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Review of  Evolutionary Phonology

Reviewer: Jason Brown
Book Title: Evolutionary Phonology
Book Author: Juliette Blevins
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 17.743

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Date: Mon, 06 Mar 2006 13:57:55 -0800 (PST)
From: Jason Brown
Subject: Evolutionary Phonology

AUTHOR: Blevins, Juliette
TITLE: Evolutionary Phonology
SUBTITLE: The Emergence of Sound Patterns
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2004

Jason Brown, Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia

This book is a study of the diachronic and synchronic patterns in
phonology. The book consists of 11 chapters.


This book is composed of 3 parts: Preliminaries, Sound Patterns, and
Implications. The chapters in Part I: Preliminaries, lay out the general
assumptions and outline the theoretical claims of the book. The
chapters in Part II: Sound Patterns, address the issues of common and
uncommon sound patterns, and how to account for them. The
chapters in Part III: Implications, address the issues of Evolutionary
Phonology, and what the implications are for synchronic and
diachronic phonology, as well as other domains of linguistics.

Part I: Preliminaries
Chapter 1 What is Evolutionary Phonology?: In this chapter, the goals
of the book and the notion of Evolutionary Phonology (EP) are
outlined. The importance of diachronic studies compared to
synchronic studies (which are emphasized more in present works) is
stressed, as is the relationship between sound changes and
synchronic processes. The different types of explanation in linguistics
are discussed, along with the idea that a simpler grammar is one that
accounts for more things with less duplication. The working
hypothesis of the book is also laid out, namely that ''recurrent
synchronic sound patterns have their origins in recurrent phonetically
motivated sound change'' (pg. 8). The chapter then outlines the
various possible approaches to explanation: synchronic vs.
diachronic, and goal-oriented vs. not goal-oriented. EP is diachronic,
and not goal-oriented.

Next, the evolutionary metaphor used in the book is explained. While
central to EP is the concept that language change is a form of
knowledge transmission across generations without biological change,
and the concept of ''parallel evolution'' is also important, the author
warns that EP is not a theory based on natural selection. Finally, the
chapter ends on a discussion of markedness and the role of learning
(in EP, everything is learned, including phonemic contrasts, phonetic
detail, phonotactics, etc.).

Chapter 2 Evolution in Language and Elsewhere: The subject of
chapter 2 mostly involves evolutionary metaphors from the biological
sciences. The chapter discusses how ''language evolution'' is to be
defined in this study, where it is only used to describe conditions
within a 5/000-7,000 year time depth.

Variation is discussed, as well as the metaphor of natural selection
and the sources of natural sound change. While biological evolution
is generally conceptualized as things being passed down through
DNA, it raises the question of how languages evolve. In this case, it is
through individual to individual transmission (which can be noisy).
One claim of this chapter is that most all sound patterns are
phonetically motivated. This is where the CCC-model of sound
change is introduced. The CCC-model consists of the three
components Change, Chance, and Choice. The main goal is to
account for patterns that repeat and that lots of languages have. The
chapter also discusses the various reasons for similarities: direct
genetic inheritance, characteristics that aren't actually as similar as
they look, parallel evolution, and physical constraints.

Chapter 3 Explanation in Phonology: A Brief History of Ideas: This
chapter provides a brief history of 3 types of explanation in phonology:
historical, teleological, and phonetic. Historical explanations aim to
account for synchronic patterns in phonology by observing their
diachronic origins and pathways. Teleological explanations view
sound patterns as moving toward optimal targets, while phonetic
explanations look to phonetic detail as underlying phonological

This chapter shows how EP builds on the various existing
explanations, including the neogrammarian school, the Kazan school,
generative phonology and work in modern phonetics. While not
merely a re-synthesis of these earlier traditions, the differences
between these types of explanation and EP are also stressed in this

EP proposes historical, non-teleological, phonetic explanations for
synchronic sound patterns. It integrates the neogrammarian view with
the H & H (hypo- and hyper-articulation) model (Lindblom 1990) and
Ohala's (1981) model of sound change (i.e. no goal-directed sound
change). It also eliminates notions of markedness in synchronic
phonological descriptions. Finally, it finds no formal distinction
between natural and unnatural patterns in synchronic grammar.
These qualities are contrasted with other approaches to phonology,
such as natural phonology, underspecification theories, grounded
phonology, teleologically-based theories, Optimality Theory, etc.

Part II: Sound Patterns
Chapter 4 Laryngeal Features: The focus of this chapter is on sound
patterns involving laryngeal features. The distinctive features involved
include [voice], [spread glottis] and [constricted glottis] and their
phonetic variation. The specific problem to be addressed is
that ''segments with identical phonological feature representations
may have dramatically different patterns of distribution'' (91), such as,
for instance, pre- and post-vocalic aspiration. The chapter presents
two alternative solutions to this problem. The first is to abandon
phonological features by importing phonetics (Steriade 1993, 1997,
Kirchner 2000, Flemming 2001). The second is the view of EP, and is
to maintain the pure phonological approach, free of phonetic detail.
Under the EP approach, phonology appears to be sensitive to
phonetic detail because a phonological system is the transparent
result of phonetically motivated sound change. Sound patterns that
occur frequently (above chance) are due to parallel evolution; this
explains their patterns of distribution.

