Historical Phonology &
How Sound Systems and Word
Structures Change over Time
Asian 401
Linguistic Structures
 We have seen that languages are made
up of structured systems
 These systems exist at different levels
 Languages have
Phonology: sound structures
Morphology: word structures
Syntax: sentence structures
Historical Linguistics
 When languages change over time, the
changes can occur in any of these
structured systems
 We therefore speak of
Historical phonology
Historical morphology
Historical syntax
Historical Phonology
 We’ve looked at different types of
sound change that can happen over
 We can now ask how individual sound
changes affect the phonology of a
language; that is, how they effect the
number and relations of phonemes
Phonological Change
 A sound change might
Have no effect on the phonological system
Change the allophones of a phoneme
Decrease the number of phonemes
Increase the number of phonemes
 If the number of phonemes changes, it
will affect minimal pairs
No Change in # of Phonemes
 Example 1: Chinese
[a] > [] / j_n
E.g. ‘sky’ [thjan55] > [thjn55]
The number of phonemes did not change
But the allophones of /a/ did change:
/a/  [] / j_n
 [a] elsewhere
No Change in # of Phonemes
 Example 2: English hypothetical
Suppose that we started to pronounce /g/
as [©] (weakening).
E.g. ‘bigger’ [bÈgß%] > [bÈ©ß%]
The number of phonemes does not change
Bigger and bicker are still a minimal pair
/g/ [©] (same phoneme, new allophone)
This change is happening in the Northwest
No Change in # of Phonemes
 Example 3: Japanese hypothetical
Japanese has five vowel phonemes
/a e i o ɯ/
Suppose [ɯ] > [u] (unconditioned change)
The number of phonemes does not change
There are still five vowel phonemes:
/a e i o u/
Phonemic Merger
 Example: Cockney English
Two unconditioned changes:
[ ƒ] > [f] and [Ï] > [v]
Four phonemes have been reduced to two
That and vat were once minimal pairs;
now homophones [væt]
Thin and fin were once minimal pairs;
now homophones [f Èn]
Phonemic Split
 Example 1: Modern English /p/
Peak [phik]
/p/ complementary
Speak [spik]
Beak [bik]
 Suppose there is deletion of /s/:
Peak [phik]
/ph/ new minimal
Speak [pik]
Beak [bik]
Phonemic Split
 Example 2: Japanese ongoing
Japanese /d/ has allophones [dʒ] (before
/i/) and [d] (elsewhere).
But some new English loans have [di], e.g.
disɯko ‘disco’, contrasting with native
words with [dʒi].
This is creating the potential for minimal
pairs and thus the introduction of a new
phoneme /dʒ/.
Other phonological changes
 The phonology of a language can
change in more drastic ways than just
the addition or subtraction of
 Syllable structure can change
 Chinese and Vietnamese were once
non-tonal languages; they developed
tones about 1500-2000 years ago
Regularity of Sound Change
 A fundamental principle of historical
 Sound change is regular
 If sound A changes to sound B in a
particular environment in some words,
then sound A changes to sound B in all
words with that environment.
Regularity of Sound Change
 Example: Southern American English
 [] > [È] / _ [n] (vowel raising)
 Pen and ten are [phÈn] and [thÈn],
homophonous with pin and tin.
 This sound change is regular
 It affects [] in all words with this
environment: when, tennis, Ben, men,
glen, etc.
Regularity of Sound Change
 Regularity of sound change is a very
important principle
 It will allow us to reconstruct the
pronunciation of languages in the
distant past, even when we have no
written records
 We will see how when we do historical
Historical Morphology
 Over time, the morphology of a
language changes
 The set of morphemes in the language
 The function and meaning of
morphemes changes
 Inflectional paradigms change
 Derivational rules change
Historical Morphology
 In extreme cases, languages that were
once isolating can develop inflectional
 Likewise, languages can lose
inflectional morphology and become
 In the last 1500 years, English has lost
much of its inflectional morphology
Historical Processes
 Some common types of morphological
change are:
 Grammaticalization
 Analogy
 Reanalysis
 Folk Etymology
 Back Formation
Historical Processes
 Remember: The building blocks of
morphology are morphemes, not words
 The historical processes described here
involve changes to morphemes
 Over time, a free morpheme (i.e. a
word) acquires grammatical (i.e.
morphological or syntactic) function
 Often this process is accompanied by
Phonological reduction (gets shorter)
Fusion (becomes bound)
Semantic bleaching (loses original
 Example 1: English be going to > be gonna
 Original meaning: motion through space
 New Function: future tense marker (“I’m
gonna take linguistics next quarter.”)
 Phonological reduction: 3 syllables > 2
syllables, vowels become schwa
 *I’m gonna the store to buy some soap.
 Semantic bleaching: sense of motion is lost
 I’m gonna stay right here.
 Example 2: English have
 Original meaning: possession
 Function: auxiliary verb (“I’ve eaten lunch
already”) indicating completed action
 Phonological reduction: have can be
pronounced /v/ only when grammaticalized:
 *Do you’ve any money on you?
 Semantic bleaching: possession meaning is
 Example 3: Chinese 了 /ljaw214/ > /l˙/
 Original meaning: verb ‘to finish’
 Function: completed action marker (/wø21
tswø51 l˙/ “I have done it.”)
