LINGUIST List 11.2186

Tue Oct 10 2000

Sum: Phonological Change Driven by Imitation

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Bill Palmer, Phonological Change Driven by Imitation

Message 1: Phonological Change Driven by Imitation

Date: Tue, 10 Oct 2000 11:20:33 EST
From: Bill Palmer <>
Subject: Phonological Change Driven by Imitation

For Query: Linguist 11.1890

On 8 September 2000 I posted the following query:

"Phonological change driven by imitation: Does anyone know of any instances 
of phonological (or for that matter lexical or grammatical) change resulting 
from an idiosyncratic feature of the idiolect of a prominent personality? 
Several times over the years I have heard a couple of anecdotes about 
phonological change driven by the imitation of a monarch with an unusual 
pronunciation. One anecdote has the Spanish interdental fricative arising 
from imitation of a Spanish monarch with a lisp. The other has the northern 
European shift to a uvular rhotic arising from the imitation at court of a 
French monarch who had this as an idiosyncratic feature of their idiolect, 
subsequently spreading to Paris, then France, then neighbouring countries to 
the east, explaining the areal and not genetic nature of this change. Is 
there any truth in either of these anecdotes? If so can anyone help me with 

Many thanks to all those who replied:

Glynis Baguley
Laurie Bauer
Adrian Clynes
Timothy Jowan Curnow
Kirk Hazen
Keith Johnson	kejU.Arizona.EDU
Mark J. Jones
Andrew McCrum
Elena P. Milkova
Bruce Moren
Simon Musgrave
no name given
James Ritchie
Eric Russell-Webb
Marie-Lucie Tarpent
Stijn Verleyen

(Apologies to Andrew McCrum and Bruce Moren for losing their email 


Both the lisping Spaniard anecdote and the story about the uvular 'r' are 
clearly widely known, but almost universally discounted. The reactions of 
those who responded to my posting ranged from skepticism to outright 
dismissal. However, a number of other examples of the phenomenon were 
suggested, and I will return to those later in this summary.

Andrew McCrum, suspects this phenomenon does occur but has found little 
evidence. He referred me to: Ohala, John (1981) 'The listener as a source of 
sound change'. Papers from the Regional Meetings of the Chicago Linguistics 
Society: 17.

Kirk Hazen knows of no evidence of a prominent person actually leading a 
language change, but added: "From the point of view of a quantitative 
variationist, some one person was the first to pronounce what later became a 
change, but most often that first pronunciation goes completely unnoticed". 
He referred me to "Erik Thomas's dissertation (1995 maybe?)".


Mark J. Jones referred me to an article by Mona Lindau in Fromkin (ed.) 
(1985) Phonetic Linguistics, in honor of Peter Ladefoged, on what links the 
members of the rhotic class, which may have details on this and other 
changes from apical to uvular /r/.

James Ritchie discounts the possibility that the uvular rhotic in German was 
a prestige borrowing from French or elsewhere, saying that "many of these 
ideas were generated through positions about language which were based more 
on emotional charges than on science. Some of these ideas are found in 
Trautmann (1879) and Vischer (1889). Evidence for a uvular r in German 
predates a uvular in French by at least 100 years (see Runge 1973:233). It 
could just as well have been a borrowing into French from German much the 
way Germanic h certainly was borrowed in the Middle Ages (see Stephen Cutts 
1994). There is also much acoustic evidence for a uvular r in early Germanic 
(see Ritchie 2000)."

