Phonological change

Author: April McMahon


This article provides an overview of the issues involved in teaching sound change at undergraduate and graduate level.

Table of contents


Phonological change, or sound change, is taught in modules on historical linguistics, the histories of specific languages, and phonetics and phonology. Indeed, historical linguistics courses often begin with sound change (though beginning students may find lexical or semantic change easier to relate to). Students must understand elementary phonetics and phonology before approaching changes in these domains; with this preparation, provided by basic textbooks like Davenport and Hannahs (2005), Giegerich (1992), sound change can highlight general causes of change, and contrast what is easier for speakers (as in assimilation) with what is easier for listeners and learners (as in certain dissimilations; see Ohala 1993). A grasp of the cyclicity of changes, and the interplay of different factors in explanation, is essential to understanding any change; these factors are covered in textbook treatments of sound change (Aitchison 2001, Millar 2007, Campbell 2004). Of course, sound change is not purely mechanical; including contact-induced changes (Thomason 2001), changes where social context is vital, and opaque or controversial cases, would be good practice in communicating the historical detective work and arguments involved in describing and explaining sound change.

Surveys of sound change in the histories of specific languages may start with chronological lists of changes rather than questions of explanation. Although students need to know defining changes, which may provide the rationale for the periodisation of a language, over-emphasis on the changes themselves may lead students to see them as almost divorced from speakers and context. Inclusion of changes in progress, and careful consideration of different types of causation, can help students gain a fuller picture of both the history of 'their' language and of sound change.

Finally, one way of demonstrating our need to study and understand phonetics and phonology is their involvement in explaining past or ongoing changes. Equally, enlightening analyses of sound changes might support particular phonological theories (see Browman and Goldstein 1991 on Articulatory Phonology, and Holt (2003) on Optimality Theory, for example). A consideration of how, and whether phonological theory can be applied to sound change would also provide a useful advanced topic for students of phonology (see Burton-Roberts, Carr and Docherty 2000, Bermúdez-Otero 2007).


Aitchison, J. (2001). Language Change: Progress or decay? 3rd edition. Cambridge University Press.

Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (2007). Diachronic phonology. In Paul de Lacy (ed.), The Cambridge handbook of phonology, 497-517. Cambridge University Press.

Browman, C. and L. Goldstein (1991). 'Gestural structures: distinctiveness, phonological processes, and historical change'. In I.G. Mattingly and M. Studdert-Kennedy (eds.), Modularity and the motor theory of speech perception, 313-338. Laurence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, New Jersey.

Burton-Roberts, N., P. Carr & G. Docherty (eds.) (2000). Phonological Knowledge: Conceptual and empirical issues. Oxford University Press.

Campbell, L. (2004). Historical Linguistics. 2nd edition.  Edinburgh University Press.

Davenport, M. and S.J. Hannahs (2005). Introducing Phonetics and Phonology. 2nd edition.  Arnold.

Giegerich, H. (1992). English Phonology: An introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Holt, D.E. (ed.) (2003) Optimality Theory and Language Change. Springer.

Millar, Robert McColl (2007)  Trask’s Historical Linguistics.  2nd edition.  Hodder Education.

Ohala, J. (1993). 'The phonetics of sound change', in Charles Jones (ed.) Historical Linguistics: Problems and Perspectives. Longman: London.

Thomason, S. G. (2001). Language Contact: An introduction. Edinburgh University Press.

Related links

International Phonetic Association, IPA
The website of the International Phonetic Association; various resources including downloadable IPA fonts.

SIL International
Formerly known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics; computing resources and the Ethnologue.

ETYMO - an interpreter for linguistical rules in diacronic linguistics
A program which simulates regular sound change.

The University of Texas at Austin - Historical Linguistics Resources
A range of exercises, including sound change and reconstruction.

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