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Change in Sound System

Sound change in linguistics indicates sound speech shifts to become different over the years. Sound change is among the oldest traditions in linguistics. Sound change is an important area of linguistics, and it has been like that throughout the history of linguistics. Sound change has played an important part in phonology as compared to other disciplines like syntax. Scholars in linguistics argue that the main issue of sound change is related to the neogrammarian principle of the sound system, which is a scientific part of sound laws. Studying sound change is crucial in the fields of morphology, phonology, and syntax and in identifying boundaries between different languages. Early works of sound systems came from different times, such as Latin to medieval and modern romance languages (Laurel & Alexander, 2017). Moreover, there are new different types of evidence for sound change that modern linguistics scholars have developed. For example, the research “language change in progress,” which was developed into the related field of “language variation and change,” explains how sound systems have progressed through the years through sound patterns. The following aims to show sound systems in linguistics and how they affect language.

Historical linguistics argues that sound change is a change in the pronunciations of a language. In a language, the most common initial motivation for change in sound is the automation experienced in sound production. A sound change might replace one speech sound with a different one by merging different sounds. Alternation plays an important role in sound change, and it refers to changes that happen in a language of a particular speaker in dependence to close sounds. Unlike sound change, the alteration does not change the underlying system of a language. Pfenninger (2014) argued that a language’s phonological system is affected by the sound change, creating phonological change in a language.

Additionally, when a language is going through sound system changes, different principles guide the process. One of the principles is that “sound change has no memory,” which means that change in sound is not selective between different sound sources; this shows that a previous change in sound cannot affect a new sound change. Another principle is “sound changes ignore grammar,” a change in sound has constraints in phonology and cannot affect grammar, whereas a change will be morphological and not phonological. Further, “sound change is exceptionless,” meaning that when change happens at a place, it will happen, showing that if there is an opportunity for a sound to change, it will change.

The universal change of sound has the same patterns for different languages. For example, the raising of mid and the long vowels causing diphthongization in English also occurs in other languages like Dutch and Germanic languages. In neogrammarian, the laws of sound were pinned to a certain point and dialect at a time, and this made them not believe in systems of sound change. According to their understanding, sound system changes were no exception for a universal language. Different meta-rules, such as nasalization, palatalization, and other system rules, characterize universal sound change. A language will select a system that will affect the sound. (Brian & Fabienne (2015), says that “If a language palatalizes consonants, first the velars will be affected, then the denials and finally the labials.” The author shows that the change does not only labials but also dental. In such a case, the consonants are palatalized before the high-front vowels, then in front of the middle vowel, and lastly before vowels that are low. For example, “the Italian language palatalized Latin, /k/ only before front and mid vowels. Maddieson & Precoda (1992),” According to Maddieson & Precoda (1992), in ancient Greek, “E /kw/ and /t/ are palatalized to /t/ and /s/ respectively before fi/ and /e/.” It, therefore, means that in cases where dental stops have been palatalized, a velar stop is also palatalized. This happens because “/kw/ and /t/ are involved in a drag-chain.” In such,/s/ became /h/ in ancient Greek. Such changes in Ancient Greek, therefore, invalidate the universal trend used to show changes caused by palatalization.

In sound change, different terms define the change in pronunciation, which affects the sound. The first term is assimilation. Through assimilation, a sound will become more like another sound. The changes in assimilation occur between contiguous sound segmentation of words, and most of them will involve the previous sound changing to sound more like the previous sound. A good example of assimilation is the phrase, in possibilis, which evolved to become a more familiar term, “impossibilism,” which has evolved through time to become the English term “impossible.” Assimilation happened in this case because m is closer to /p/ in sound than it is to /n/. The change shows that the last former two letters create a sound that relies more on the lips. One language has changed to another due to the “laziness of the mouth.”

