Monday, March 26, 2018

It's the system, stupid! More thoughts on sound change in language history

In various blog posts in the past I have tried to emphasize that sound change in linguistics is fundamentally different from the kind of change in phenotype / genotype that we encounter in biology. The most crucial difference is that sound sequences, i.e., our words or parts of the words we use when communicating, do not manifest as a physical substance but — as linguists say — "ephemerically", i.e. by the air flow that comes out of the mouth of a speaker and is perceived as an acoustic signal by the listener. This is in strong contrast to DNA sequences, for example, which are undeniably somewhere "out there". They can be sliced, investigated, and they preserve information for centuries if not millenia, as the recent boom in archaeogenetics illustrates.

Here, I explore the consequences of this difference in a bit more detail.

Language as an activity

Language, as Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) — the boring linguist who investigated languages from his armchair while his brother Alexander was traveling the world — put it, is an activity (energeia). If we utter sentences, we pursue this activity and produce sample output of the system hidden in our heads. Since the sound signal is only determined by the capacity of our mouth to produce certain sounds, and the capacity of our brain to parse the signals we hear, we find a much stronger variation in the different sounds available in the languages of the world than we find when comparing the alphabets underlying DNA or protein sequences.

Despite the large variation in the sound systems of the world's languages, it is clear that there are striking common tendencies. A language without vowels does not make much sense, as we would have problems pronouncing the words or perceiving them at longer distances. A language without consonants would also be problematic; and even artificial communication systems developed for long-distance communication, like the different kinds of yodeling practiced in different parts of the world, make use of consonants to allow for a clearer distinction between vowels (see the page about Yodeling on Wikipedia). But, between both extremes we find great variation in the languages of the world, and this does not seem to follow any specific pattern that could point to any kind of selective pressure, although scholars have repeatedly tried to demonstrate it (see Everett et al. 2015 and the follow-up by Roberts 2018).

What is also important here is that, not only is the number of the sounds we find in the sound system of a given language highly variable, but there is also variation in the rules by which sounds can be concatenated to form words (called the phonotactics of a language), along with the frequency of the sounds in the words of different languages. Some languages tolerate clusters of multiple consonants (compare Russian vzroslye or German Herbst), others refuse them (compare the Chinese name for Frankfurt: fǎlánkèfú), yet others allow words to end in voiced stops (compare English job in standard pronunciation), and some turn voiced stops into voiceless ones (compare the standard pronunciation of Job in German as jop).

Language as a system

Language is a system which essentially concatenates a fixed number of sounds to sequences, being only restricted by the encoding and decoding capacities of its users. This is the core reason why sound change is so different from change in biological characters. If we say that German d goes back to Proto-Germanic *θ (pronounced as th in path), this does not mean that there were a couple of mutations in a couple of words of the German language. Instead it means that the system which produced the words for Proto-Germanic changed the way in which the sound *θ was produced in the original system.

In some sense, we can think metaphorically of a typewriter, in which we replace a letter by another one. As a result, whenever we want to type a given word in the way we know it, we will type it with the new letter instead. But this analogy would be to restricted, as we can also add new letters to the typewriter, or remove existing ones. We can also split one letter key into two, as happens in the case of palatalization, which is a very common type of sound change during which sounds like [k] or [g] turn into sounds like [] and [] when being followed by front vowels (compare Italian cento "hundred", which was pronounced [kɛntum] in Latin and is now pronounced as [tʃɛnto]).

Sound change is not the same as mutation in biology

Since it is the sound system that changes during the process we call sound change, and not the words (which are just a reflection of the output of the system), we cannot equate sound change with mutations in biological sequences, since mutations do not recur across all sequences in a genome, replacing one DNA segment by another one, which may not even have existed before. The change in the system, as opposed to the sequences that the system produces, is the reason for the apparent regularity of sound change.

This culminates in Leonard Bloomfield's (1887-1949) famous (at least among old-school linguists) expression that 'phonemes [i. e., the minimal distinctive units of language] change' (Bloomfield 1933: 351). From the perspective of formal approaches to sequence comparison, we could restate this as: 'alphabets change'. Hruschka et al. (2015) have compared sound change with concerted evolution in biology. We can state the analogy in simpler terms: sound change reflects systemics in language history, and concerted evolution results from systemic changes in biological evolution. It's the system, stupid!

