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The loss of [ei] : [ai] opposition in Middle English *.


On the basis of several electronic and online corpora this paper discusses the temporal and regional conditioning of the elimination of the diphthong [ei] in Middle English, a process which led to a restructuring of the system of English diphthongs. The study exploits the so-called impure rhymes found in poetic texts from various areas of England. Although Luick's hypothesis concerning an early change in the North is not invalidated, the examples adduced here seem to indicate that an early merger of [ei] with [ai] may have also taken place in the northern areas of the West Midland.

1. General statements

Between the end of Old English and Late Middle English the system of diphthongs underwent a long series of transformations (ef. Welna 1986). To these changes belongs the elimination of [ei] from the inventory of Middle English diphthongs through its merger with [ai], another closing diphthong. The change, a dissimilatory process, was effected through the lowering of the first segment of the diphthong. A small selection of words which contained the relevant diphthong are listed as (1) below. Diphthongs in these words represent Old English sequences such as (a) [ez], (b) [aez], (c) [ez]:

1) (a) OE eze > ME aie 'awe', OE ezlan > ME eylen > ail, OE lezde > ME leide > laid (PT), OE lezen > ME leien > lain (PP), OE lezer > ME leier > lair, OE pleza > ME pley > play, OE plezian > ME pleie > play, OE rezn > ME rein > rain, OE sezel > ME seil > sail, OE sezst > ME seist > sayst 'say' (2nd sg. pres.), OE besen > ME theyn > thain 'thane', OE wez > ME wei > way, OE wezan > ME weye/weigh; ON heill > ME heile > hail, ON reisa > ME reise > raise, ON sveinn > ME swein > swain, ON [thorn]eir > ME [thorn]ey > they; OF estrein- > ME straine > strain, OF feire > ME faire > fair, OF feit > ME fei[thorn] > faith, OF preie > ME preie > pray, OF preisie > ME preyse > praise, etc.

(b) OE aez > ME ey > ay 'egg', OE aez[thorn]er > ME either 'either', OE caez > ME key > kay 'key', OE claez > ME clei > clay, OE graez > ME grey > gray, OE hnaean > ME neyen > nayen 'neigh', OE staezer > ME staier 'stair', etc.

(c) OE hez > ME hei > hay, OE hwez > ME w(h)ey > whay 'whey', OE twezen > ME tweine > twain, etc.

As regards the Middle English spelling convention, the medieval scribes frequently continued to use the old spelling <ei/ey>, thus disregarding the change in the diphthong, especially in words listed as (1b). The earlier spelling was as a rule preserved in the case of [ei] followed by the velar fricative [x], the change [eix > aix] being delayed until the 15th century. The diphthong failed to develop in the North. Here belong the following words:

2) ME eighte 'eight', freyght 'freight', heighte 'height', neighebour 'neighbour', sleyght 'sleight', weight, etc.

Only occasional spellings testify to the occurrence of the change before the fricative since the above words retain the traditional orthography.

In terms of phonetic detail, there is a consensus among the authorities that the lowering must have involved three principal stages, the first being the lowering [ei > [epsilon]i], then a further lowering [[epsilon] > ae], and the third stage when the initial segment in the diphthong [aei] became lowered to [a] and thus merged with the diphthong [ai] from [aez], as in OE daez > day. The last and the most crucial of the changes is variously dated. Thus, Wright and Wright (1928) assume they took place around 1300. Jordan's (1925 [1974]: 118) date of the first stage, i.e. opening of close [e], is the 12th century, and the last stage of the opening, i.e. [ae > a], belongs to the latter half of the 13th century. Luick's (1940: 374-375) dating of the first stage, le > [epsilon]], is "vor 1200" in the North and shortly after ("bald nachher") in the southerly areas, while the stage of [ai] was reached, according to the Historische Grammatik, at the end of the 13 century, which agrees with Jordan's chronology. Simultaneously Luick (1940: 435) states that texts from the early 13th century, like Trinity Homilies, Kentish Glosses, Ancrene Riwle, Ormulum or Vices and Virtues, lack any traces of the [ei : ai] merger. Curiously, no dating is suggested in the standard short grammars of Middle English by Brunner (1963) and (Fisiak 1968).

