Sound Change And The History Of English

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Jeremy Smith

Natural Phonology and Sound Change. The Oxford Handbook of Historical Phonology. Read More. Subscriber sign in.

The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years

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Sound Change - Regular vs. Sporadic Change (part 1 of 5)

The BATH vowel refers to the pronunciation of the vowel in the word bath and other words that share that same vowel, such as laugh , ask and dance. Changes in pronunciation — phonological change — come in a variety of forms. Some changes merely affect the way an individual word is pronounced. Older speakers across the UK tend to stress the first syllable in the word controversy , for instance, while younger speakers increasingly place the main stress on the second syllable, controversy.

In other cases, the pronunciation of a particular vowel sound changes gradually across successive generations and thus has an impact on a large group of words. A change in pronunciation might initially take place only in one particular geographic location and remain local.

Old English (450-1100 AD)

Or it may over time spread nationally and thus affect all varieties of English. The vowel used by speakers for words in the TRAP set, such as back , dash , glad , hand , lamp and arrow and words in the BATH set, such as glass , dance and after is thought to have changed very little from the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions until the s.

Up until that point all speakers in England would have used a short vowel — probably not identical to the one most of us use in the TRAP set nowadays, but pretty similar. Both groups of words would have belonged to a single set, so that speakers everywhere would have used an identical vowel in the words cat and cast.

Middle English (1100-1500)

At a later date, however, speakers in London and the Home Counties started to adopt a completely different long vowel making this new pronunciation distinction even clearer. They retained the original short vowel for words such as rat , but began to use a vowel rather like the sound we are asked to produce when a doctor examines our throat in words such as raft.

A significant number of words within the original TRAP set began to be pronounced sufficiently differently by enough people to justify treating the words separately. This set in motion a chain of events that we can observe in a number of ways. We can look at the impact on the language itself and we can trace the impact geographically and socially. However, there are still a number of words where pronunciation varies from speaker to speaker, such as photograph , transport , plastic and circumstance.

The sections below show how far the new pronunciation has spread within all the words that might potentially belong in the BATH set. You can find lists of:. There is no precedent for this elsewhere in English — consider words such as chatter , chatty , latter , natter , natty and so on. The word latte is a very recent import, an extremely fashionable item and a high-frequency word, so its unusual pronunciation has spread very quickly.


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The map below, produced by Clive Upton and John Widdowson is based on data collected in rural England in the s. Thus we can see that at any given time there will be transition areas, where within the same community older speakers favour the older pronunciation, while younger speakers have shifted to the newer form. Over time the older speakers will become increasingly outnumbered until eventually a community is populated only by the next generation of speakers who all share the new pronunciation unless it too is subject to a new wave of change among its younger speakers.

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