Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 11.7: Unconditioned Sound Changes


chapter 11.7: Unconditioned sound changes

One of the primary areas of change within a language is the change in its system of sounds, and much of the nineteenth-century work in linguistics was spent in figuring out exactly how the sounds in one language corresponded to those in another. People had long recognized that there were similarities between languages, even when the pronunciation differed. For example, English “hound” and German “Hund” both mean “dog” and are so similar that there must be some type of relation between them, but the precise nature of the connection was unclear. As the nineteenth century progressed, linguists gathered such correspondences between the sounds of as many related languages as they could and began to notice more and more patterns. The greatest example of this is what we call Grimm’s Law. Grimm noted that there were correspondences between the consonants in Germanic languages and those in languages like Greek and Latin, for example the correspondence between the “t” in Latin tres, tu and tenuis and the “th” in English three, thou and thin, or the relationship between the “p” in pater, piscis, and pedemand the “f” in father, fish, and foot. Grimm suggested that this correspondence was 1) a regular one that occurred throughout the language, rather than being entirely random, and 2) that it had happened at a historical point in time.

As ground-breaking as these two suggestions were, it was a later generation of scholars, the Neogrammarians, who pushed them to their full conclusion. They suggested that sound changes like this were not only regular, but that they occurred without exception. Thus, it wasn’t just that some instances of the phoneme /t/ in Indo-European languages become /θ/ in Germanic languages, but every single /t/ turned into /θ/. As they put it, Die Lautgesetze kennen keine Ausnahmen: “Sound Laws know of no exception.” They modeled the name “Sound Law” on the observable laws that had been discovered in other sciences like Newton’s Laws of Motion. For the Neogrammarians, laws could be formulated describing the production and changes of sounds in human speech in the same way that Newton and others could observe the natural world and formulate laws that described natural phenomena. The difference between a law like Grimm’s and one like Newton’s is that Grimm’s Law occurred at one point in time (i.e., it was historical) and then stopped. Newton’s Law of Inertia always works.

Sound Laws like these are known as unconditioned changes, meaning they occur throughout the language without the necessity of there being any special phonetic conditions the word. For example, the change from /t/ to /θ/ that we see in a correspondence like Latin tres and English three did not happen because of the specific vowel in the word, or the presence of the phoneme /r/. No special conditions were needed for it to take place. This separated these types of changes from the conditioned changes that only occurred under specific conditions.

Perhaps the most famous unconditioned sound changes in English are Grimm’s Law and the Great Vowel Shift, but there are others occurring today. Cities like Buffalo and Rochester in the Northern US are undergoing what is known as the Northern Cities Shift, and while parts of California and the southern US are in the midst of their own unconditioned vowel changes. The “cot-caught” merger in which the vowels in these two words start to rhyme has affected a large part of the US.