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Review of  The Initiation of Sound Change

Reviewer: Matthew J. Gordon
Book Title: The Initiation of Sound Change
Book Author: Maria-Josep Solé Daniel Recasens
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Book Announcement: 24.1473

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This volume collects papers from a meeting, the Workshop on Sound Change, held in Barcelona in 2010. The aim of that workshop, as the editors explain in the foreword to this volume, “was to bring together specialists from different disciplines to examine how empirical data from a multiplicity of fields might throw light on certain fundamental questions about the nature of sound change” (vii). The papers published represent that cross-disciplinary conversation and include work from scholars who specialize in phonetics, phonology, historical linguistics, and other branches of the field. What all the papers share, in addition to a focus on sound change, is a commitment to empirical investigation, with many of the chapters reporting on experimental studies.

The eleven chapters are organized into three sections. Part I explores “perception,” Part II deals with “production,” and Part III serves as a kind of ‘elsewhere’ condition, with work examining “social factors, structural factors and the typology of change.” As it happens, the papers do not strictly abide by these divisions, and most consider the questions they explore from various perspectives. In this way, the editors acknowledge the premise that brought the scholars together in Barcelona: sound change is shaped by a range of factors, and a fuller understanding comes from considering various dimensions of the issue.

The editors set the table for the collection in their introductory chapter. They note the field’s long-standing preoccupation with sound change and the many ways that linguists have approached its study. They position the research represented in their book as focused on the earliest stages of change, asking how sound change is initiated and looking “at the roles played in this process by variation in production, listener perceptions of such variation, the phonological system, and the lexicon” (2). The introduction offers a useful preview of the collection by summarizing the questions examined in each chapter and drawing connections across those discussions. More unexpectedly, the introduction also describes the discussions that the papers inspired when they were presented at the workshop. These sessions were recorded and “transcribed in full” (vii), allowing the editors to provide somewhat of a play-by-play of those conversations, though, to be clear, this material has been carefully edited and summarized -- raw transcripts are not provided. These Q&A sessions highlight key issues discussed and reinforce common threads across various studies. Contributing further to their value, the recaps of the workshop discussion include comments from prominent scholars who were present in Barcelona but do not have papers in this collection. Still, these conversations are at times rather detailed in their consideration of the papers presented at the workshop, and readers may appreciate them better if they read them as postscript rather than preface to the main chapters.

Part 1 opens with John Ohala’s “The listener as source of sound change: An update.” As the title reveals, this chapter represents a revision of the author’s influential 1981 paper, and throughout, Ohala offers commentary that illuminates the dominant lines of scholarship at the time of the original paper’s appearance and how the field has (and has not) evolved since. Ohala’s central argument remains intact. He begins with the observation that sound change is less common than we might expect given the tremendous amount of variation inherent in speech. By way of explanation, Ohala points to the listener’s ability to correct for, or normalize variation “as long as they have evidence or expectations of the environment or factors leading to the variation” (25). Sound change, in Ohala’s view, arises when something goes awry with that process of normalization, so that listeners either fail to normalize when they should (his “hypocorrection”) or they do normalize when they shouldn’t (his “hypercorrection”). In both scenarios, the role of listeners in initiating sound change is primary. Variation may stem from articulatory considerations but change results on the listener’s end. Actually, as Ohala notes, his theory accounts equally well for changes that arise from articulatory factors as for those that arise from “sounds having similar acoustics without having much in common in articulation” (30).

