Sound change

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Sound change is a type of language change that consists in the pronunciation of sounds changing over time. Language can be affected at the level of utterance ( phonetics ) or the language system (in this case the level of phonology ). When sound change affects whole groups of sounds, there is often talk of sound shifts .

An example from German

The pronunciation of the word “mouse” can be seen as an example of a change in sound: Even in Middle High German , it was pronounced [mu: s] , with a simple, long vowel like our current word “(das) Mus”. As in many other words, this single vowel (= monophthong ) has become a double vowel (= diphthong ) [aʊ̯] in our contemporary German ; the word is [maʊ̯s] . Since a single vowel became a double vowel, this process is also called diphthongization . Other words such as the adjective “loud” or the nouns “construction”, “house”, “louse” have undergone exactly the same sound change.

Phonetic and phonological sound change

Sound change can affect the phonetic properties of speech sounds without impairing the ability to distinguish one word from another; this would be a purely phonetic (= sound) change. But it can also cancel the distinguishability of words; in this case the phonological system of the language is affected. So one has to distinguish whether a sound change presents itself as a phonetic or a phonological change.

Models of the propagation of sound change

There are two models for the propagation of phonological changes in the language system. According to the first model, phonological change spreads gradually: all words in a certain word class experience a change in the corresponding sound at the same time; however, this does not suddenly switch from one phoneme to another, but rather runs through a step-by-step approach to the target sound.

The second model says that the change spreads lexically gradually, i.e. from word to word: In addition to the original one, a new sound is suddenly used and over time replaces the old phoneme. This “jump” only happens in one or a few words and over time spreads to all words in a word class.

Linguists are divided about which of the models applies or whether both are possible.

Spontaneous and / or combinatorial sound change

A distinction is made between the spontaneous and the combinatorial sound change. Spontaneous are those that take place independently of the sound environment. In terms of combination, it is exactly the opposite and stands for an environment-dependent sound change (e.g. umlaut ).

Different sound change processes

Factors that cause, promote or influence sound change are:

  • Metathesis (swapping two segments)
    • Contact metathesis (segments next to each other; example: German frog , nds. Research (<r> and <o> swapped))
    • Distant metathesis (segments not next to each other; example: old Spanish parablaSpanish palabra (<r> and <l> swapped))

Sequential changes:

Change in syllable structure:

  • Resyllabization (shifting the syllable boundary)
  • Prosthesis (addition of segments)
    • Prosthesis (front attachment)
      • Consonant prosthesis (example: lat. Proesse → lat. Prodesse )
      • Vocal prosthesis (example: lat . Scola → span. Escuela )
    • Epenthesis (central insertion)
      • Anaptyxe ( shoot vowel , for example: Old Latin . Saeclum → lat. Saeculum )
      • Consonantic epenthesis (example: <n> in African (for easier pronunciation instead of the actually regular African <Africa + -isch ))
    • Epithesis or paragogue (added at the back)
      • Konsonantenepithese (example: MHG . NiemanNHG . No )
      • Vocal epithesis (example: wardbecame )
  • Elision or deletion (deletion of segments)
  • Especially with consonantic syllables:
  • Especially with vowel syllables:
    • Contraction / syneresis / synizesis (contraction of two sounds into one sound)
    • Vowel contraction (reduction of two vowels to a single (mostly long) vowel)

Sound change and its relation to the language system

There can be an interaction between the change in sound and change in meaning .

In addition, the sound change can influence the entire grammatical system of a language over time, namely when originally different sound forms can no longer be distinguished after the sound change. This will usually result in further changes in the language system so that communication in the language community is maintained.

Mathematical modeling of sound change

In quantitative linguistics there are attempts to develop models for the probability that a sound change will occur. You rely on George Kingsley Zipf and assume that production and perception expenditure play a decisive role as influencing factors. (With "production and perception effort" is meant the effort that the speaker or the listener must put in to ensure successful communication.)

Another aspect is the question of how a sound change takes place over time. In quantitative linguistics the hypothesis is put forward that language change generally proceeds according to law , namely according to Piotrowski's law ; this should also apply to sound change. It is not easy to provide evidence for earlier times, as one relies exclusively on written texts. If one uses the written reproduction of sounds or individual sound properties (such as the length of the vowels) as an alternative, it can be shown in individual cases that their changes follow the stated law of language.


  • Norbert Boretzky : Introduction to Historical Linguistics. Rowohlt, Reinbek 1977, ISBN 3-499-21108-4 , p. 79 ff.
  • Hans Henrich Hock: Principles of Historical Linguistics. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin and New York (2nd ed.) 1991, ISBN 3-11-012962-0 , pp. 34-166.
  • Henry M. Hoenigswald: Language Change and Linguistic Reconstruction. University of Chicago Press, Chicago / London 1960, OCLC 306963 .
  • Winfred P. Lehmann: Introduction to historical linguistics. Translation by Rudolf Freudenberg. Winter, Heidelberg 1969, DNB 457383658 , p. 129 ff.

Web links

Wiktionary: Lautwandel  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Sound change ( Memento of the original from October 8, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  2. ^ Karl-Heinz Best: Language acquisition, language change and vocabulary growth in texts. On the scope of the Piotrowski law. In: Glottometrics 6, 2003, pp. 9–34 (PDF full text ), p. 24, the spelling change of the vowel [a] / [e] in words of the type “guests / gesture” and p. 25 the written identification of the vowel length modeled in texts from the 15th - 18th centuries.