The author notes that ''phonological features show distinct patterns of
distribution which appear to be dependent, at least in part, on their
phonetic realization'' (95). Laryngeal features are more perceptually
salient in some contexts more than others. The overarching
generalization is that ''positions of contrast for a particular feature are
those in which neutralizing sound change is unattested, while
positions of neutralization are precisely those where phonetically
motivated sound change is common'' (97). Common sound changes,
like neutralization, tend to occur in less salient positions. These types
of changes make up the common distributional patterns of laryngeals
(i.e. neutralization). Just as common patterns can be attributed to
sound change, so can uncommon distributions.

Chapter 5 Place Features: The focus of Chapter 5 is on sound
patterns involving place features. The first area of discussion is on
the recurrent patterns that are found in the distributions of place
features. The chapter deals with release features (such as the major
place features [labial], [coronal], [dorsal]) and closure features (such
as retroflexion). For instance, word final neutralization of major place
features is common; however, word-initial neutralization of place is
unattested (while the behavior of closure features such as retroflexion
is the opposite, however). Some of the topics discussed are the
patterns of place distribution, the status of coronal as just another
place feature and not as the ''unmarked'' place, and neutralization
(both in final position, and in consonant cluster simplification).

Chapter 6 Other Common Sound Patterns: Carrying on from where
chapters 4 and 5 left off, chapter 6 is an overview of other common
sound patterns. In each case, a sound pattern is identified, then
examples are shown how the pattern can also be an example of a
sound change in some language. A phonetic explanation is then
provided for the sound change. Situations where both articulation or
perception as the source for sound change are discussed, and in
particular, sound patterns and changes that are not necessarily easily
describable in articulatory terms are discussed, as well as all of the
changes associated with each type. There is also a discussion of
structural analogy, and the conclusion is reached that it is not a
property of grammar, but a property of cognitive processes that give
rise to grammars. The chapter concludes with some unexplained
changes, such as the loss of utterance-initial consonants in Australian
languages, the phenomenon of y-accretion, and low vowel

Chapter 7 The Evolution of Geminates: This chapter addresses the
issue of how and why geminates evolve in phonological systems. The
author identifies at least 7 pathways that result in a length contrast.
These include assimilation in CC clusters, assimilation in VC or GC
sequences, vowel syncope between identical consonants, lengthening
under stress, boundary lengthening, the reinterpretation of an
obstruent voicing contrast, and the reanalysis of identical C+C
sequences. Also discussed are the issues of geminate inalterability
and integrity, the moraic or non-moraic status of geminates and

Chapter 8 Some Uncommon Sound Patterns: While the content of
Chapter 6 was on common sound patterns, the focus of Chapter 8 is
on uncommon patterns. Uncommon patterns are defined as those
limited to few languages, families, or geographic regions (and they are
typically patterns that push the articulatory or perceptual envelope).
In particular, uncommon segment types (clicks and pharyngeals) and
uncommon contrasts (voicing distinction on vowels, 3-way vowel and
consonantal length contrasts, and 3-way nasality contrasts) are
discussed, as well as uncommon syllable types and harmony/blocking
patterns. This chapter shows how these uncommon sounds and
sound patterns are typically the result of regular types of sound
change, paradigmatic pressures, or random events in cultural
evolution and world history.

Part III: Implications
Chapter 9 Synchronic Phonology: This chapter discusses the
implications of EP for the study of synchronic systems. As has been
stressed in earlier chapters, much of the explanation is placed in
diachronic terms. The first section deals with phonological acquisition
and argues that much phonological knowledge is learned. The
second deals with the relationship between sound patterns and
phonetic content. In particular, it deals with some traditional ideas of
generative phonology such as markedness constraints, structure
preservation, and the elsewhere condition. After this, the chapter sets
up what ''pure phonology'' is under EP (i.e. ''what systematic aspects
of synchronic phonology are left to be studied'' (251), since most of
explanation now lies in diachrony). The conclusion is reached that
very little universal phonology remains. EP is then contrasted with
other phonological models.

Chapter 10 Diachronic Phonology: This chapter discusses the role of
EP and diachronic phonology. The CCC model is shown to be
compatible with traditional views of sound change. Not only are the
mechanisms of sound change regular (like neogrammarians),
but ''their formulation as part of a general learning algorithm results in
typical regularity at the level of the individual'' (259). The chapter
considers typical ''markedness'' explanations, but points out that they
rule out patterns that are attested, and also do a poor job of
explaining why certain patterns are more marked than others.