The change also affected Kentish and Mercian forms with [ei] (= WS aei), as in dey > day, maeiden > maiden, etc. The intermediate stage, that of the lowering, is confirmed by spellings with <ae> in Layamon (c1205):
3) Brennes wes awaei iflozen (4764)
 Woeila waei waeila waei [thorn]aet he is
 [thorn]us i-faren awaei (8031)
 In his herede he makede grid, ae lette awoei
 [thorn]at * vniriht (10281)
 Anan swa heo me [thorn]er witen, awoei heo
 wulled wenden (15060)

where awoei is a reflection of the Old English phrase on weze.

From the above it follows that [ei] must have merged with [ai] around 1300 at the latest. However, many linguists are not eager to treat ei-spellings in Chaucer (late 14th century, but manuscripts from the 15th century!) as representing the diphthong [ai]. To the group of those who believe that the diphthong [ei] in the noun veyne was completely replaced by [ai] in the language of the author of The Canterbury Tales belong Berndt (1960), Peters (1980) and Fries (1985). Some scholars assume the intermediate pronunciation with initial [ae], i.e. the diphthong [aei] (Moore 1951; Kokeritz 1954; Gimson 1970; Williams 1975 and Algeo 1992), while Weinstock (1968) and Cable (1983) employ the old diphthong [ei] in their samples of Chaucer's texts (cf. Wetna 1988).

The aim of the present brief study is to establish on the basis of various Middle English poetical texts a more precise chronology of the change and thus to identify the reflections of the lowering in particular texts. Attention is especially focused on the "impure" graphic rhymes where words retaining the conservative spelling <ei>, as in wey, match items containing original <ai>, as in day. Such rhymes are found, claims Luick (1940: 435), in Havelok (c. 1300), Robert Mannyng and other non-Northern texts. Thus, the change is believed to have been effected at the end of the 13th century, around 1300, except in the Southwest where the merger occurred ata later date. The rhymes of EY and AY offer three logical possibilities of interpretation, as representing respectively:
4) (a) [ei],
 (b) [ai],
 (c) intermediate [aei] and, finally,
 (d) different pronunciations according to spelling, i.e. the absence
 of a rhyme.

Of these, (a) must be rejected as it is highly improbable that the new spelling <ai> could represent the conservative pronunciation [ei]. On the contrary, the presence of such spellings in rhymes may confirm that the earlier sequence <ei>, pronounced [ai], now matches the new sounds phonetically. Equally improbable is hypothesis (d) postulating lack of rhyme, especially that in the texts examined ai-spellings prevail statistically over ei-spellings, which compels us to treat the latter as mere graphic residue. Consequently only the solutions (b), postulating a full lowering to la], and (c), suggesting lowering of [e] to [ae], are possible to accept.

Unlike the modest evidence from Jordan and Luick, mainly based on prose samples, the data used in the present paper come from poetic texts representing Scotland, North, East Midland, West Midland, South and Kent, in which the lowering is usually documented by the modified spelling <ai> for earlier <ei>. Attention is focused especially on the instances of graphically impure spellings in the rhymes of [ei/ey] and [ai/ay]. Such spellings testify to the process of merger going on or being totally effected in the language of the scribe who copied a relevant manuscript. Practically all the data for the investigation come from the Lyon--Chadwick comprehensive collection of Middle English poetic texts. But other sources, like the Middle English dictionary (1954-2001) and the Oxford English dictionary, were also consulted.

As a method of examination I decided to consider spellings of words with the original [ei] diphthongs taking the new spelling <ai/ay> for earlier <ei/ey>. As a test word I chose the high frequency noun way (< OE wez) and examined the distribution of its various spellings ranging from traditional wei(e)/wey(e) to the modified spelling <wai/way> in around fifty localised Middle English texts representing different dialects.

