Why do pronunciations change over time?

As a Linguistics graduate, my three years of study came flooding back to me when I stumbled across this article about the various language processes which have been slowly changing the pronunciation of the English language. Historical linguistics is the study of language change over time, and can focus on spelling, syntax, vocabulary or, in this case, the phonology.

Phonology is the study of sound in language, and looks at the way different sounds adapt to their environment. It differs slightly from phonetics, which is the study of the acoustic processes that take place when we speak. Phonology looks at the rules of language, and historical linguistics can lead us to an explanation of an observed phonological rule.

‘How many languages do you speak?’ is one of the most common questions I’m asked when I say I studied Linguistics. However, it’s not a case of studying one language. It’s language as a whole and all the rules that go with it. It puts the foundations in place to be able to analyse languages somewhat objectively using a ‘toolkit’ of information that allows us to probe the sounds, the meaning and the grammar of languages, along with where they came from and how they evolved.

Language change may be conscious, or unconscious. Sociolinguistics accounts for much of the conscious language change, with convergence (trying to sound more like others) and divergence (trying to sound different to others) mechanisms used to establish a new way of communicating. Many of the phonological changes outlined in the article, however, are unconscious, and fuelled primarily by the anatomy of the vocal tract.

For example, epenthesis, the process of adding an extra sound into a word, was not a conscious change in the language. The rapid movement from the nasal sound [m] in ‘empty’ to the plosive [t] forces a sound in between to make the transition easier for the human vocal tract to process. The [p]  acts as a bridge between the relatively different [m] and [t] sounds, taking the place (labial) and voicing from the [m] and the manner (plosive) from the [t] for a consonant cluster which is easier to articulate.

I will be writing more about linguistics in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more!

Read more about the phonological change of English>>