Eric Russell-Webb questions the direction of the posited cross-linguistic 
influence: "Firstly, there is no direct evidence which attributes the 
"shift" from apical (i.e. /r/) to dorsal (i.e. /R/) articulations to any one 
factor. In both French and German...there is tremendous historical confusion. 
On the one hand, you have germanisten, such as Jesperson, who attribute the 
change in German (c. 18th century, for Hochdeutsch at least) to French 
influence. On the other, there are records of French philologues who 
attribute the same change in French (earlier for the standard, used in 
erudite circles... "le francais de l'acad�mie") to Germanic influence. Other 
anecdotal and dialectal evidence suggests that, within the aire of each 
language, there were dialects using the dorsal /r/ even when the apical form 
was solidly standard: in the Tyrol, Graubunden and parts of southern Bayern 
in the German-speaking parts of Europe; among certain "petit bourgeois" 
social classes in France. What is clear in the historical evidence is that 
there was a shift in each of the respected standards and that this shift 
favoured dorsal /r/. No comprehensive research has attributed, with any 
degree of precision or credibility, the genesis or catalyst of such shift to 
any one factor, be it biomechanical/ phonetic, social, or purely 
phonological. Within each language, however, the massive adaptation of 
dorsal /r/ by all or most concerned populations is easily attributed to 
social factors (e.g., the prestige of erudite sociolectes, the advent of 
universal education in the 19th century, the development of mass 
communications), once the change took place in those segments of the 
language-population susceptible to exert influence over others."

Marie-Lucie Tarpent discussed the origin of the French shift at some 
illuminating length:

"The other day I was reading the book by Brian Joseph and H.H. Hock 
'Language history, language change and language relationship', and was 
surprised to see this attributed to a mispronunciation by Louis XIV! As a 
French person raised in France I studied quite a bit of French history, and 
although not a specialist I am fairly familiar with the history of the 
French language, and this is the first time I had heard of this anecdote, 
which seems totally spurious."

"It seems quite well-documented that the uvular pronunciation developed 
first as a stigmatized feature among the Parisian lower class, the apical r 
being general at that time. This was still the case at the end of the 19th 
century where this pronunciation was called "parler gras" 'to speak fat' and 
the R, "r grasseye'" (the pronunciation [gRa] itself, with low back [a], 
examplifying the feature in question); (although by the time the R became 
more general in urban areas many people had no idea what the verb 
"grasseyer" meant any more and used it to mean a stigmatized pronunciation 
that they themselves did not use). Anyway, during the Revolution when it was 
important for the former upper classes to keep a very low profile, and often 
to go into hiding, many people started to use the R in an effort to try to 
blend with the common people. A (short-lived) reaction to this set in after 
the revolution when fashionable people affected the almost r-less 
pronunciation of Josephine de Beauharnais, later Napoleon's wife, who was 
from Martinique where the planters were apparently influenced by the slaves' 
pronunciation (this could occur if the children were raised by slave nurses, 
cf the African influence in Southern US speech) (the present r of 
Martinique, etc is actually a weak voiced velar, not uvular fricative, as 
occurs also in the speech of many Africans). Later the pronunciation of a 
rather weak uvular fricative became general in Paris and also spread to 
other urban areas (where it might have been adopted first by local 
revolutionaries), but the reinstated royal court and the old aristocracy, 
especially the ones who had emigrated to escape the revolution, clung to the 
apical r, as did most of the country people. It is only in the 20th century 
that R has become standard, but many older people especially in rural areas 
still use r. Still, one feature which is stigmatized and which is typical of 
uneducated people in some areas of Paris (who speak with what French people 
call "accent parisien", a derogatory term similar to "cockney" or "Brooklyn 
accent" in English-- note that all these varieties are associated with both 
a class and a local area of a very large city), is a strongly fricative 
uvular R, sometimes even pharyngealized."

"It should be obvious from all this that attributing the long-stigmatized 
shift r > R to Louis XIV, of all monarchs the most preoccupied with his 
image, is preposterous."

"I think that the shift may have started with the double rr, for instance in 
the effort to differentiate the words gue're (grave accent) 'hardly' and 
guerre 'war', which are homophonous in present-day French. My main reason 
for thinking this is not very scholarly but is based on the pronunciation of 
my grandfather, who was a native speaker of Occitan (where only r was used, 
as in Catalan or Spanish). When speaking French, he used the apical r in 
most contexts, but a very strongly fricativized or vibrated, long uvular R, 
which was obviously an effort for him to pronounce, for words written with 
double rr. I think the same thing may have happened with the old Parisians 
(ie r:rr > r:R) and R become generalized to all the instances where other 
speakers had r."