2. Scotland and the North

A general consensus localises the first stage of the change in the northerly areas, i.e. Scotland and Northem England. Unfortunately, the shortage or rather lack of early texts from that region cannot support in full such claims, although, as our evidence shows, they appear to be justified. Thus, Scottish English texts from the 14th century contain words with spellings reflecting the change, as exemplified by the typical rhyme of the nouns day : way (< wei) in Barbour's Bruce (c. 1375):
5) & syne gaiff him gud day
 & bad him pas furth on his way (Bruce: 131-132)
 Yen to ye hycht yai held yar way
 And huntyt lang quhill off ye day (Bruce: 477-478)

An "impure" spelling rhyme can be found in the Legend of St. John (Johannes) from the Scottish Legends of the Saints, a 14th century collection, where final <ey> stands for the diphthong [ai]; cf.:

6) had askit hym sum money, as In depose [thorn]at with hym lay

Such rhymes are, however, rare and Scotland can be considered an area where the change was implemented more consistently in the 15th century.

Much richer spelling variation is found in the texts from the North, especially those representing Yorkshire, a county localised in the Southern area of the Northern region. The table below shows the distribution of forms with <ei/ey> and <ai/ay> and the incidence of the forms of the noun wey/way in particular texts from the North of England. The pair EI : AY symbolises impure graphic rhymes. The symbol El stands for ei(e)/ey(e) and AY for ai(e)/ay(e). Analogously, WEY represents wei(e)/wey(e), while WAY stands for wai(e)/way(e).

Cursor Mundi 1340 + + +
The Surlees Psalter 1250-1300 - - +
Sir Tristrem c. 1320 + - +
The Northern Passion 1300-1333 - - +
Castleford's Chronicle 1327 - - +
The pricke of conscience c. 1340 - - +
Lawrence Minot 1320-1350 - - +
Richard Rolle of Hampole 1320-1350 - - +
William of Nassington c. 1350 + + +
The Gast of Gy c. 1350 - - +
The lay-folks mass-book 1375-1400 - - +
Sir Ysumbras a 1400 - - +
Octavian c. 1400 - - +
Ywain and Gawain c. 1400 + - +
Sir Eglamour d'Artoi c. 15c. + + +
St. Robert of Knareborough 1. 15c. - - +

As regards the Cursor Mundi, the text most representative of the Northern region, it contains numerous impure graphic rhymes of (a) foreign words, e.g. traueil : auail (89-90), glaiue : receiue (7745-6),perceiue : consaiue (10785-6), (b) foreign and native items, cf. dozein : again (11407-8), magdalein : slain (29216-17) and (c) purely native pairs, e.g. awai : ei (13546-7), etc. This etymological diversification proves that the origin of words affected by the change was not a factor triggering the lowering. The double treatment of the continuation of the Middle English noun wei is reflected in the consecutive lines of the example below:
8) If [thorn]ou redes bat it sua be
 We wil be wai ga be be se,
 For bar es tuns in for to rest,
 [thorn]at we[i] to ga me thine it best." (11735-8)

The texts from Yorkshire offer more material for comparison. The fifteen texts cover the period from the latter half of the 13th century until the 15th century. Most of them (10) do not contain impure graphic rhymes, the five texts having such rhymes are Sir Tristrem (c. 1320), William of Nassington (c. 1350), Octovian (c. 1400), Ywain and Gawain (c. 1400) and Sir Eglamour (e. 15th c.), but the forms with <ey> of WAY survive in only two texts, by William of Nassington and Sir Eglamour. All the fifteen texts contain the forms of WAY with the diphthong [ai], which may validate claims that in the northern regions of England [ai] had to a large extent ousted ei-forms. The retention of an isolated form awey (788) preserving the old diphthong in the late text Sir Eglamour d' Artoi from the early 15th century is difficult to account for.

3. East Midland

The data from the East Midland are split into two groups, Lincolnshire, in the northerly area of the Midlands, and the Central/Southern region embracing counties such as Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex/Middlesex and London.