Patrice Speeter Beddor follows Ohala with her “Perception grammars and sound change,” which explores some of the same general territory related to perceptual effects as a catalyst for sound change. Beddor focuses on “overlapping articulatory events,” such as the lowering of velum during the production of a vowel before a nasal consonant, and notes that they “have the potential to be perceptually informative or disruptive” (38). In such cases, the auditory signal may contain multiple cues about the sounds produced, and Beddor is interested in how listeners process that information to arrive at an interpretation of what they hear, that is, how their “perception grammars” work to map the acoustic input to phonological forms (41). The chapter reports on a series of experiments investigating the different weights that listeners may assign to the various cues in the speech signal. Among the intriguing results to emerge from this work is the finding that different listeners may adopt different perceptual strategies. The same cue (e.g. vowel nasalization) may vary in its perceptual effects from listener to listener. The research delves further into this process by examining it in real time. Incorporating eye-tracking methods into a categorization task allows Beddor and her colleagues to track perception dynamically. This work too reveals “robustly distinct perception grammars for different listeners” (50), and Beddor connects these insights to contemporary thinking about the propagation of language change.

In the third chapter of the section, Daniel Recasens, one of the volume’s editors, examines “A phonetic interpretation of the sound changes affecting dark /l/ in Romance.” While this work treats some of the same issues as those in Beddor’s paper, the author draws on the richly documented history and dialectology of the Romance family for evidence. The particular problem under study is the vocalization of /l/, a change that appears to have taken different phonetic paths in various languages. Recasens’s analysis shows how a range of articulatory and acoustic factors are plausibly implicated in the changes to /l/ in Romance, leading him to an account “based on an evaluation of the relative prominence of cues in different contextual conditions on the part of the listener” (72). He rejects the dominant approach, which seeks a single phonetic source to explain a sound change. While the argument takes a very different track from Beddor’s and Ohala’s, Recasens’s chapter articulates a similar broad theme: the speech signal serves as a package of perceptual cues that listeners may unwrap in different ways.

Michael Grosvald and David Corina remind us that listeners come with brains in their chapter, “The production and perception of sub-phonemic vowel contrasts and the roles of the listener in sound change.” They report on research using electroencephalogram (EEG) data to measure listeners’ perception of vocalic variation, in particular, variable realizations of schwa due to vowel-to-vowel coarticulation across different distances. This approach opens a different window on perception, as it does not require conscious actions of the listener. The EEG measures brain activity while subjects passively hear stimuli. In this study, the brain-wave evidence suggests that listeners are sensitive to sub-phonemic differences of vowel quality within a certain range. The researchers recorded their subjects in order to compare their production with their perception. While they fail to find a statistical correlation here -- subjects who show the most coarticulation in their own speech are not necessarily more sensitive to it in perception -- the work contributes useful empirical insights for listener-centered theories of sound change, such as Ohala’s.

Part II opens with Jonathan Harrington’s chapter, “The coarticulatory basis of diachronic high back vowel fronting.” The paper looks into the well known asymmetry along the front/back dimension of vowel space, as evidenced, for example, by the fact that back vowels undergo fronting more frequently than front vowels undergo retraction. Drawing together findings from previous research, Harrington presents a detailed view of an active sound change: the fronting of the high back vowels in Southern British English. The change is driven by coarticulatory effects -- fronting is most extreme when the vowels in question are adjacent to coronal consonants -- but, by comparing perception data across two generations of speakers, Harrington documents how coarticulation leads to a redrawing of a vowel’s target range.

The other editor, Maria-Josep Solé, also contributes a chapter titled “Natural and unnatural patterns of sound change?” in which she takes on the common view that some changes are more natural than others. Claims for naturalness are usually drawn on a phonetic basis; a change that makes articulatory or acoustic sense is taken to be natural. Solé challenges facile interpretations of that phonetic basis, arguing that many “unnatural” sound changes derive from the same phonetic principles behind “natural” changes. The chapter examines several case studies where the difference between a common outcome and an uncommon outcome stems from a minor adjustment of articulatory gestures. Thus, rather than dividing changes in terms of naturalness, Solé suggests “the only meaningful distinction is that between sound changes that have a true phonetic basis… and changes triggered by non-phonetic factors such as analogy, morphological or word-specific considerations, and dialect contact” (141).

