In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sound Change

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Linguistics Sound Change
Joseph Salmons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0098


Sound change is the usual name given to a subfield dedicated to how speech sounds become different over time, and it has one of the longest traditions in the field of linguistics. (The area is also often called “historical phonology” and sometimes “phonological change.”) Sound change is a core area of historical linguistics (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Comparative-Historical Linguistics” by Joseph Salmons) and has been since the beginning of modern linguistics. Indeed, it is possible to find older works labeled as “historical linguistics” or the “history of” some particular language that consist more or less entirely of discussion of sound change and the closely connected area of morphological change. It has also long played a major role in phonological theorizing, certainly compared to areas like syntax. For many scholars, the key issue in sound change goes back to the neogrammarian principle of “sound laws,” the exceptionlessness of sound laws (Ausnahmslosigkeit der Lautgesetze), which was central to the establishment of linguistics as a scientific enterprise. The issue remains a vital one in the early 21st century, as illustrated by work on “lexical diffusion.” The study of sound change is not only important to the fields of phonetics, phonology, and morphology (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles on “Phonetics,” “Phonology,” and “Morphology”) but also so tightly connected that clear boundaries become difficult to draw. Much early work on sound change drew evidence from written texts across different periods of time, for example, from Latin to medieval and then to modern Romance languages, while other scholarship compared related languages and dialects, such as those within the Algonquian family or across German dialects, to infer patterns of change. More recently, new kinds of evidence for sound change have been developed. In particular, the field moved forward during the 1960s and since thanks to the study of “language change in progress,” which has developed into the allied field of “language variation and change” (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies article on “Sociolinguistics”), which has relied far more heavily on evidence from sounds and sound patterns than evidence from other areas of grammar. Other new tools have revolutionized the field as well, including computational tools, databases, and so on. This article aims to balance the core, traditional areas of the study of sound change against these innovative areas of interest. Indispensable to most of the best work on sound change as of this date is the recognition of the need to draw on the broadest available range of information, theories, and methods, and that is reflected in the selection of references that follow.

General Overviews

There is a recent handbook on this topic, Honeybone and Salmons 2015. Beyond that many articles provide good overviews of the field from particular perspectives, including Hualde 2011, Bermúdez-Otero 2007 and recently Garrett 2015 in the context particularly of phonological theory. Fisiak 1978 provides an earlier state-of-the-art view from within historical phonology. Benware 1998 is especially useful for beginning students.

  • Benware, Wilbur A. 1998. Workbook in historical phonology: Sound change, internal reconstruction, comparative reconstruction. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America.

    This book gives forty-eight exercises, all built on sound patterns, drawing on a wide array of languages of the world and concluding with brief statements about the direction of sound change, lenition, and palatalization.

  • Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo. 2007. Diachronic phonology. In The Cambridge handbook of phonology. Edited by Paul de Lacy, 497–517. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511486371.022

    An important early 21st century overview, focusing on how functionalist and formal approaches do and do not differ and reconciling neogrammarian regularity and diffusionist and emergentist approaches.

  • Fisiak, Jacek, ed. 1978. Recent developments in historical phonology. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 4. The Hague: Mouton.

    DOI: 10.1515/9783110810929

    This volume contains more than two dozen contributions by the leading scholars of the period from various theoretical perspectives and covering many fundamental theoretical issues (regularity, acquisition, and so on) and classic empirical problems in sound change (most importantly, Stockwell’s contribution on chain shifting in vowels).

  • Garrett, Andrew. 2015. Sound change. In The Routledge handbook of historical linguistics. Edited by Claire Bowern and Bethwyn Evans, 227–248. Abingdon: Routledge.

    Wide-ranging and the most recent overview of the field as of publication of this article, this chapter treats especially issues of “causes” of sound change.

  • Honeybone, Patrick, and Joseph Salmons, eds. 2015. The Oxford handbook of historical phonology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This handbook contains thirty-seven chapters on the broadest range of current research on sound change, including methods and theories, and broad surveys of templatic change, real-time change, and tone changes.

  • Hualde, José Ignacio. 2011. Sound change. In The Blackwell companion to phonology. Vol. 4. Edited by Marc van Oostendorp, Colin J. Ewen, Elizabeth Hume, and Keren Rice, 2214–2235. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    This treatment of sound change by a leading phonologist focuses especially on the issue of regularity, pivoting on a distinction between “conventionalization of a phonetic process”—regularly (i.e., not subject to lexical conditioning)—and “phonological recategorization”—which often proceeds word by word (p. 2232).

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