Loquens, Vol 1, No 1 (2014)

The individual and the actuation of sound change


Mary Stevens
Institut für Phonetik und Sprachverarbeitung, Luwdig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany

Jonathan Harrington
Institut für Phonetik und Sprachverarbeitung, Luwdig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany


This paper reviews current experimental approaches to sound change. An ongoing challenge in sound change research is to link the initiation of sound change within individual cognitive grammars to the diffusion of novel variants through the community. The articulatory and perceptual phonetic forces that bring about the pre-conditions for sound change and that explain its directionality are always present in the transmission of spoken language, yet sound systems are remarkably stable over time. This paper describes how recent approaches to the actuation problema converge on the idea that variability between individuals may be the key to understanding how some synchronic variation can become sound change. It then reviews the evidence for individual differences based on four areas of phonetic research (speech production, speech perception/cognitive processing, the perception-production link, and linguistic experience and imitation). This evidence suggests that differences between individuals may help to explain why sound change is so rarely actuated even though the phonetic pre-conditions are constantly being generated in spoken language interactions.


sound change; speech perception; speech production; individual differences; imitation

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