LNG 201/ENGL 202
Prof. G. Steinberg
Sound Changes

When confronted with a sound change to identify, heres a good way to proceed.

First, identify what has changed between the words that you are asked to look at.  Remember to look at sounds, not spelling even if what youre given is how the words are spelled.  For example, when confronted with

/honor/ (Latin) →   /onra/ (Spanish),

note every change that has occurred.  (The h has disappeared; the r and vowel in the second syllable have switched places; the o in the second syllable has changed into an a.)  Be very literal-minded.  Compare the words sound for sound.

Second, broadly categorize the change.  Has

1.      one sound switched places with another (if so, its metathesis),

2.      a sound been added to the word that wasnt there before (if so, its intrusion or insertion),

3.      a sound disappeared (if so, its ellipsis or deletion), or

4.      one sound been replaced by another (if so, its palatalization, assimilation, dissimilation, consonant weakening, or consonant strengthening)?

Except for metathesis (which just seems to happen randomly sometimes), most of these changes occur for a reason.  A sound disappears from a difficult cluster of sounds to make it easier to say.  Or the opposite can occur a sound can intrude in a difficult cluster in order to make it easier to say.  Sounds can also disappear just because they get weaker and weaker until they cease to be pronounced (this mostly happens to vowels, which can go from a tense vowel to a lax one to schwa to nothing).

In our example (honor   onra), the case of the r and vowel that switched places is easy to identify its metathesis (one sound switched places with another).  Similarly, the disappearance of the h is easy too; its ellipsis.  So, weve already successfully explained all the important sound changes in the case of onra.  (NOTE:  In general, for the purposes of this class, you can ignore changes in vowel sounds.)

The hardest changes to identify are changes that involve one sound replacing another sound.  I recommend that you look first for palatalization.  Look for the necessary conditions for palatalization and the change that is supposed to occur under those conditions:

Conditions:  a stop or an /s/ before a front vowel or /y/
Change:  the stop becomes an affricate OR /s/ becomes //.

If both the conditions for palatalization and the proper change are present, then youve probably got palatalization (if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, its probably a duck).

To check for assimilation and dissimilation, identify the features (place and manner of articulation, voicing, nasalization, tongue position, tenseness, etc.) for the sounds that are involved in the change.  If only one feature has changed (say, from a voiceless velar stop to a voiced velar stop), assimilation or dissimilation is a good bet.  Look at the sounds around the affected sound.  If the change of feature in the affected sound makes the new sound closer to the features of the sounds around it, you have assimilation.  If the change of feature makes the new sound farther away from the features of the sounds around it, you have dissimilation.  For example, in

turtur (Latin)   turtle (English),

an r becomes l, so a voiced palatal liquid becomes a voiced alveolar liquid.  Since only one feature has changed and there is another voiced palatal liquid in the word, we probably have dissimilation, a move away from a nearby sound.  Similarly, in

/amika/ (Latin)    /amiga/ (Spanish),

k becomes g, so a voiceless velar stop becomes a voiced velar stop.  Since only one feature has changed and the sounds around the k (vowels) are both voiced, we probably have assimilation, a move closer to surrounding sounds.

Consonant weakening and strengthening should explain pretty much everything else.  If youve eliminated all the other possibilities (and the sound change youre looking at looks reasonably like weakening or strengthening), youve probably got weakening or strengthening.  If a voiceless sound has become voiced (voicing), or a stop has become a fricative or affricate (frication), or an aspirated sound has become unaspirated (deaspiration), or a liquid has become a semivowel, the sound has weakened.  If a semivowel has become an affricate or fricative, the semivowel has strengthened.  (NOTE: Other forms of strengthening are extremely rare.)

The chart below lists the relative levels of sound strength.




voiceless aspirates
voiced aspirates, voiceless stops
voiced stops, voiceless fricatives and affricates
voiced fricatives and affricates
nasals, liquids, and semivowels

We will later learn about a couple sound changes that occurred only in the Germanic languages and/or English Grimms Law and the Great Vowel Shift.  They dont necessarily fit the patterns described here, so always be on the lookout for them.

Identify the following sound changes with reference to the kinds of sound change listed above (assimilation, palatalization, dissimilation, ellipsis, intrustion, consonant weakening, and metathesis).
Original language Original word Later language Later word English meaning
Sanskrit [sneha] Pali [sineha] friendship
Old English [hlaf] English [lof] loaf
English [traIjθlan] some dialects [traIjθәlan] triathlon
Latin vidua Spanish viuda widow
Latin pacare [c = k] Italian pagare to pay
Latin lumen Spanish lumbre light
Proto-Slavic [gladuka] Bulgarian [glatkә] smooth

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