LINGUIST List 2.444

Wed 28 Aug 1991

Disc: Wh-, Sound Change

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  1. "Michael Kac", Comment by Tom Lai
  2. Fan mail from some flounder?, Re: Wh-, Sound Change
  3. Jack Rea, 'wh' words
  4. bert peeters, Sound change

Message 1: Comment by Tom Lai

Date: Mon, 26 Aug 91 17:13:01 -0500
From: "Michael Kac" <>
Subject: Comment by Tom Lai
In response to my comment about non-occurring sound changes, Tom Lai asks
if phoneticians/phonologists don't view all combinations of speech sounds as
possible. Being neither, I won't speak for them except to say that there IS
a general consensus that certain combinations are more natural than others
(e.g. nasal-stop sequences in which the two segments share point of articu-
lation). Some linguistic changes appear to clearly move in the direction of
increasing naturalness in this sense, palatalization before front vowels be-
ing an example. Lots of languages from many different families have undergone
this kind of change at some point in their histories (indeed, there's even
some in the history of English); but then the question is, why do relative-
ly less natural configurations persist?
It is quite possible that social explanations can be found in some cases,
but then we find ourselves confronting the opposite question: if social
forces are sufficient to counteract linguistic change, why does linguistic
change nonetheless occur?
Michael Kac
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Message 2: Re: Wh-, Sound Change

Date: Mon, 26 Aug 1991 13:58 EST
From: Fan mail from some flounder? <>
Subject: Re: Wh-, Sound Change
With regard to John Lawler's comment, Joe Emonds wrote a paper a long time ago
suggesting that Grimm's Law in fact *did* go the other way. I don't know if it
was ever published.
With regard to WH in ASL, the signs for WHO and probably WHY are derived from
fingerspelling (I had an older informant from a deaf family who still signs all
the letters in WHO, albeit in front of his mouth). I believe that the fact that
*some* ASL WH-signs use the index finger is largely an accident, a change that
is fueled by the fact that the "1" handshape is relatively unmarked
phonologically (for example, it is one of only 6 handshapes that can serve as a
distinct base hand)
Susan Fischer
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Message 3: 'wh' words

Date: Mon, 26 Aug 91 15:03:59 EDT
From: Jack Rea <JAREA%UKCC.uky.eduRICEVM1.RICE.EDU>
Subject: 'wh' words
Perhaps the seeming plethora of words beginning in English with 'wh-'
and used as interrogatives can be reduced a bit by remembering that
three of these Modern English words were actually different forms of
a single word in Old English (and so on back via Germanic to IE).
Modern English 'who' comes from the OE nominative case, masc & fem,
essentially; 'what' is the neuter nom. + acc. case originally (hence
a nice 'inside joke' is to ask, "What is the first word of _Beowulf_";
'why' is the instrumental -- sort of equivalent to 'what for'. It is
typically assumed, given the nature of IE words, that 'when' and 'where'
represent developments of this same root (call it -kwa-_, although we
might wish to footnote the use of a sequence /kw/ for what has usually
been taken as a unit labialized velar phoneme, and I omit detail on
what other ingredients that root may have had, say length or an additional
phoneme); to that root IE may have suffixed something now represented by
<r> and <n> to make the ancestors of 'where' and 'when', suffixes (or root
extension if you will) also found attached to 'there' and 'then'. This
helps reduce the 'coincidence' of having so many interrogatives starting
with the same letters. Although the labialized velar in question (no pun
intended) usually is represented by the spelling <qu> in Latin, with the
result that interrogatives in Latin typically start with that sequence,
this was changed to a simple velar in instances before rounded vowel,
hence _cur_ 'why'.
 Anthony Boucher (pseud), wrote a novel,_Seven of Calvary_ in which the
principal crime-solver (on a campus) is a professor of Sanskrit. In the
olden days that qualified one as a linguist.
 Wm. Bull, linguist at UCLA some years ago, had a pre-teen aged son
who once said, "Syntax sure is a whipped cream dog." Those who knew of
this understood it, and agreed.
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Message 4: Sound change

Date: Tue, 27 Aug 91 12:17:23 +1000
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: Sound change
John M. Lawler writes:
>We con't understand why any of them occurred, even when we've got
>tons of data on them.
Interesting typo: Shall I understand "we won't" or "we can't"? :-)
More seriously:
>we have no theory whatsoever (...)
>that will allow us even to explain
>ex post facto (...) that there would be
>some benefit to an individual speaker of a language....
I think we are asking for the wrong explanation here. What we should determine
is not for what purpose a language change occurred, but why. In other words.
I don't believe in teleology. Language change occurs not because the resulting
system is easier, but because the previous one was not easy enough. (That is,
in a nutshell, the idea I develop in a note published in _Folia linguistics_
in 1986.)
>it may
>perhaps be that language change simply isn't the same kind of thing
>as biological evolution. What I find uncomfortable is that we
>don't even know whether *that's* true.
I have argued (_Language sciences_, 1991) that the two kinds of evolution
cannot be compared. Language is not some sort of organism that evolves.
Dr Bert Peeters Tel: +61 02 202344
Department of Modern Languages 002 202344
University of Tasmania at Hobart Fax: 002 202186
GPO Box 252C
Hobart TAS 7001
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