4

One example of a linguistic distinction being lost in English is the merger of the th merging into f in the British accent (Telegraph Article). Another example of the th sound being lost is in the Irish accent.

I am also familiar with Spanish in which the b/v sounds, ll/y sounds and the c/z/s sounds have merged in many accents. The clearest evidence of this are homophones which are spelt differently but are pronounced the same.

Is the tendency of languages to simplify their phonology?

Can you provide examples of new phonetic distinctions being created in English?

10
  • 4
    One example of a linguistic distinction being lost in English is the merger of the th merging into f in the British accent (Telegraph Article) The article speaks of loss in London, not in the British accent. ++ Another example of the th sound being lost is in the Irish accent. The "th" sound in the Irish accent (of which has several major variants) has never been prominent - it is usually replaced with "t" or "d." That said, waves of other cultures will always affect a language and its pronunciation. This is not simplification - the complexity remains the same.
    – Greybeard
    Apr 17 '20 at 14:24
  • I worked with a bloke from Essex, very nice chap, who was called Matthews, which he invariably pronounced 'Maffews'. It used to drive me up the bloody wall! So the distinction is most definitely not being lost everywhere, any more than everyone in the USA has started talking with a New Jersey accent. Also in Ireland, not every group of 'tree fellers' consists of lumberjacks. Apr 17 '20 at 14:39
  • 1
    English is constantly changing, eliminating old, awkward words and pronunciations, but adapting equally awkward new ones. It's English!
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 17 '20 at 20:20
  • 1
    @MichaelHarvey - No way everyone in the US talks like a Jersey guy!!! The Midwestern accent is still well-established in the heartland.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 18 '20 at 1:33
  • 2
    My friend who was raised in Louisiana had to go to Wyoming once, and it took 2 or 3 days before he could understand some of the locals. Apr 18 '20 at 13:09
15

Mergers of formerly distinct sounds that are spelled differently are easier to notice than splits of sounds. There are examples of splits that are introducing new contrasts into English phonology.

One phoneme prone to splitting in a few regional accents is the front low vowel /æ/. It is usually analyzed phonologically as a "short" or "lax" low vowel. But for some speakers, there are a few minimal pairs or near-minimal pairs between words with short/lax [æ] and words with a lengthened variant [æː] or "tense" variant [eə]. For more information, look up "bad-lad split".

At the level of whole languages, "phonological complexity" is not a simple concept because phonologies are not directly observable. One analysis might have half as many phonemes as another, depending on whether certain sounds are analyzed as sequences or phonological units. New phonological units are often historically derived from older sequences, and the transition from a sequence to a phoneme can be hard to identify. E.g. in French, "nasal vowel" phonemes historically derive in most cases from a sequence of vowel + nasal consonant, and in certain respects they can be argued to behave like such sequences even in the phonology of modern French. In American English, "rhotic vowels" as in car, chair, core, cheer are conventionally analyzed as sequences ending in the consonant /r/, but they could instead be analyzed as unitary vowel phonemes, like diphthongs.

So in many cases, the development of a new phonological distinction is not clear until centuries have passed. Some examples of distinctions in modern English that we know developed from sounds that were not distinct in an earlier language/stage of the language: /k/ vs. /tʃ/, /f/ vs. /v/, /θ/ vs. /ð/, /s/ vs. /z/, the three-way split between /ʌ/, /ʊ/, and /uː/.

6
  • 1
    Is it reasonable to say that any homophone is an example of a merger in sounds (simplifying the language) and any homograph is an example of a divergence (adding complexity back into the language)?
    – egg
    Apr 17 '20 at 22:26
  • 4
    @egg: If the history of English spelling were simpler, that might be true. In actuality, there are too many complicated cases for that to be a reasonable assumption.
    – herisson
    Apr 17 '20 at 22:28
  • I'm intrigued. Can you give more details on this [æ] change, like where it's happening, and which words are affected?
    – Jetpack
    Apr 17 '20 at 23:26
  • I honestly can't imagine how to pronounce "bad" and "lad" differently, but this Reddit thread indicates that for people who do, the difference is just as pronounced as when I pronounce "spammer" versus "hammer," or "banner" (one-who-bans) versus "banner" (a festive drapery). Apr 18 '20 at 22:01
  • The "bad-lad split" certainly sounds unsavoury.
    – Steve
    Apr 19 '20 at 1:06
3

Some researchers argue that Canadian raising leads to a phonemic split.

Canadian raising occurs in Canada and areas in the northern U.S. In Canadian raising, the diphthongs [aɪ] and [aʊ] are replaced with [ʌɪ] and [ʌʊ] respectively before voiceless consonants in most words but not all words.

A pair that cleanly illustrates Canadian raising is

  • ride [ɹaɪd] (no raising)
  • write [ɹʌɪt] (with raising)

In a lot of North America, /t/ and /d/ are merged at the beginning of unstressed syllables, so in some accents, rider and writer are distinguished by their diphthong and not by their consonants.

  • rider [ɹaɪɾɚ] (no raising)
  • writer [ɹʌɪɾɚ] (with raising)

There are a lot of exceptional words, so that "spider" rhymes with "writer" but not "rider".

The Wikipedia page says that this pair has been observed in some places:

  • idol (no raising)
  • idle (with raising)

I don't recognize that one. Wikipedia doesn't give the exact pronunciation. When I first wrote this post, I said it's a minimum pair, but I don't know if speakers who distinguish the first sound in these two words do something different with the syllable boundary or in the second syllable.

My unprofessional opinion is that I distinguish this surname and this verb

  • Hyde [haɪd] (no raising)
  • hide [hʌɪd] (with raising)

I never pinned down exactly what I do with "hide" the noun. I think I vary in that one.

1
  • 1
    My accent in particular has a weird Canadian raising-like feature. In addition to a split between [aɪ] and [ʌɪ] which is more or less as you've described here, I also have a split between [aɹ] and [ʌɹ], and a split between [aɪɚ] and [ʌɪɚ], neither of which seems to obey any discernible pattern. I pronounce "mark" with [aɹ] but "bark" with [ʌɹ], and "hire" with [aɪɚ] but "fire" with [ʌɪɚ]. I have no idea if that's a regional thing here in Grand Rapids, or something that comes from my mom or dad, or an innovation I created myself by mistake when I was learning English as a baby. Apr 18 '20 at 16:45

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.