Another factor that affects sound change is dissimilation. In this change, the sound will sound less like the other sound being changed. A lot of dissimilation will involve a not contagious segment, unlike in assimilation, where most involve an earlier sound changing into a new sound. Another principle that affects sound change is metathesis, and here two sounds will switch places. For example, in old English, the word thridda changes the sound to third, a sound for Middle English. The sound changes in this system are sporadic, but a sound law will still be involved in shifting the sound (Don & Ann, 2014). Lenition is a system of sound change that softens a consonant. An example of changes in this system is where a stop consonant is changed to affricate or fricative, which is the hardening of a consonant. Another system is sandhi, and in this change, there are conditioned changes that will take place at the boundary of words but not anywhere else in a word. The sound can be morpheme specific, meaning there is a loss of vowel. For example, there can be a change of /z/ to /s/, an adjacent voiceless consonant.

Moreover, another system change is haplology, which is defined as the loss of a syllable when a close syllable has the same or identical one, and this is common in the shift from Old English to modern English. Also, elision is another form of change that involves losing all sounds. Elision involves losing the unstressed sounds to create a new sound in the word. For example, in southern parts of the United States, they will often lose unstressed sounds where they pronounce American as/ˈmɚkən/ and not /əˈmɛɹəkən/ (Curtin & Zamuner, 2014). Epenthesis also affects the sound, and this involves the introduction of a sound between two close sounds. For example, in Latin, it is pronounced as humilis; however, in English, it is humble. Prothesis creates a new sound by adding a sound at the start of a word. Nasalization is also a form of sound system change. When a nasal consonant is changed, and the vowel is retained, there is a difference in a word’s pronunciation, which occurs mainly in French words.

The systems indicate that sound system change mainly happened due to weakening in vowels and consonants. Consonant weakening was mainly observed in the Latin language, as it was one of the languages that gave way to different languages. Latin influenced the big five languages, including French, Portuguese, Romanian, and Spanish. Vowel weakening also influenced a shift in sound change. For example, “the English term, name, was pronounced as “Nah-meh,” which gradually weakened to “Nah-muh,” bringing a different type of sound (Sapir, 1925).” Vowel weakening happened through the principle of less effort, where speakers made words sound easier to pronounce. The Great Vowel Shift has a lot of contributions to sound change. The period of GVS is dated back to the 1300s, and in this period, English vowels were transformed more than other languages, and the shift made English one of the most common languages as the pronunciation of words became easier for the tongue.

In conclusion, the research shows that sound change has significantly changed language into what is spoken today. Sound change is a historical evolution of how words sound when pronounced. Sound changes happen through modifications of one or more features of a sound. Sound can change by adding, removing, or combining sounds to strengthen or weaken them, creating a different nasalization. The different types of systems that create changes in sound include; assimilation, dissimilation, metathesis, lenition, sandhi, haplology, elision, epenthesis, Prothesis, and nasalization. Further, this study indicates that the writing system of a language can be affected by sound change because the spelling of words does not often change with a change in sound. As shown, the effect is seen on English language vowels as most of them do not match with sounds. The effect is due to the vowel system going through a lot of changes over a period, and a specific period is during the Great Vowel Shift. Therefore, as more dialects and languages come into contact, pronunciations of words change, hence a change in the sound system.


Brian Lowrey, E., & Fabienne Toupin, E. (2015). Studies in Linguistic Variation and Change: From Old to Middle English. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Curtin, S., & Zamuner, T. S. (2014). Understanding the developing sound system: Interactions between sounds and words. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science5(5), 589-602.

Don Ringe, & Ann Taylor. (2014). The Development of Old English: Vol. First edition. OUP Oxford.

Laurel Brinton, & Alexander Bergs. (2017). Middle English. De Gruyter Mouton.

Maddieson, I., & Precoda, K. (1992). Syllable structure and phonetic models. Phonology, pp. 45–60.

Pfenninger, S. E., Hundt, M., Schreier, D., Honkapohja, A., Timofeeva, O., & Gardner, A.-C. (2014). Contact, Variation, and Change in the History of English. John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Sapir, E. (1925). Sound patterns in language. Language1(2), 37–51.


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