Given that sound systems change in language history, this means that the problem of character alignments (i.e. determining homology/cognacy) in linguistics cannot be directly solved with the same techniques that are used in biology, where the alphabets are assumed to be constant, and alignments are supposed to identify mutations alone. If we want to compare sequences in linguistics, where we have to compare sequences that were basically drawn from different alphabets, this means that we need to find out which sounds correspond to which sounds across different languages while at the same time trying to align them.

An artificial example for the systemic grounding of sound change

Let me provide a concrete artificial example, to illustrate the peculiarities of sound change. Imagine two people who originally spoke the same language, but then suffered from diseases or accidents that inhibited them from producing their speech in the way they did before. Let the first person suffer from a cold, which blocks the nose, and therefore turns all nasal sounds into their corresponding voiced stops, i.e., n becomes a d, ng becomes a g, and m becomes a b. Let the other person suffer from the loss of the front teeth, which makes it difficult to pronounce the sounds s and z correctly, so that they sound like a th (in its voiced and voiceless form, like in thing vs. that).

Artificial sound change resulting from a cold or the loss of the front teeth.

If we now let both persons pronounce the same words in their original language, they won't sound very similar anymore, as I have tried to depict in the following table (dh points to the th in words like father, as opposed to the voiceless th in words like thatch).

No.   Speaker Cold   Speaker Tooth 
1 bass math
2 buzic mudhic
3 dose nothe
4 boizy moidhy
5 sig thing
6 rizig ridhing

By comparing the words systematically, however, bearing in mind that we need to find the best alignment and the mapping between the alphabets, we can retrieve a set of what linguists call sound correspondences. We can see that the s of speaker Cold corresponds to the th of speaker Tooth, z corresponds to dh, b to m, d to n, and g to ng. Having probably figured out by now that my words were taken from the English language (spelling voiced s consequently as z), it is easy even to come up with a reconstruction of the original words (mass, music[=muzik], nose, noisy=[noizy], etc.).

Reconstructing ancestral sounds in our artificial example with help of regular sound correspondences.


Systemic changes are difficult to handle in phylogenetic analyses. They leave specific traces in the evolving objects we investigate that are often difficult to interpret. While it has been long since known to linguists that sound change is an inherently systemic phenomenon, it is still very difficult to communicate to non-linguistics what this means, and why it is so difficult for us to compare languages by comparing their words. Although it may seem tempting to compare languages with simple sequence-alignment algorithms with differences in biological sequences resulting from mutations (see for example Wheeler and Whiteley 2015), it is basically an oversimplifying approach.

Simple models undeniably have their merits, especially when dealing with big datasets that are difficult to inspect manually — there is nothing to say against their use. But we should always keep in mind that we can, and should, do much better than this. Handling systemic changes remains a major challenge for phylogenetic approaches, no matter whether they use trees, networks, bushes, or forests.

Given the peculiarity of sound change in linguistic evolution, and how well the phenomena are understood in our discipline, it seems worthwhile to invest time in exploring ways to formalize and model the process. During the past two decades, linguists have taken a lot of inspiration from biology. The time will come when we need to pay something back. Providing models and analyses to deal with systemic processes like sound change might be a good start.


Bloomfield, L. (1973) Language. Allen & Unwin: London.

Everett, C., D. Blasi, and S. Roberts (2015) Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: connecting the physiological and geographic dots. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112.5: 1322-1327.

Hruschka, D., S. Branford, E. Smith, J. Wilkins, A. Meade, M. Pagel, and T. Bhattacharya (2015) Detecting regular sound changes in linguistics as events of concerted evolution. Curr. Biol. 25.1: 1-9.

Roberts, S. (2018) Robust, causal, and incremental approaches to investigating linguistic adaptation. Frontiers in Psychology 9: 166.

Wheeler, W. and P. Whiteley (2015) Historical linguistics as a sequence optimization problem: the evolution and biogeography of Uto-Aztecan languages. Cladistics 31.2: 113-125.

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