The Ormulum c. 1 175 (unrhymed) + -
Amis and Amiloun c. 1330 - - +
Robert Mannying of Brunne c. 1330-1338 + + +
The Romance of Emare c. 1460 + - +
East Anglia/Cambridge/
Genesis and Exodus (Norfolk) c. 1250 + + +
Havelok the Dane (Norfolk) c. 1300 + + -
Guv of Warwick (Suffolk) c. 1314 + + +
Dame Sirith (Cambridge) c. 1282 - + +
The King of Tars (London) c. 1330 + - +
Chaucer: Romaunt/CT
(London) c. 1380 + + +
Gower: Works (London) c. 1390 - + -
King Horn (Ess/Midsx) c. 1300 + + +
Arthour and Merlin
(Ess./Midsx) C. 1330 + + +

Although copied in Lincolshire, a northerly area, the Ormulum, a text produced before 1200, lacks forms showing the merger, the only form of WAY being weyyess 'ways' (96, 108, 636, etc.), which agrees with the statements found in the grammars whose authors postulate that the merger belongs to a later period. However, other texts written at approximately the same period, the anonymous poem Amis and Amiloun and Robert of Brunne's two major works, Handlyng Synne and The story of England, reveal significant differences since Mannying preserves impure graphic rhymes and the forms of WAY with the first element unchanged in spelling; cf.:
10) Yyf [thorn]ou herdyst a fals [thorn]yng
 or lay[thorn]
[thorn]at were spoke ayens [thorn]e fey[thorn] (HS: 563-564)
Pers mette, vp-on a day,
A pore man, by [thorn]e way.. (HS: 5695-5696)
& wel armed wente [thorn]er weye
her he knew by o valeye. (SE: 1115-1116)
"Bot yyf ye do as y yow seye,
"Of pes ys [thorn]er non o[thorn]er weye." (6355-6356)

11) ... [eth]e first moned and to sirst dai,

He sag er[eth]e drie & to water awai.. (G&E: 615-616)
oc on of hem, [eth]e flogen a-wei
Told it abram [eth]at ilke deai. (G&E: 861-862)
Sone so it was lith of day,
Grim it under-tok [thorn]e tivey (H: 663-664)
And at [thorn]e croiz, [thorn]at he biforn lay,
Siren yede sore grotinde awey. (H: 1389-1390)

As regards East Anglia, its dialects seem to have been partly affected by the lowering rule since Genesis and Exodus (Norfolk c. 1250) still exhibits the prevalence of ey-forms over ay-forms, although frequent impure graphic rhymes indicate the progress of the change. Characteristically the noun WAY is only rarely represented by the spelling <ai>, while the other standard text from Norfolk, The lay of Havelok the Dane (c. 1300), although written half a century later, completely lacks forms of WAY with ai-spellings. Such forms are found, more frequently in The romance of Guy of Warwick (Suffolk c. 1314), a text which contains numerous impure graphic rhymes; cf,:
11) ...[eth]e first moned and te sirst dai,
 He sag er[eth] e drie & te water awai.. (G&E: 615-616)
 oc on of hem, [eth]e flogen a-wei
 Told it abram [eth]at ilke deai. (G&E: 861-862)
 Sone so it was lith of day,
 Grim it under-tok [thorn]e wey (H: 663-664)
 And at [thorn]e croiz, [thorn]at he biform lay,
 Si[thorn]en yede grotinde awey. (H: 1389-1390)
 Smerteliche he dede him in be ways,
 Ouer lae dounes & be valeys (GW: 3875-3876)

Of the two most famous poets, Chaucer and Gower, it is the author of The Canterbury Tales who demonstrates numerous impure graphic rhymes [ei : ai], as said earlier, variously interpreted in the standard grammars, suffice to mention pairs from The romaunt of the rose, such as certeyn : fayn (809-810), hakeney : ay (1137-1138), chesteynes : fayn is (1375-1376), pley : ay (1449-1450), agayn : seyn (1765-1766), but pleyn : ageyn (2269-2270), wey : bitray (2689-2670) or a peculiar rhyme involving the two spellings of WAY:
12) Al the world holdith this way;
 Love makith alle to goon miswey ... (RR: 4765-4766)

Curiously, Gower not only lacks ai-forms of WAY, using only the form weie/wey, but his works do not contain any graphically impure rhymes, which testifies to the poet's avoidance of any ambiguity. Does it mean that Gower ignored the lowered pronunciation in the first segment? Or rather that he used an intermaediate pronunciation [aei] preserving the traditional spellings?