Further claims of this chapter are that change is NOT teleological, and
is NOT driven by markedness. Related to this is the notion of
symmetry in phonological inventories. The claim of the chapter is that
phonetically motivated sound change is blind to symmetry: symmetrical
explanation is a post-hoc motivation for a symmetry-creating change.
Changes appear to be functionally or structurally driven, but rather
they are simply accidental or emergent phenomena.

Chapter 11 Beyond Phonology: This chapter expands the theory of
evolutionary phonology and provides historical explanations for the
distributional patterns of other linguistically significant units. These
include sign language phonology, morphology, and syntax.

With regard to the differences in modality between sign and spoken
language, the evolutionary approach has no problem in viewing the
spoken features as being replaced by visual features. It is claimed
that in other theories, such as Optimality Theory, there is a problem of
innateness in that visual AND spoken markedness constraints are

In considering the prospects for an evolutionary view of morphology,
phenomena such as morpheme order and scope, and paradigm
leveling and markedness are discussed. In terms of a possible
evolutionary syntax, the chapter focuses on cross-categorial harmony
(specifically the relations between word order and pre- and
postpositions) and the combinations of syntactic features that are
more rare (such as the rarity of tense on nominals).

The evolutionary approach is then summarized, and the important
observation is made that: ''One general implication of the evolutionary
approach is that most of the content of traditional descriptive grammar
constitutes learned aspects of human behavior.'' (312)


The book is extremely interesting and well written. It should be
interesting for scholars working in anthropology, evolutionary biology
and linguistics, and it is written in a style that is accessible to a wide
audience. A very positive aspect of the book is that it is written with
lots of argumentation based lots of empirical data and on several
typological patterns, all of which make the theoretical claims
understandable and believable. Another positive aspect is that the
book recasts some current debates in phonological theory into
diachronic terms. One example is the syllable-based vs. linear
licensing debate (cf. for example Steriade 1997, Howe & Pulleyblank
2001, etc.). The author carefully analyzes the relevant data, then
makes new and interesting proposals based on diachronic dynamics.

One of the most interesting, and no doubt controversial, aspects of
the book is the discussion of markedness. In several sections the
author launches criticisms around the role of markedness in grammar.
The author argues, for instance, that coronal is not the unmarked
place. This is in line with current criticisms of ''coronal unmarkedness''
(such as Hume & Tserdanelis 2002); however, the idea expressed
here is that there is no encoding of segmental markedness in
grammar at all. The author states that ''markedness and naturalness
are emergent properties of grammar, and are highly context-
dependent'' (129), a sentiment that is quickly gaining support in the
field (for instance, the notion of the emergence of phonological
features is discussed at great length in Mielke's [2004] recent Ph.D.
dissertation). It is just this type of re-evaluation of the fundamental
ways that traditional phonology operates that makes this book such an
incredible piece of work.

Even if it is at times only metaphorical, the discussion of non-linguistic
evolution will prove extremely informative to those not familiar with
many concepts. For instance, the discussion of adaptation using the
toepads of lizards as an illustration is helpful. The discussion of non-
aptations & disaptations (the latter illustrated by the case of a three-
way nasalization contrast in Palantla Chinantec) is also useful.
Finally, the meat of the book, the notion of natural selection in the
world of sounds, highlighted by the claim that ''adaptation occurs with
respect to a specific phonetic context'' (54) is highly intuitive and is
likely to carry great influence in the research area of language

Overall, Evolutionary Phonology is exceptionally written, well argued,
and should absolutely be on the bookshelf of any serious phonologist.


Flemming, Edward. 2001. Scalar and categorical phenomena in a
unified model of phonetics and phonology. Phonology 18:7-44.

Howe, Darin & Douglas Pulleyblank. 2001. Patterns and timing of
glottalisation. Phonology 18:45-80.

Hume, Elizabeth & Georgios Tserdanelis. 2002. Labial unmarkedness
in Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole. Phonology 19:441-458.

Kirchner, Robert. 2000. Geminate alterability and lenition. Language

Lindblom, Björn. 1990. Explaining phonetic variation: a sketch of the
H&H theory. In William Hardcastle & Alain Marchal (eds.), Speech
production and speech modeling. Dordrecht: Kluwer. pp. 403-439.

Mielke, Jeff. 2004. The emergence of distinctive features. Ph.D.
dissertation, Ohio State University.

Ohala, John J. 1981. The listener as a source of sound change. In
Carrie S. Masek, Robert A. Hendrick and Mary Frances Miller (eds.),
Papers from the parasession on language and behavior. Chicago:
Chicago Linguistic Society. pp. 178-203.

Steriade, Donca. 1997. Phonetics in phonology: The case of laryngeal
neutralization. Ms, UCLA.

Steriade, Donca. 1993. Closure, release, and nasal contours. In M.
Huffman and R.A. Krakow (eds.) Nasals, nasalization and the velum.
Phonetics and phonology 5. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 401-470.

Jason Brown is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of British
Columbia. His research focus is on phonological theory, with special
interests in the phonetics-phonology interface, phonological
representations, and feature theory.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521804280
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 386
Prices: U.S. $ 95.00
U.K. £ 55.00