Oh what the hell, no one reads my blog anyways. I wrote a highly technical paper for my Historical Linguistics class that uses my own theories, instead of just regurgitating other people's theories. I'm really proud of it. But, I don't think many people will be able to understand much of it, or care.
Chain Shifts and Two Opposing Forces Theory of Phonetic Change
Understanding Chain Shifts is the key to understanding why language is constantly, never ceasingly changing. What makes them so fascinating is the symmetry the sounds move in and preserve. A Chain Shift is like a toy train set sitting atop a tray. Just tipping it slightly to one side, and the whole thing rolls off the tray together. To better understand Chain Shifts, we’ll look at Grimm’s Law and the Great English Vowel Shift in detail. Then we’ll organize the characteristics that are universal to all Chain Shifts, and finally, we will figure out why and how this dramatic set of changes is even possible.
Arguably one of the most famous Chain Shifts, and a good starting point. In this Chain Shift entire natural classes of sounds changed all at once, which as it turns out, is a pretty common occurrence in Chain Shifts (and phonetic changes in general). Here is a table copied out of Lyle Campbell’s Historical Linguistics: An Introduction
, page 49-50, illustrating Grimm’s Law.
|-voice, stop>fricative ||+voice, stop>-voice ||+voice, +aspiration, stop>-aspiration |
|*p > f ||*b > p ||*bh > b |
|*t > θ ||*d > t ||*dh > d |
|*k and *k̂ > x/h ||*g and ĝ > k ||*gh and ĝh > g |
|*kw > hw ||*gw > kw ||*gwh > gw |
The carets indicate palatal consonants that appear in Proto-Indo-European, but that merged before or during the Chain Shift. There are a few modifications I’d like to make though. First, the /*p/>/f/ change is missing a step. I think it should be /*p/>/ɸ/>/f/. Going from a bilabial stop to a bilabial fricative involves less changes than going to a labial-dental fricative. The change from bilabial to labial-dental easily could have taken place after the initial change. Second, I think that the /*t/ was a dental stop, not an alveolar stop. If it had been an alveolar stop, I think that /*t/ would have merged with /s/ instead of making a brand new fricative. Actually, this makes a lot of sense, considering that there were four places of articulation for stops in Proto-Indo-European. To make these four places spread out as far as possible, bilabial-dental-palatal-velar makes a lot of sense. After the palatals merged with the velars, the dental sounds easily could have moved back to the alveolar ridge.
The Great English Vowel Shift
Vowel Chain Shifts are common. Vowels themselves are quite mushy. Any one vowel phoneme is actually a range of sounds that we think is the same sound. For example, compare Northwestern US vowels with Japanese vowels: (data from me, for I speak these languages)
As you can see, the organizing and sorting of these sounds is quite different, but both languages identify more than one place of articulation as the same sound- as well as everything between the two sounds. So, the lines of the categories can easily shift. The Great English Vowel Shift itself: (illustrated by Robert Stockwell in Studies in the History of the English Language – A Millennial Perspective
, page 17)
This Chain Shift, the bane of many children learning how to spell, only deals with the natural class of long vowels. Except for the high vowels, the change that happens is vowel raising. After the vowel raising, some more diphthongization happened to the mid vowels. One thing that this chart doesn’t cover is that vowel length as a phoneme in English disappeared, so /a/ didn’t vanish from the language.
Characteristics of Chain Shifts
Chain shifts follow a specific pattern and have some very specific characteristics. At one end of the chain, there will be a change that doesn’t fit the pattern of the others. At the other end, a sound will be lost. The changes happen in two phases.
Phase one is where the change that doesn’t fit the pattern happens. Examples of this are the voiceless stops becoming voiceless fricatives in Grimm’s Law; and the high long vowels becoming diphthongs in the Great English Vowel Shift.
Phase two is where the rest of the changes in the chain happen. These changes won’t be very drastic, often staying in a category of some sort and only tweaking one feature (as far as I can tell, I’ll need to examine more Chain Shifts to see if this holds true). The rest of the changes in Grimm’s Law are from one type of stop to another, and they all kept their places of articulation. In the Great English Vowel Shift, the vowels stayed in their category – front or back – and simply moved up. Finally, something will be lost from the phonetic invatory. In the Great English Vowel Shift, vowel length was lost, and in Grimm’s Law, aspiration was lost.
But why? Why do Chain Shifts follow this pattern? Both Trask and Campbell write of it in terms of “drag/pull chains” and “push chains”.