The two romances representing the dialect of Essex/Middlesex at the turn of the 14th century, King Horn (c. 1300) and especially Arthour and Merlin (c. 1330), contain plenty of impure graphic rhymes. It seems that a high number of such rhymes testifies to the early period of the operation of the e-lowering rule.
13) & [thorn]e sonde wide
pat sik lai [thorn]at maide... (KH: 271-272)
Horn tok his preie
& dude hire in [thorn]e weie. (KH: 1235-1236)
[thorn]e kniyt him aslepe lay
Al biside [thorn]e wav. (KH: 1303-1304)
& kepe we [thorn]e strait wais
Ouer alle in [thorn]e cuntrays (A&M: 4321-4322)
[thorn]is Ider loked wele [thorn]e wayes
Wi[thorn] his folk in [thorn]at cuntreys (A&M: 4367-4368)
Gveheres & eke Wativain,
Gaheriet & Agreuein. (A&M: 4567-4568)

Summing up, the East Midland shows a much more advanced stage of the change in the northerly counties, the conservative ei-forms undergoing at the same time the initial stage of the merger in the southern areas of the Midlands.

4. West Midland

The best literary works from the West Midland region cannot be as useful as they deserve to be because the authors of several poems use the technique of alliteration without line-final rhymes. Here belong, first of all, William of Palerne, Langland's Piers Plowman or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight composed by the Pearl Poet, whose romance contains only short fragments of rhymed lines. There is an evident correlation of the chronologically earlier texts from the South (Staffordshire/Herefordshire) and the later forms from Lancashire occupying the northern area of the Midlands.

Harrowing of Hell (Staff.) c. 1310 + + +
Langland: Piers Plowman
(Staff.) c. 1340 (alliter.) + -
William of Palerne (Heref.) c. 1350 (alliter.) + +
The Pearl Poet (Lanc.) c. 1375 - - +
Sir Degrevant (Lanc.) a 1440 + - +
Sir Amadace (Lanc.) c. 1450 - - +

The distribution of the forms of historical EY in the region is far from surprising. All the three texts from southem West Midland continue to use the spelling <wey> with variants. Thus, the Harrowing of Hell, Piers Plowman (Staffordshire) and William of Palerne (Herefordshire) still retain the conservative forms of WEY, while Langland's poem contains no advanced ai-forms of the noun.
15) [thorn]ou sentest me be riyt way
Into helle, for sob to say.. (HH: 217-218)
[thorn]ou teitest me bene riyte wey
Opone be mounte of sinay (HH: 233-234)
Bote per were fewe men so wys bat coupe (PP: 67/3)
 [thorn]e wei [thorn]ider..
were sche out of [thorn]e weye [thorn]at (WP: 1019)
 william wold fonde
& ei[thorn]er tok tit is way to his (WP: 1054)
 owne chaumber

The Lancashire texts covering the period from the last half of the 14th to the middle of the 15th century (Sir Gawain, Pearl, Sir Degrevant and Sir Amadace) show the total absence of the ei-forms of WAY and, with the exception of Sir Degrevant, the lack of impure graphic rhymes. This situation is easily explainable as subject to the influences from the North. The only impure graphic rhyme in Sir Degrevant is as follows:
16) '[thorn]ao Duke comes of so gret arey
 To iuste and to tornay (SD: 865-866)

Other texts from Lancashire only contain standard rhymes, such as awaye : gaye (Pearl: 258-260), away "fay (P.: 488-489), daye : waye (Sir Gawain: 1075-1077), say : way (Sir A.: 61-62), way : lay (Sir A.: 244-245). They testify to the completion of the merger of E1 with AY in the West Midland and thus its northern part, can be regarded as the area where this and other phonological innovations may have been born (cf. Welna 2005a, b).

5. Southwestern

The Southwestern dialect is here represented by texts from three regions: (a) Worcestershire, (b) Gloucestershire and (c) other dialects (Somersetshire, Wiltshire, Surrey, Devonshire and Oxfordshire). The eleven texts representing these dialects, except the document from Oxfordshire, represent roughly the time-span of 100 years, ranging from c. 1275 to c. 1380. The distribution of the rhymes and forms of WAY is shown below:

The fox and the wolf c. 1280 - + +
Proverbs of Alfred c. 1300 + + -
Castle of love c. 1320 + + +
Jacob and Iosep c. 1275 + + +
Sir Orfeo c. 1300 - - +
Robert of Gloucester c. 1300 + + -
Layamon's Brut
(Somersetshire) c. 1200 (alliter.) + +
A moral ode (Wiltshire) c. 1250 - + -
The owl and the nightingale
(Surrey) c. 1275 + - -
Sir Ferumbras (Devonshire) c. 1380 + + +
Short English metrical chron.
(Oxford) 1400-1450 - + +

Since the South is considered a conservative area it is not surprising that the traditional spelling <ei/ey> survives in as many as 9 documents including the Chronicle from as late as the first half of the 15th century:
18) Ac whanne be kyng awai was wen(t) (SEMC: 303)
 & betere hit is bat wei deie bo
 Inan al Engelond were so wo (SEMC: 984-985)

The only two texts which lack ei-forms of WAY are Sir Orfeo (Gloucestershire, c. 1300), which, in addition, contains no impure graphic rhymes, and the famous poem The owl and the nightingale (Surrey, c. 1275) which, however, contains no ai-form of WAY either. Likewise, no ai-forms are found in Robert of Gloucester (Gloucestershire, c. 1300) nor are they present in the anonymous Moral Ode (Wiltshire, c. 1250), which also lacks graphic rhymes. The alliterative poem Brut by Layamon, a very early text (Somersetshire, c. 1200) shows the contrasting forms of WAY, cf.:
19) to ban ilke weie [thorn]e he ful yeare wuste. (L: 264)
 & ferde riht on his wei his scipen runden swi[eth]e. (L: 676)
 Do we awai bane twenti a tene beo[eth] inohye (L: 1692)
 from Lengres to Auste swa laei his weie rihte. (L: 13648)

Especially rich impure graphic rhyme-related data come from Sir Ferumbras (Devonshire, c. 1380). The romance contains numerous rhymes like playne : sleyne (148-9), mayne : beyne (660-661), tweye : aye (1006-7), asleyn : fayn (1018-19), and many others. The ey-forms are, for instance, found in the following lines:
20) [thorn]at bou him neuere schalt clowe a-weye wile bou
 [thorn]y lyf miyt broke. (F: 63)
 Wend a-wey bou vauasour & say so Charlis kyng... (F: 562)
 of scheld & haberk a-wey a schar al bat he arauyte (F: 702)
 Faste bay passede ouer al be weys bey knew ful wel be
 cost (F: 1552)

The two other texts from the Southwest, Castle of love (Worcestershire, c. 1320) and Iacob and Iosep (Gloucestershire, c. 1275) show mixed spellings typical of the transition period.

6. Kent

As usual, documents from Kentish are in demand since their scarcity is striking. The only text from that region analysed here is a selection of poems by William of Shoreham. The distribution of forms under examination shows the following pattern:
William of Shoreham Date EY : AY WEY WAY

 c. 1315 + + + (away)

Like in the case of the Southwestern dialect, forms in Shoreham demonstrate variation with relatively numerous impure graphic rhymes; cf.:

22) a-fayty : weyti (De septem mortalibus peccatis: 289-291), preye : traye (317-319), assaye : aueye (De septem sacramentis: 1297-1299), seyde : mayde (The five joys of the Virgin Mary: 81-84), etc.

In sum, the evidence from Kentish, modest as it is, seems not to differ much from that found in the other regions of the South.

7. Conclusions

On the basis of the adduced data, the following tentative conclusions can be formulated:

1) The change [ei > ai] was not completed around 1300, as Luick and some other scholars claimed, but was still in progress reaching the areas of the South later than the Northern regions.

2) The dialect which triggered the change was, in agreement with standard historical grammars, the Northern dialect, although there is a strong evidence that the lowering was completed almost equally quickly in the northern West Midland.

3) The impure graphic rhymes are most frequently found in the 14th century texts from the East Midland, but their reappearance in the Northern dialect around 1400 is difficult to explain since they were absent in most texts written before 1400.

4) Although the ey-forms of WAY were eliminated even in the earliest texts from Yorkshire and the northern West Midland, in the 14th century they survive in the East Midland and the South, including Kent.


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University of Warsaw

* This is a revised version of my paper delivered at the 41st International Congress on Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, May 4-7, 2006.
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Title Annotation:LINGUISTICS
Author:Welna, Jerzy
Publication:Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EXPO
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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