Saturday, 18 May 2013

Sound Loss - 'Introduction to Historical Linguistics' part III

This is the third part in a series on historical linguistics.  Part I - here.  Part II - here.

You may have twigged to the fact that much historical linguistic work is applied phonetics.  Better understand the nature of sounds in human languages and you'll better understand how they change.  Better understanding how sounds change can help you to reconstruct forms used in the past and provide a reasonably reliable image of past times.  Sounds almost always change in predictable ways - or, perhaps more importantly for the work of historical linguists, in retrodictable ways.  While historical (diachronic) linguists study change in general, most historical linguistic work consists of reconstructing common ancestors of known languages and is therefore retrodictive rather than predictive.  Anyway, it's mostly applied phonetics.  If you know synchronic phonetics inside-out, applying it to historical cases is quite easy - as we'll see later, this is especially true when looking at fusion and assimilation.  In this post, however, we'll be looking at sound loss, which is simpler than fusion if you don't know phonetics so well.

Sound loss is a kind of lenition, because a sound can't really get weaker than non-existence.  There are several different kinds of sound loss.  Sounds at the ends of words are commonly lost - think of the British/Australian/New York pronunciation of 'car', which has lost the final [r], or French words like cent and chat which have lost the final [t] that was presumably present when French spelling was standardised.  Word-final segment loss is known as apocope, and it's probably the most common type. Crowley gives us another example, this time from Vanuatu (Crowley was an acknowledged authority on Vanuatu's languages, including Bislama):

Southeast Ambrym:

*utu  >  ut    'lice'

*aŋo  >  aŋ    'fly'
*asue  >  asu    'rat'

...and so on.  Apocope is easily explicable in terms of the maximisation of effect versus effort; why bother saying the end of the word when context and the prior syllables should have already done the work of communicating the idea for you?

Less explicable is apheresis, which is also much less common.  Crowley says that it is especially common in Australian languages, which is a peculiar and interesting phenomenon.  It's the inverse of apocope: the loss of an initial segment.  Presumably it has to do with stress and rhythm compensating for the loss of the initial part.  Crowley's example comes from Angkamuthi, a Pama-Nyungan language of the Cape York Peninsula.  Ethnologue tells me that it is extinct.

*maji  >  aji    'food'

*nani  >  ani    'ground'
*ŋampu  >  ampu    'tooth'

...and so on.  All the above examples involve the loss of nasals, but this isn't necessarily the case.  You could also see the pronunciation of 'specific' and 'specifically' by some British people, in which the word has lost its initial [s] and become a homophone of 'pacifically'.  (Mocked here by Mitchell and Webb.)

Syncope is next kind of sound loss.  That's the loss of middle segments.  'Specifically' contains an example of syncope - the loss of the [a] in the adverbial suffix (no one says [spə'sɪfɪkæli]).  It's fairly common in English, but is found more regularly in other languages.  Crowley gives an example provided by Robert Blust, perhaps the greatest of all Austronesian linguists.  This comes from proto-North Sarawak, a protolanguage spoken in prehistoric Borneo.  The vowel deletion here was the subject of Blust's 1974 PhD dissertation, but Crowley draws the material from a 2002 publication (Kiput historical phonology, Oceanic linguistics 41(2): 384-439).

*baqeRu  >  *baqRu    'new'

*eRezan  >  *eRzan    'notched log ladder'

(/R/ represents any liquid - [l] or [r] or anything in between.  There seems to have been no distinction between liquids in proto-Malayo-Polynesian - they were allophones.)  Crowley also mentions sprite and spirit, both derived from Latin spiritus.  'Sprite' displays syncope (and subsequent diphthongisation).

The next kind of sound loss is cluster reduction.  'Cluster' here refers to consonant clusters, like [spr], the kind of thing Chinese speakers have a problem with (Chinese has no consonant clusters; imagine the nightmare of learning to say the word 'crisps' if you don't deal with consonant clusters regularly).  Reduction of consonant clusters refers to the tendency to say 'hambag' instead of 'handbag' or 'goverment' instead of 'government'.

Crowley - again, he worked extensively on south Pacific creoles - notes that 'government' [gʌvənmɛnt] (in American English: [gʌvərnmɛnt], preserving the [r]) typically turns into [gʌvəmɛnt] in English, but syncope sometimes does its work too, such that it is sometimes found as [gʌvmɛnt].  In the English-based creole of Papua New Guinea (often known as tok pisin), this introduced form has turned into [gavman] - cluster reduction, then syncope, apocope, and a vowel change brought about by the structural pressure in south Pacific creoles which lack the distinction between /ɑ/, /æ/, and /ʌ/.  (To me [gavman] is still recognisably the same word as 'government'!)