The Problem with Push Chains
Trask defines a “push chain” as “a chain that starts with a movement of one segment dangerously close to a second one, causing the second one to move out of the way and do the same thing to a third segment (108).” This, doesn’t make much sense to me. When segments get dangerously close, they merge. Certainly, there is a universal pattern of human languages’ phonetic structure wherein the sounds are as far apart and different as they can possibly get – but that appears to be a function of keeping the sounds as spread apart in the mouth as possible. And what would constitute being too close? Looking back at the NW US English vowel chart versus the Japanese vowel chart, the English vowels are much, much closer together than the Japanese vowels, but they aren’t pushing each other out of the way, and have been relatively stable for the 500 years since the Great English Vowel Shift. There seems to be little resistance against mergers. For example, look at the changes to ancient Greek vowels: (Trask 110)
This chart shows a small chain shift, actually. Look at /o:/>/u/>/i:/.
Trask defines a “drag/pull chain” as “a chain that starts with the introduction of some holes [in the phonetic structure] which ‘drag’ other segments into them, thereby creating more holes which in turn drag other segments into them, and so on (108).” This makes a lot of sense to me, and sounds quite natural. It likely describes very accurately what happened to the Greek vowels above. But, I’m not sure it can be so easily applied to entire classes of sounds so easily. It’s certainly possible, but I think there’s probably another force at work.
Two Opposing Forces
We may have a glimpse of this force in Campbell’s definition of push chains.
“Sometimes the notion of ‘maximum differentiation’ is called upon in the instances. The idea behind maximum differentiation is that the sounds in a sound system tend to be distributed so as to allow as much perception difference between them as possible(48).”
This is a great theory, but I don’t think that it could explain the sounds pushing each other out of the way. All this means that before we can figure out how Chain Shifts work, we’ll need to figure this out why phonetic change happens. This leads us to many more questions about the nature and structure of phonologies and phonetic change in general. From here on in is my own musings, though I’m certain I’m not the only one too look at Chain shifts and think this up.
The first step into figuring this out is to ask some questions:
- Why are places and manners of articulation often reused with the phonology of a language? One reason that the IPA chart works so nicely when organizing the sounds in a language is because all languages will already have the sounds within them grouped and organized.
- Why are the sounds spread so far apart from each other in the mouth? This has the odd byproduct of making the phonetic charts look symmetrical, because they are based on where the sounds are made in the mouth. This is the most noticeable in vowel charts.
- Why aren’t words getting endlessly long? It’d mean they could be made up of very easy to say sounds.
- Why Fortition? Lenition is easy to figure out – making words easier to say is a very easy trend to spot. But more difficult? Why bother?
My “maximum differentiation” theory is a bit different from what Campbell writes about. I think that there is another piece to the puzzle, one that has completely incompatible goals. I think that these two forces of language change are in a ceaseless battle against each other: Ease of articulation, and Ease of differentiation.
Ease of articulation’s goal is to have the fewest number of different places and manners of articulation to learn for speech, and for those sounds to flow easily from one to another. It also doesn’t let words become too long.
Ease of differentiation’s goal is to have lots of different sounds far apart from each other in the mouth and made in many different ways that are easy to tell the difference between when listening to the speech. Speakers will say words in more difficult ways if it means they will be understood more easily.
With such different goals, it’s no wonder that language is constantly changing. Neither side can ever be happy.
Applying Two Opposing Forces to Chain Shifts
And we’re back to the problem of Chain Shifts. What gives them their peculiar shape? I think that the reason that change can be sped up is that a language’s phonology can be destabilized. If a change happens that upsets the delicate balance between the two forces, change will happen very quickly to correct the balance. Ease of differentiation will spread the sounds out, and ease of articulation will be look to use efficiently the places and manners of articulation.
In phase one, a change happens that upsets the balance. Ease of Differentiation will cause instability because the sounds are no longer spread out as far as possible. Ease of Articulation will cause instability because the manners and places of articulation are no longer being used efficiently.
In phase two, the sounds spread out as Ease of Differentiation wants, but staying in the categories that Ease of Articulation holds them to. One segment moves at a time, never overlapping, else there’d be mergers. Possibly, a segment could gain and lose ground at the same time, making the changes happen all together, like a slack chain laid out on a desk, being pulled taunt from one end.
Campbell, Lyle. Historical Linguistics: An Introduction
ed. Edinburgh University Press, 2004
Stockwell, Robert. Studies in the History of the English Language : A Millennial Perspective.
Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002
Trask, Arnold. Trask’s Historical Linguistics
ed. 1996. Ed. Robert M. Miller. London: Hodder Education, 2007