþ; bugge, buyest, buyeþ, buggeþ; bugge, -en; levelled before 1500 to buy- all through, whence the modern spelling. The forms in begge, bey- were Kentish; bigge, bie, by, midland and northern; in the latter the levelling to bie, by, took place as early as 1300.

The forms with the long consonant “cg” seem to have been eliminated through leveling. Another verb that seems to have developed in a similar way is licgan "to lie (down)”: both of these words have the diphthong /aɪ/ in modern pronunciation, which generally develops from Middle English /iː/. But the different spellings suggest that buy may have been pronounced with another vowel at some point, or in some dialects. It's not clear to me from this entry if southwest buy- is the ancestor of the modern pronunciation as well as the spelling (I'm not sure how that development would work in terms of sound changes) or if the modern pronunciation simply comes from midland and northern bie, by.

Google-research suggests that aside from build, buy, and related words, there are no other words where "bui/buy" is pronounced like "bi." (This spelling pattern is discussed in A Survey of English Spelling, by Edward Carney, and Dictionary of the British English Spelling System, by Greg Brooks; both of these sources use the synchronic analysis that "bu" acts as a symbol for /b/.) There are some other words that are superficially similar (buoy, guild, guy, biscuit, conduit, Kuiper) but in general they have different explanations for their spelling, so they are not very useful for explaining build.

However, it might be useful to compare it to busy, for which the OED says:

The original stem vowel ĭ is shown by Old English bisig; the form bysig (when not simply an inverted spelling with y for i in areas where Old English y had been unrounded) probably shows late West Saxon rounding of the stem vowel as a result of the influence of the preceding labial consonant (compare A. Campbell Old Eng. Gram. (1959) §318); Middle English (and modern standard English) busy continues this form (although in the case of the modern standard form with the pronunciation of the unrounded variant). Pronunciation with /ɪ/ is regularly indicated for forms spelt with -u- by orthoepists from the mid 16th cent. onwards (see E. J. Dobson Eng. Pronunc. 1500–1700 (ed. 2, 1968) II. §82).

Forms such as Middle English and early modern English besy (see γ. >forms) reflect Open Syllable Lengthening of short ĭ to long close ē.

Another relevant word is bury, from Old English byrgan. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Under normal circumstances [Old English -y-] transformed into Modern English -i- (as in bridge, kiss, listen, sister), but in bury and a few other words (as in merry, knell) it retained a Kentish change to "e" that took place in the late Old English period. In the West Midlands, meanwhile, the Old English -y- sound persisted, slightly modified over time, giving the standard modern pronunciation of blush, much, church.

It looks like the modern pronunciation of bury comes from dialects like Kentish, while the spelling comes from dialects like those in the West Midlands.

Build, buy, busy, and bury all have a "b" before the vowel: this is the "labial consonant" mentioned by the OED. The idea that it might have influenced the development of the following vowel in words like these is plausible, since there is strong evidence that it caused the following vowel to retain rounding in words like bull. However, it seems that in some dialects, there were words that retained rounding from Old English y even when it was not directly preceded by a labial consonant, such as bruise, blush, and church.

  • The best evidence you've given that it could be part of a (semi-)regular sound change is busy. The words buy & bury are currently pronounced with a different vowel sound from build, so if they originally changed the same way, they must have both changed again in different ways since.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:06
  • buy /baɪ/ uses a diphthong: /aɪ/, while build /bɪld/ uses a monophthong: /ɪ/. I was taught "long i" vs "short i" in primary school and it is a very inaccurate way of describing the link between pronunciation and spelling! A "long i" is much closer to the monophthong /iː/ in /biː/, often spelt "ee", however, spelling this sound rarely uses an "i", as in believe.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:15
  • @CJDennis: it is inaccurate as a literal description of modern English pronunciation, but the basics of our spelling system date to before the Great Vowel Shift. I don't see a problem with using it when discussing the spelling. It's an abstraction, just like the phonemic vowel length you describe (actual phonetic length is affected by a variety of factors besides phonemic value, such as stress, tempo and the voicing of the following consonant).
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:16
  • I agree. If you are going to use buy and bury as examples you need to say that there is evidence that they originally changed the same way as build and busy but then something else (e.g. the Great Vowel Shift, if it is known) changed them again.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:19

Purely to move things along, here is the text from Ricky's link, best as I can transcribe it (from Notes on English Etymology by Walter William Skeat, 1904):

Build. I have shown that our build is the A. S. byldan derived by vowel-change from bold, a dwelling. I have also considered the A. S. bold as borrowed from Icel. bōl, a dwelling. But I find another account of bold in an article by Sievers on the Noun-suffix -tra, printed in Paul and Braune, Beitrage, v. 529. He says bold is for bolþ-, by metathesis for boþl- == A. S. botl, a dewlling (cf. Bootle in Cumberland and Lancashire). This boþl- or botl is due to a Teutonic bo-þlo-, or bo-þro-, forms in which we recognise the Teut.base BU- [small caps in original], and the Indo-germ. suffix -tro-. This brings us to the root I have already indicated, but accounts for the suffix differently.

To appreciate Sievers' view, his other examples must be examined; we have a sure parallel in the case of needle, of which another form was neeld; for this neeld certainly contains the Aryan suffix -tr-.

Note.— The ui in build is a southern M. E. symbol for the M. E. sound arising from A. S. ȳ, due in this instance to a (temporary) lengthening of A. S. y before ld. Cf. bruise from A. S. -brȳsan (in tō-brȳsan); and buy from late A. S. , for A. S. byg- in byg-eth, pr. s. of bycgan.

  • Yes, I have briefly reviewed the edits and they appear to be correct, or as close to it as one can hope.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:48
  • Have you asked Ricky if you can just edit this into his post? I see no reason why they should be separate answers.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 11:22
  • @sumelic - Someone is welcome to do that, in which case I'd delete my "answer" above.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 18, 2016 at 13:54

There seems to be a theory that the "u" in "build" was added due to the temporary (!!) lengthening of the Anglo-Saxon vowel in the Southern version of Middle English (presumably, it shortened itself again later on).

Here's the link to Notes on English Etymology written by Walter W. Skeat that might nevertheless shed some light on the issue.

  • You're not kidding about the muddled link! Would you please fix it so that I can see the page you're referring to?
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 2:43
  • @CJDennis: Done.
    – Ricky
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 3:22
  • Thanks! The link is working now. It's taking me to the Google Books page but for some reason I can't see inside any books today :-( I'll just have to take your word for the reason given in the book.
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 3:48
  • @CJDennis: just so you know, the link mentions "bruise" and "buy" as parallel examples of this spelling pattern. Under this theory, the reason "buy" is not pronounced with the same vowel today is that the vowel remained lengthened, while in "build" it became short.
    – herisson
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:13
  • @CJDennis: I copied over the relevant portion, word-for-word. So, yes, take my word for it. The reason you can't see inside any books today is you've been mixing cabernet and Spaten, and you shouldn't do that. Ever.
    – Ricky
    Commented Jan 17, 2016 at 4:23

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