Finally, we have haplology.  Haplology is a sporadic, comparatively rare change that occurs when two or more of the same sound occur in a word or phrase.  The word 'England' is the product of a change brought about by haplology; originally, it was called Anglaland, the land of the Angles, but the two [l] sounds in one fairly common word proved too much, and were reduced to one.  'Library' pronounced as [laɪbri] is a common sort of haplology.  ('February' is a bit different, as the first [r] seems to me to have undergone assimilation instead of loss.)  The word 'haplology' is a bit ugly, and I think if it were more common, it would probably also undergo a haplological sound change.

Anyway, that's sound loss, which is a kind of lenition, sort of.  It's quite common.  I think most of the losses can be explained in terms of simplification, or maximisation of the effort/effect ratio in communication.  To sum up, the different kinds are apocope, the loss of word-final segments; apheresis, the loss of word-initial segments; syncope, the loss of middle segments; cluster reduction, the, well, reduction of clusters; and haplology, the loss of one phoneme where it is annoyingly duplicated in a certain context.

Next time: sound addition, metathesis, and an introduction to the idea of assimilation.

If you're interested to see an example of the problems inherent in historical linguistics, take a look at this fantastic series by Piotr Gąsiorowski of Adam Mickiewicz University.  The target is a frankly dim-witted study attempting to show that there are some words of Pleistocene heritage still spoken, detectably so, in Eurasian languages.  It's excellent stuff.


  1. Hi, Al.

    The largest number of distinct phonemes is found in Africa. This is also where the greatest genetic diversity is found. The movement out of Africa poses a problem for the evolutionary view that over time there is greater complexity and diversity. How do you address this apparent contradiction?

  2. Actually, that isn't a contradiction, primarily because the theory of evolution doesn't predict greater complexity over time. Evolution is not teleological. No one directs it. Moreover, having a larger number of phonemes does not mean that a language is more 'complex' - again, we don't have a good way of measuring these things in an objective sense. And Darwinian theories of language change (ie, that languages change because of their relative fitness) don't explain anything and are not addressed in works on historical linguistics. So complexity in language does not dictate against biological evolution at all, even if it were a valid, measurable thing.

    In any case, most theories of origins - human origins, plants, etc - are actually supported by the revelation that the source is more diverse than the periphery. This is almost axiomatic. New Guinea has more species of banana than are to be found outside of the island. Taiwan has a greater diversity of Austronesian languages than the entire rest of the Austronesian-speaking world (perhaps 9 sub-families, compared to only 1 outside of Taiwan). Africa has the greatest genetic diversity; it is also the place with the oldest archaeological evidence of humans and clear stratigraphic sequences demonstrating changes that point to the evolution of humans on the continent. This is far from a contradiction, and is in fact supporting evidence - and that's because of the founder effect.

    As for Africa having the greatest diversity of phonemes - in fact, this is only true if you take out the Americas, which are about as diverse as Africa is. It is possible that all languages share a common origin, but it is also possible that the intervening 100,000 years have obliterated most of the signs of common origin in any particular place.

  3. I thank you for taking the time to write up this series. I absolutely agree with your assessment of historical linguistic's importance; for a long time I have wished to understand it better, but not known where to begin. These posts are fantastic introductions for the informed layman.

    You said:

    You may have twigged to the fact that much historical linguistic work is applied phonetics. Better understand the nature of sounds in human languages and you'll better understand how they change.... Anyway, it's mostly applied phonetics. If you know synchronic phonetics inside-out, applying it to historical cases is quite easy

    What books, articles, or other works you would recommend as an introduction to phonetics and other linguistic topics of this type? I have a fair amount of experience learning foreign languages (Khmer and Mandarin), but most of the books I come across on their linguistic structures are written for the specialist. Where does the man new to the field begin?

  4. The thing is, there are actually two topics here: phonetics and phonology. Phonetics is about articulation and the physical qualities of sounds; phonology is about how the sounds relate together in a language. Phonology deals with phonemes, phonetics with phones. In the proto-North Sarawak example above, [r] and [l], two different phones with different places of articulation and sounds, are considered to be the same phoneme, /R/ (any liquid). (Square brackets for phones, slashes for phonemes.) [r] and [l] are allophones - it doesn't matter which one you use, because phonemically speaking, they're the same sound. They relate to other sounds in identical ways even though they are phonetically distinct.

    Knowing the features of phones helps in finding out the phonology of a language. I used much older works in learning about linguistics - things I could pick up for a couple of quid in second-hand bookshops - but I've also used Davenport and Hannahs, Introducing Phonetics and Phonology. The third edition came out this year, according to Amazon. It's probably your best bet, as it covers both disciplines, although the target audience is undergraduate linguists and English language students.


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