Anglo-Frisian Perspective on the Pronunciation of Old Norse Ǫ

Written by Dyami Millarson

Can you imagine the Vikings roaming around in this forest and talking with each other casually in Old Norse and as it so happens in the natural flow of conversation, utter a few ordinary Old Norse words that contain the vowel sound ǫ?

Old Norse distinguishes the rounded back vowels o and u/w-umlaut-derived (i.e., a + u/w = ǫ, or more properly according to linguistic convention: a + u > ǫ, where > means “leads to”). There is no question as to whether ǫ is a rounded back vowel like o and u. The only question is about the exact vowel height of ǫ, namely which of these two rounded lower back vowels it is: the rounded open-mid vowel /ɔ/ or or the rounded open vowel /ɒ/? Rounded higher back vowels /o/, /ʊ/ and /u/ are out of the question as possible interpretations of ǫ, because the former already corresponds to Old Norse o and the latter two already correspond to Old Norse u.

Ǫ does expressly not fit into the higher vowel category, yet it belongs to the lower vowel category, which creates a phonetic dichotomy between ǫ on the one hand and o and u on the other hand. When wondering about the cause of this phonetic situation, we ought to bear in mind that the rounded lower back vowel ǫ is derived from rounded the lower central vowel a via the mutating influence of u, so we may see the lower vowel correspondence between both the original (i.e., unmutated) a and the resulting (i.e., mutated) ǫ. In other words, a and ǫ are both lower vowels due to their shared origin.

So which lower vowel realisation is it, /ɔ/ or /ɒ/? Ǫ must have sounded very similar to o in Old Norse. We must suppose that Old Norse either had the vowel qualities /ɔ/ and /o/ for back vowels ǫ and o or it had the vowel qualities /ɒ/ or /o/ for the same two vowels. What is the likeliest of these two scenarios? The Frisian and Anglic (i.e., English-like) languages have been in contact with the Scandinavian languages since Old Norse times, and so we may explore the prevalence of /ɒ/ and /ɔ/ as well as the minimal pairs /ɔ/ and /o/ or /ɒ/ and /o/ in these languages for clues about the vowel quality of Old Norse ǫ.

I can immediately state that the /ɔ/ and /o/ pair is the most prevalent in the Frisian languages which are geographically the closest to Scandinavia, namely the North Frisian language family. /ɒ/ does occur in the Frisian language family, but it is usually derived from an elder /ɔ/. For instance, the Schiermonnikoog Frisian /ɒ/ is derived from an /ɔ/, which is either the historical original as in the case of Schiermonnikoog Frisian lat < *lot or which is historically derived from /ɛ/ as in the case of Schiermonnikoog Frisian batter < *better.

Akin to the Schiermonnikoog Frisian case of a /ɒ/ being derived from o /ɔ/, the British English hot /hɒt/ corresponds to the Scottish English hot /hɔt/, which actually represents the elder pronunciation. This obviously points to there being a close relationship between /ɔ/ and /ɒ/, namely that they are both similar-sounding lower back vowels which renders them interchangeable to some extend, which explains why the historical vowel shift of /ɔ/ > /ɒ/ may occur. The important point, however, is to figure out the starting point: was /ɔ/ or /ɒ/ first? English hot comes from Old English ᚻᚪᛏ (hāt) /haːt/, which means that the English o-sound in this case is derived from an Old English a-sound.

The Schiermonnikoog Frisian word man may traditionally also be pronounced with /ɒ/, and if /ɒ/ is derived from /ɔ/ or /ɛ/, Schiermonnikoog Frisian man may, at least theoretically, go back to either *mon or *men, the former of which resembles East Terschelling Frisian mon. It so happens that mon and monn, which are both spelled as ᛗᚩᚾ in Anglo-Frisian runes, are attested in Old Frisian, and so we may assume that the /ɒ/ < /ɔ/ checks out in the case of Schiermonnikoog Frisian man as well. Furthermore, the conservative form with /ɔ/ is still extant in Frisian languages. Take for example ᛗᚩᚾ (Mon) in Sagelterland Frisian, Wursten Frisian ᛗᚩᚾ (mon), Wangerooge Frisian ᛗᚩᚾ (mon), and the fact that Shire Frisian man may still be pronounced /mɔn/. Compare Old English ᛗᚩᚾ (mon). However, Harlingerland Frisian ᛗᚩᚾ (mōn) [attested in compounds and Buhske di Remmer] exhibits a long stem vowel unlike the other East Frisian languages, yet the Harlingerlandic form with long o-vowel is still quite similar to the Old Frisian and Old English forms with short o-vowel.

It should, nevertheless, be noted that forms with the original a inherited from Germanic did occur in Old Frisian, namely man(n), which is represented in Anglo-Frisian runes as ᛗᚪᚾ. The Hindeloopen Frisian and West Terschelling Frisian word man with the stem vowel /a/ may be derived from the Old Frisian form with the historical /a/. The form ᛗᚪᚾ (man or mann) did occur in Old English as well. As a sidenote, it is interesting to observe the correspondence between Old English and Old Frisian in terms of the variation between single n and double nn. Both Old Frisian and Old English (o) as seen in the Old Frisian and Old English form ᛗᚩᚾ (mon or monn) stem from the old Germanic (a) as preserved in the Old Frisian and Old English form ᛗᚪᚾ (man or mann).