"As for the "areal spread", if that is indeed what it is, one would have to 
know at what time it occurred in Germany: the pronunciation was limited to a 
stigmatized, local French group at the beginning of strong French influence 
(Louis XIV); the Huguenots who emigrated to Protestant countries during the 
reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV were mostly educated, urban people who 
would not have used this either, and neither would the French e'migre' 
nobles during the revolution, since it was r that was associated with 
nobility and royalty. Nor is the change limited to Germany since R is 
apparently also typical of the uneducated speech of Durham in England (where 
R might result originally from the sequence rh ?)."

"It is possible that a royal or prestigious origin of this and other 
non-phonemic but socially meaningful shifts of pronunciation was invented 
later in order to give respectability to a previously stigmatized feature."


The idea of a monarch-led intedental in Spanish received equally little 
support. Several respondents noted that if the Spanish interdental was the 
result of a lisp it would have to have been a selective lisp. Stijn Verleyen 
believes that P. Lloyd talks about the anecdote in the first volume of his 
book "From Latin to Spanish" (?1991), and referred me to an article by Andr� 
Martinet, 'The unvoicing of old Spanish sibilants' (Romance Philology, 
1951), which "explains the shift from apico-dental s to interdental c on 
structural bases". Mark J. Jones suggests that the change was part of a 
reorganisation of the Medieval Castilian fricative system, and referred me 
to John Green's article on Spanish in Routledge's Romance Languages survey 
for more details). He also referred me to a paper by Kirk A Widdison in 
Rivista di Linguistica (1995) (special edition on sound change) that deals 
partly with this.

In Keith Johnson's version of the anecdote the King was one of the Habsburgs 
and had a strong lisp ("if you've seen portraits of any of the Habsburgs, 
you'd see that this is a strong possibility"). The people wanted to talk 
like the king so they adopted the voiceless interdental fricative as the 
sound represented by the letter 'z' and by the letter 'c' before front 
vowels. However, Johnson points out: "If the king really did have some 
physical defect which prevented him from pronouncing the [s], it would have 
been generalized to every instance of /s/, not just those reflected by 
orthographic {z} and {c} when the latter appears before /i e/, but not in 
instances of /s/. And, of course people didn't know how to read back then, 
so orthography isn't much of an issue. Now, that's not to say that people 
couldn't imitate him incorrectly, and get his lisp for only a subset of the 
contexts in which he himself used it, but this is not likely, since cases of 
/s/+V[+ant] contrast with theta+V[+ant]. Also, if I'm not mistaken, the 
deaffrication of [ts] and [dz], the former of which was the predecessor of 
the Castillian theta, was already well underway, if not complete, at the 
time of the Habsburgs... There are records of Arabic and Hebrew writing 
showing orthographic symbols for an interdental fricative in the Middle 
Ages, which might indicate that the process preceded the Habsburgs by a LONG 

Tim Curnow dismisses the idea of a lisp, "or else there was a very, very 
clever, very learned Spanish king. The Spanish interdental fricative turns 
up everywhere that Latin historically had a 'c' [k] before a front vowel, 
whereas wherever Latin had an 's' [s] before a front vowel, Spanish has an 
/s/ [s]. So he managed only to lisp in all those words that were derived 
from Latin words which historically had a [k] not an [s]... It's generally 
thought that the story is something like this: At some point Spanish had two 
different s sounds, an apical (from Latin s) and a laminal (from Latin k). 
In an attempt to keep these two more clearly separate, the laminal moved 
further and further forward, ending up interdental (that makes it sound like 
it was deliberate, but you get the idea). But then I suppose it's faintly 
possible that there was a king once who had a 'lisp' that meant that he said 
the laminal (but not the apical) as interdental - but I don't think there's 
any support for that view (or any way of testing it as a hypothesis)."


With lisping Austrian Spaniards and a working class uvular Sun-King 
consigned to the dustbin of linguistic urban myths, we can turn to other 
examples, where monarchs remain a popular posited source of change. Although 
remaining sceptical, Glynis Baguley provides this addition to the list:

"In British English, the pronunciation of the <ei> bit of either/neither can 
be /i:/ or /aI/; I don't know what the geographical or social distribution 
is but I think it's probably quite complex. The /aI/ pronunciation (which I 
use) has been attributed to George I, who was German and never really learnt 
English thoroughly. I think I've also heard him credited with the /t/ in the 
pronunciation of the river Thames."