The section of production-focused chapters closes with Marianne Pouplier’s “The gaits of speech: Re-examining the roles of articulatory effort in spoken language.” Like Solé, Pouplier questions the received wisdom about the phonetic basis of sound change, specifically, the idea that some innovations result from a conservation of articulatory effort. We need to be careful in assuming that one pronunciation requires more effort than another. Pouplier argues particularly “that the sheer distance covered by the articulators or number of gestures produced are inherently problematic as measures of metabolic cost” (151). Tying together different strands of evidence from articulatory studies of gestural coordination, she develops a theory of “gaits of speech,” which holds that what constitutes an optimal articulation in terms of energy consumption varies by speaking rate and other parameters (157). This argument has important implications for general theories about the forces shaping phonological systems over time, and Pouplier positions her work within that discussion, with particular focus on Lindblom’s H&H Theory (e.g. 1990).

Part III begins with Joseph Salmons, Robert Fox, and Ewa Jacewicz’s “Prosodic skewing of input and the initiation of cross-generational sound change.” In their previous studies, this team has investigated “the warping of the vowel space under more emphatic pronunciations” (168), finding parallels between the shifting positions of vowels conditioned by prosodic prominence and the trajectories the vowels take in certain active sound changes. The authors draw on those parallels here, as they examine the question of how changes progress across generations of speakers. They present findings from a study of some 400 speakers representing three dialects of American English and four age groups. The picture that emerges suggests that each generation models its phonetic targets on the emphatic pronunciation of their parents. Salmons and his colleagues posit an account based in child-directed speech, which often involves emphatic productions of words. Their intriguing suggestion may help explain not only how particular vowels shift in particular dialects, but also why vowel shifting is so common in English more generally.

Svetlin Dimov, Shira Katseff, and Keith Johnson blend experimental phonetics and psychology as they explore “Social and personality variables in compensation for altered auditory feedback.” Like several of their fellow contributors to the volume, these authors are interested in why some hearers appear to be more attuned to phonetic variation than others. They investigate such differences by testing varying degrees of adjustment to “altered auditory feedback” created by real-time resynthesis of the subjects’ speech. The speakers hear their own voices through headphones, but the signal is altered on the fly. Speakers tend to compensate for the alternation but vary in the amount of such compensation. The researchers look for correlations between the phonetic behavior of the subjects and certain personality traits measured through standard questionnaire instruments. Their results highlight personality characteristics that begin to sketch a profile of the person who is exceptionally sensitive to phonetic variation, a type of speaker-hearer believed to play a key role in the actuation of sound change.

Working within a usage-based framework, Joan Bybee examines “Patterns of lexical diffusion and articulatory motivation for sound change.” She questions the traditional dichotomy between Neogrammarian change and lexical diffusion as framed, for example, by Labov (1981). In particular, she argues that changes can be both phonetically and lexically gradual, citing several examples in the literature of sound changes involving gradual phonetic shifts that diffuse through the lexicon in stages. Such changes typically spread from high to low frequency words, a pattern that is consistent with an articulatory origin in the “automation of neuromotor routines” (217). Bybee challenges perception-based accounts such as Ohala’s, but does not discount such effects altogether. The general framework she presents highlights the diagnostic value of lexical diffusion patterns for judging the causes of change.

The final contribution comes from Mark Hale, who considers “Foundational concepts in the scientific study of sound change.” Hale focuses on two “breakthroughs” in the study of sound change: (a) the Neogrammarian Hypothesis of regularity; and (b) the “Phoneticist Hypothesis,” which he uses to designate Ohala’s work, which seeks explanations for change in “explicit and reasonable models of human phonetic parsing and production” (236). While the literature teems with empirical support for both hypotheses, Hale notes that they have not been brought together under a coherent theory of change. Drawing on cases studies from English and Marshallese, he highlights limitations of the Phoneticist approach that lead him to conclude that this model must be expanded to consider “top-down” effects related to the transfer of phonetically-motivated (re)analyses across phonological categories. In this way, Hale presents a kind of blueprint for a key bridge between historical linguistics and phonetics.


