Darwin-L Message Log 7:84 (March 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<7:84>From dasher@netcom.com  Thu Mar 24 02:03:07 1994

Date: Thu, 24 Mar 1994 00:04:06 -0800
From: dasher@netcom.com (Anton Sherwood)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: phone change vs phoneme change

Margaret Winters brings up an interesting point that I hadn't
thought of:  when and why does a quantitative change in how a
phoneme is expressed become a qualitative or structural change
in the number of phonemes distinguished?

Do two phonemes merge when the younger generation can no longer
tell them apart?  Seems unlikely; in general, children are more
adept than adults at imitating speech sounds (this is why to
speak without a foreign accent you must learn the language as
a child).

Could dialect borrowing be responsible?  Imagine that dialects
A and B distinguish ancestral phonemes 1 and 2 but in different
ways, such that to B-speakers, they sound alike in dialect A.
B-speakers borrowing vocabulary from A then give phonemes 1 and 2
the same pronunciation (3).  If A is prestigious, and B-imitating-A
later becomes dominant, this indirect merger could affect most of
the lexicon.

Larry Gorbet adds:
> And two sounds may contrast in some phonological environments
> and not others.

Vowel harmony being an obvious example, which led to the
distinction's being made throughout the vocabulary when the
environment was lost.

> Or may contrast only in a very small part of
> the vocabulary.

There is a borrowed word that, pronounced in the usual phonology
of my dialect (standard educated American), is homophonous with
an English word; for that word-pair alone, I divide a vowel
phoneme into two.  (I don't suppose my listeners notice.)
Naturally, at the moment I cannot remember what the word is.

> Or most but not all.

What would this mean?

Anton Sherwood   *\\*   +1 415 267 0685   *\\*   DASher@netcom.com

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