This may also explain a-containing North Frisian forms besides o-containing North Frisian forms.

The a-containing North Frisian forms are thus:

  • Amrum Frisian maan (< Old Frisian ᛗᚪᚾ man),
  • Föhr Frisian maan,
  • Sylt Frisian man,
  • Heligolandic man,
  • Classical Sylt Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> man and
  • Classical Amrum Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> mân,
  • Classical Heligoland Frisian <Theodor Siebs> man.

The o-containing North Frisian forms are thus:

  • Langenhorn Frisian moon (< Old Frisian ᛗᚩᚾ mon),
  • Ockholm Frisian moon,
  • Wiedingharde Frisian muon
  • Mooring Frisian moon,
  • Karrharde Frisian moon,
  • Hallig Frisian moon [attested in compounds, e.g. tämermoon carpenter]
  • Drelsdorf Frisian måån,
  • Hattstedt Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> mon (= *môn),
  • Bargum Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> mon (= *môn),
  • Breklum Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> môn,
  • Classical Karrharde Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> mon (= *môn),
  • Classical Wiedingharde Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> moan (= *muan),
  • Classical Mooring Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> mon (= *môn)
  • Classical Ockholm Frisian <Moritz Momme Nissen> mon (= môn).

When taking the Anglo-Frisian phonology, by which I mean the sound relationships as found in the Frisian and Anglic languages, into account, it seems the most plausible to me that the original pronunciation of Old Norse ǫ is /ɔ/. As we have seen, it is then possible that /ɔ/ might have shifted to /ɒ/ like in Schiermonnikoog Frisian, but Old Norse need not have done so, as also evidence by plenty of Frisian languages, such as those which belong to the East and North Frisian language families indigenous to Germany and East Terschelling Frisian which is part of the West Frisian language family indigenous to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

While the Frisian and Anglic languages are languages similar to Old Norse, they exhibit comparable phonetic developments to Old Norse for this reason and might offer clues as to how the vowel system of Old Norse really worked. There are ample examples of the relationship between /ɔ/ and the elder Germanic a in the Frisian and Anglic languages. The origin of these sound shifts was different from Old Norse, as these were organic shifts without the influence of an u-mutation. However, if the a can shift to /ɔ/ organically, why wouldn’t it do so under the mutating influence of the Old Norse and oftentimes Proto-Norse u/w?

Hence, if a strong argument for the interpreting Old Norse ǫ as /ɔ/ can already be made based on Anglo-Frisian phonology, the argument for ǫ = /ɔ/ in Old Norse becomes even stronger when one realises that the /ɔ/-sound, which frequently corresponds to a historical a in Frisian and Anglic, is more like the Old Norse and Proto-Norse u in terms of vowel height than /ɒ/ is, and this is particularly relevant if we consider that an u-mutation means practically that the u causes another sound to take up phonetic traits of the u-sound, i.e., become more like the u, and therefore not just backness and roundedness should be taken into acxount, but also vowel height when reconstructing the quality of ǫ.

We must not just consider the realm of the possible, because ǫ = /ɒ/ is possible, but we must consider the realm of the likely, and having studied Anglo-Frisian phonology for many xonsecurove years, it seems the most likely – as well as intuitive – me that ǫ = /ɔ/ is correct, if the answer we are looking for is the original exact phonetic value of the back vowel ǫ. After all, why would ǫ be /ɒ/ if its value were the result of influence from a present or historical u/w-sound? This would make little sense considering (1) the phonetic qualities of the Old Norse u such as its vowel height, and (2) the Anglo-Frisian phonological evidence which suggests a transition from central vowel /a/ to back vowel /ɔ/ is a likely scenario, while the change from /ɔ/ to /ɒ/ takes an extra step, where the vowel height is lowered instead of heightened?

One would not expect a vowel-lowering but a vowel heightening to take place. If it is already easy for Frisian to move from /a/ to /ɔ/, then it should be super easy for Old Norse under the phonetic condition of the u-umlaut. To me, ǫ = /ɒ/ would seem a reverse development which cannot be the original situation. Finally, it should be said that ǫ = /ɔ/ makes perfect sense when compared with the sounds that the ǫ ostensibly developed into in the descendant languages of Old Norse. When I compare all the ǫ-descended sounds of the modern Scandinavian languages with /ɔ/, I find it matches very well. Considering all the evidence from the modern Scandinavian languages is, however, a topic for another time; for the sole purpose of this article is to provide an anglo-Frisan perspective – or I might even say an Anglo-Frisian solution – to the issue of the reconstruction of the original phonetic value of Old Norse ǫ, which stems from a historical a influenced phonetically by an u/w which may or may not be present still in Old Norse and if it is not, it can be called a Proto-Norse u/w.

6 comments

    • You are welcome! 😊 Bear in mind, though, that Welsh mutations (aspirate, soft, nasal) are consonant mutations, Old Norse mutations are vowel mutations (u-mutation, i-mutation, a-mutation). 🧐

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