ARTS1691 - Sound Change

There are many potential causes for sound change, various sociolinguistic theories combined with evolutionary ones. Two of the most accepted are listed below.

Ease of Production/Articulation

Often due to speech organs affecting each other in the small confines of the oral and nasal cavities small phonetic adjustments are made. This leads to greater phonetic change over time.

System Balance

We have a whole variety of different phonemes available to us, including voiced and voiceless versions of many of our consonants. Any sound which has a voiced and voiceless alternative is considered balanced; e.g. [t] and [d], [k] and [g].

In Old English we had paired stops but allophonic fricatives. Meaning that sounds like [f] and [v] were inconsistent in where they could be used.

We now have paired fricatives, even if some sounds exist only to provide the balance that we find so appealing.

One possible reason [h] is likely to be dropped is that it is the only unpaired fricative.

Ease of Production


priorities of weakening

Sounds are organised on to a scale of lenition, whereby the [h] is the weakest sound.

Word/Syllable Position

The position of a phoneme in a word/syllable affects the clarity and consistency of pronunciation; in words such as 'pip', 'tot', 'kick' the first consonant is stronger (has more emphasis) than the second.

Ellision; Economy of Dropping Sounds

We often drop sounds from words initially, even if they cause us no problems.
E.g. opossum.

Epenthesis; Economy of Adding Sounds

It's often easier to add an extra vowel sound in between two consonants; e.g. words such as film (filum) athlete (athalete) and Henry (Henery).

Assimilation; Bringing Two Sounds Closer Together

When we make two sounds more alike they become easier to pronounce together (co-articulate).
When the two sounds are close together we call it contact assimilation. There are two forms:

  • Progressive: when a sound changes due to the previous element; e.g. 'r' after a long vowel; then it is called progressive. This is also known as lag assimilation.
  • Regressive: when a sound changes due to the next element; e.g. 's' before 'i' changes to 'z' sometimes; it is called regressive. This is also known as anticipatory assimilation.

Vowel Harmony

Some languages, e.g. Turkish and Hungarian, have a rule that all vowels in a word must be consistently formed in the mouth; i.e. either front or back vowels.