Consonant dissimilations in Middle English

Anna Hebda (Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań)

Numerous as they were, Middle English consonant dissimilations have never actually undergone thorough investigation in their entirety. One could, of course, object and point to the 1938 paper by Eckhardt ("Die konsonantische Dissimilation im Englischen"), were it not for the fact that, first of all, the paper in question was published well over half a century ago; second, it was written at the time when no tools of the kind of the Middle English dictionary or the Linguistic atlas of Late mediaeval English were available, and, third, it offers more of a list of the types of dissimilatory phenomena operative in Middle English rather than an exhaustive account thereof. Having provided the definition of dissimilation, as well as an explanation of the nature of the process, class by class Eckhardt (1938) enumerates possible segment modifications and illustrates them with a handful of examples each. What he does not do, though, is support the discussion with analysable, tabulated numerical data, and examine the diatopic aspect of the change(s).

Detailed information on how particular dissimilations diffused throughout the lexicon of English in time and space is likewise difficult to come by in more modern, standard reference books such as Luick (1914-40 [1964]), Jordan (1934 [1974]), Mossé (1952 [1991]), Fisiak (1968 [2004]), or Wełna (1978). Mentions of various dissimilatory alterations surface every now and then, not infrequently scattered among the descriptions of other minor phenomena, but a more comprehensive treatment, backed up by hard evidence, is missing.

The present paper seeks to investigate the temporal and diatopic distribution of consonant dissimilations in Middle English. Searches and counts will, therefore, be done separately for Early and Late Middle English, as well as for each of the five major dialect continua (N, EM, WM, SW, SE). The findings are expected to indicate if the heyday of a given shift belonged to the early or late phase in the development of mediaeval English, and whether there were areas in mediaeval England, where particular changes were implemented with remarkable tempo or ease. The analysis will be carried out on the basis of two large dictionaries available online, namely the Middle English dictionary and the Oxford English dictionary . Given the breadth of the topic, the scope of the present paper will be narrowed down to the cases of change in the place of articulation of a segment, leaving aside instances of dissimilatory consonant loss, insertion, and change in the manner of articulation.