Bruce Moren points to "the heavy borrow from French into Swedish as a result 
of the coronation of Jean Baptiste Bernadotte (a Frenchman) as the Swedish 
King in the 19th century. He was a French General who was "adopted" by the 
Swedish King (who had no heirs). The Bernadottes are still the ruling 
family. I have also heard it said that the royal family still has 'a slight 
French accent when speaking Swedish'."

>From influence from a different first language to influence from a different 
first dialect and a more specific example, Elena P. Milkova (St.Petersburg, 
Russia) drew attention to an instance of this phenomenon in Soviet Russia:

"Certain phonetic (not pure phonological though) changes driven by imitation 
took place in Soviet Russia: Brezhnev as well as Gorbachov after him both 
shared a striking Southern dialect feature: they pronounced fricative 
[gamma] instead of regular [g]. It soon became a matter of fashion to 
pronounce fricative 'g' among other party leaders, especially among not so 
important leaders in provincial cities. They copied such feature of 
pronunciation even if they did not have it previously. Now this fashion is 
forgotten but in theory it could become more widespread and could even 
became a norm. Notice that such "innovations" happen mostly in tyrannies."

Simon Musgrave and Adrian Clynes both mentioned a similar and even more 
specific example in Indonesian. It is worth quoting Adrian Clynes at some 
length on "the following facts I observed while living in Indonesia, about 
how President Suharto (apparently) led a language change, if only among some 
of his bureaucrat lackeys."

"Indonesian/Malay has an applicative verbal suffix {kan}, normally 
pronounced [kan]. A characteristic of some older (mostly aged 70+) Javanese 
is to pronounce {kan} as [kn] ( = schwa). This is no doubt because of the 
influence of a largely functionally equivalent cognate affix in Javanese 
[their first language], which is pronounced [akn]."

"This was a well-known, often commented upon, feature of the speech of the 
former dictator Suharto, who reigned from 1966. Living in Bali in the late 
seventies to mid 80's, it was very noticeable that some of the local 
middle-to-high government officials also used this pronunciation when making 
speeches, even though they were younger, and ethnically Balinese, not 
Javanese. It seemed clear that by using the "Suharto pronunciation" (my 
term) they were signalling that they too frequented the Corridors of Power, 
that they too held Power."

"The Suharto pronunciation was not only used by some Balinese officials; it 
became quite widespread among (some) bureaucrats throughout Indonesia. One 
brave, very well known TV commentator, for years had presented a program on 
'how to speak correct Indonesian'. He lost the job in the mid-eighties, 
apparently because he dared to criticise the affectation on his show."

"The conditions in the 70's and 80's were ripe for such a dictator-led 
linguistic change, particularly in Indonesia, where differences in the 
power/status of speaker and hearer have traditionally been signalled 
linguistically. A far-sighted linguist would have kept tabs on subsequent 
changes in pronunciation with the coming of 'reformasi' and the overthrow 
[was it in 1997?] of the hated Suharto and family. I wasn't able to, but 
I'll bet that those 'lisping' Balinese officials have long since jetissoned 
their now-no-longer-prestigious [kn]s, and returned to the safety of 

"P.S. It is just possible that the change actually began to occur earlier, 
and was led by the previous president Sukarno, who may well have had the 
same pronunciation as Suharto, being also Javanese and older than Suharto. I 
never thought of asking anyone at the time, but I have never heard any 
comments to that effect. It would be nice to get the views of older 
Indonesians on this."


And from the sublime to the ridiculous or vice versa, Andrew McCrum 
observed: "The only similar instance I know of involves a stress shift 
amongst some British English speakers where the word harass shifted stress 
from the first to the second syllable. This, I believe, was introduced by 
the actor Michael Crawford whose catch phrase it became in the British 
television series 'Some mothers do 'ave 'em' about twenty years ago."

Likewise, Laurie Bauer identify several instances of cross-dialect lexical 
influence arising from specific television or film characters: "the use of 
'dude' as a term of address outside the US in the 1980s can probably be 
attributed to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Similarly, the use of the 
tournure illustrated in 'That's brilliant -- Not!' (discussed at some length 
on LINGUIST some time ago) was attributed to Wayne's World."

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