Given the stature of the contributors, it comes as little surprise that the quality of the scholarship contained in the volume is consistently high. The authors are all experienced researchers, and many are leading figures in the field who have been engaged with the questions at hand for decades. As the summaries above indicate, the contributors put forward powerful arguments, almost all of which are backed by innovative empirical studies. The significance of these arguments shines through due to the care the authors take to situate their work within the relevant broader scholarship. While each chapter may take up a fairly narrow research question, that question is helpfully framed in terms of larger issues. We see evidence of this in the fact that most papers include three to five pages of references. As a result of these efforts, the contributions speak to specialists within the particular subfields as well as to linguists working in other areas.

Readers engaged in the study of sound change from outside the field of phonetics may find especially useful the way that several papers challenge commonly held assumptions. Solé’s discussion of naturalness stands as a fine illustration of this tendency and, like others in the volume, this chapter also highlights the value of thinking outside the traditional segmental box and approaching sounds as sequences of gestures. Furthermore, non-specialist readers are able to glimpse the cutting edge of laboratory phonetics technology in, for example, Beddor’s incorporation of eye-tracking methods and Grosvald and Corina’s use of EEG in speech perception studies. The real-time speech synthesis used by Dimov, Katseff, and Johnson also opens new possibilities for research, and, though not a technological innovation, their exploration of psychological measures of personality represents an intriguing cross-disciplinary step toward understanding the role of individuals in sound change.

The collection as a whole stands as remarkably coherent. Common threads, such as the role of perceptually sensitive individuals, run throughout several papers, and the authors frequently reference work by their co-contributors. At the same time, there is no significant redundancy in terms of the specific research questions examined nor the broader lessons drawn in each chapter. The editors are to be commended for their selection of papers and their work in shaping the original workshop presentations for publication. The chapters have further benefited from a peer-review process that seems to have improved the clarity of the discussions and the overall coherence of the volume.

The editors succeeded in their goal of bringing scholars from various research backgrounds into conversation. The papers represent a diversity of methodologies and theoretical approaches. Still, the collection bears an overwhelming emphasis on experimental phonetics. While the subtitle gives equal weight to “perception, production, and social factors,” sociolinguistic concerns receive relatively little attention. It is a missed opportunity that the editors did not include more work with a “sociophonetic” emphasis, especially given the explosive growth of this subfield in recent years (see, e.g., Foulkes and Docherty 2006). In addition to broadening the theoretical perspectives represented in the volume, such work could have expanded the types of phenomena (and data) considered. Many of the papers in the collection investigate coarticulatory phenomena, such as gestural overlap at vowel-consonant transitions, and they do so by gathering speech data under controlled laboratory conditions. Sociophonetic work, by contrast, has given more attention to vocalic chain shifts and mergers, which are common in varieties of English, and the data often come from conversational speech.

This quibble about what the volume does not contain should not overshadow the value of what it does contain. The papers survey the state of the art in empirical approaches to questions of how sound changes get their start. They present a range of models for investigating those questions, and they chart a rich theoretical landscape for understanding the results.


Foulkes, Paul and Gerard Docherty. 2006. The social life of phonetics and phonology Journal of Phonetics 34. 409-438.

Labov, William. 1981. Resolving the Neogrammarian controversy. Language 57. 267-309.

Lindblom, Björn. 1990. Explaining phonetic variation: A sketch of H and H theory. In William J. Hardcastle & Alain Marchal (eds.), Speech production and speech modelling, 403-439. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Matthew J. Gordon is Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His research examines sociolinguistic variation in American English with a focus on the study of sound change in progress. He is the author of Labov: A Guide for the Perplexed (2013, Bloomsbury) and co-author with Lesley Milroy of Sociolinguistics: Method and Interpretation (2003, Blackwell).