 Phonological reduction: monophthongization,
vowel reduction, loss of tone
 Semantic bleaching: no longer used as a verb
meaning ‘to finish’
 Example 4: Japanese /ageru/
 Original meaning: verb ‘to give’
 Grammaticalized function: indicates that an
action is done on someone’s behalf
 Example: “Yamada taught Brown kanji.”
 Yamada-san ga Brown-san ni kanji o osiete
 Yamada SUBJ Brown IO kanji DO teach-gave
 Semantic bleaching: no gift changes hands
 A powerful force in morphological change
 A morphological rule is extended, or
generalized, to forms by analogy with other
forms that already fit the rule
 Q: Why can we make sentences or derive
words that we have never heard before?
 A: We have learned the morphological and
syntactic rules and can apply them
 But rules also have exceptions
 Example: English past tense {-ed}
 Children growing up hear present and past
tense forms of verbs, and induce an
inflectional rule based on them:
 walk
 learn
+ /t/
+ /d/
 fade
+ /˙d/
 Rule: Add an allomorph of {-ed} to verb stem
to make past tense
 Having learned the rule, the child might
make an analogy:
 Walk : walked :: go : ______
 Learn: learned :: teach : ______
 By analogy, the child applies the rule and
says “Yesterday we goed to the park” or “Bill
teached me how to tie my shoes” or “I taked
some cookies”
 Eventually the child may learn the
exceptions to the rule. But sometimes
analogical formations stay in the language,
and the exceptions are regularized.
 In some English dialects today, people say
teached and throwed.
 Similar changes have happened to many
verbs in English, and continue to happen.
 What’s the past tense of strive? cleave? dive?
 Analogy often has the effect of reducing the
overall number of allomorphs
 Example 2: Old English {old} had two
allomorphs, /old/ and /‰ld/:
Old - elder - eldest
 Today these are obsolete. By analogy with
Red - redder - reddest (no change to stem)
 We now have only one allomorph:
Old - older - oldest
 Speakers of a language reinterpret the
location of morpheme boundaries
 This may create new morphemes, or change
the forms of existing morphemes
 Example 1: English a napron > an apron
 Example 2: English an ewt > a newt
 Listeners put the morpheme boundary in a
new location, and changed the form of the
words napron and ewt.
 Example 3: Creation of a new morpheme
 Historical morpheme boundary: alcohol-ic
 Alcohol: noun; -ic: adjective-forming suffix
 Alcoholic: adj (“an alcoholic beverage”)
 “An alcoholic person” > alcoholic: noun (“a
person addicted to alcohol)
 New morpheme boundary: alc-oholic
 -oholic/-aholic: derivational suffix: workaholic, choc-oholic
 Example 4: Lollapalooza
 Slang: “Something outstanding or amazing”
 After the big Lollapalooza music tours,
palooza was reanalyzed as a derivational
suffix meaning “an event that’s big and
 Country-palooza, Polka-palooza, Metalpalooza, Soap-a-palooza, Polar-palooza, …
 Example 5: Sanskrit > Pali
 Sanskrit developed into Pali in the first
millennium BC in Northern and Central India
 Sanskrit root krı̄ ‘to buy’
kre-tum ‘to buy’ (infinitive)
krı̄ -ta ‘bought’ (past participle)
stem+past participle suffix
krı̄ -ṇā-ti ‘he/she buys’
stem+present tense suffix+3rd-person sg. suffix
 In Pali, the morpheme boundary in the present
tense form was reanalyzed as:
 krı̄ ṇ-āti ‘he/she buys’
stem+3rd person sg. suffix
 Part of the present tense suffix was reanalyzed as
part of the verb stem, yielding a new stem kiṇ
 The result was these new forms in Pali:
 kiṇ-itum ‘to buy’ (compare Skt.kre-tum)
 kiṇ-ita ‘bought’ (compare Skt. krı̄ -ta)
 kiṇā-ti ‘he/she buys’ (compare Skt. krı̄ -ṇā-ti)
Folk Etymology
 A specific type of re-analysis in which people
misunderstand the historical origin of a word
(etymology refers to word origins)
 Example 1: In some dialects of English, asparagus is
now called sparrow-grass.
 Example 2: Hamburger derives from the German
city Hamburg plus suffix -er.
 Speakers assume the word is a compound with first
morpheme ham, so conclude that burger is a
morpheme too, meaning a type of food patty.
Back Formation
 A specific type of reanalysis and/or analogy that
creates new stems from derived or inflected forms
Happens when language speakers misidentify a word
as being composed of a stem and affix, then remove
the affix to get back to what they think is the
original stem
Child (pointing to plate of cheese): “What’s that?”
Parent: “Cheese”
Child (hearing /z/ and assuming it is a plural suffix):
“Can I have a chee?”
Back Formation
 Consider these verb-noun pairs
 compensate
 denigrate
 operate
 procrastinate
 delegate
 _________
 By analogy, speakers assume the verb stem is
orientate (historically it is orient). Orientate is a
Back Formation
 In Old English, the word for pea was pise (singular),
pisan (plural)
 In Middle English, singular pease was reanalyzed as
having a plural {-s} suffix.
 A new singular form pea was created by backformation, and peas was reanalyzed as a plural.
 The singular pease is still preserved in the old
nursery rhyme: “Pease porridge hot, pease porridge
cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old.”
Next Time
 Historical Syntax: How sentence and
phrase structure changes over time
 Historical Reconstruction: How we can
look at modern languages and
determine what they used to sound
like—even without written documents

Syntax - University of Washington