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Review of  Phonetics and Philology

Reviewer: Marc Picard
Book Title: Phonetics and Philology
Book Author: Jane Stuart-Smith
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Indo-European
Issue Number: 16.1701

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Date: Fri, 27 May 2005 16:38:30 -0400
From: Marc Picard
Subject: Phonetics and Philology: Sound Change in Italic

AUTHOR: Stuart-Smith, Jane
TITLE: Phonetics and Philology
SUBTITLE: Sound Change in Italic
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2004

Marc Picard, Concordia University

The purpose of this book is to analyze "how the Proto-Indo-European
voiced aspirates developed in the ancient Italic languages" in order to
demonstrate "how phonetic theory can be used to evaluate and
motivate accounts of reconstructed sound change provided by
philology" (p. 1). More specifically, given the following segmental
correspondences between Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and Latin:
PIE Latin
*bh f/b
*dh f/d
*gh h
*gwh f/k

Jane Stuart-Smith (henceforth JSS) sets out to determine what sound
changes could most plausibly account for these radical
transformations. Her basic tenet in this endeavor is that "phonetic
theory provides the key to this particular problem of philology, because
it seems to be the only way of establishing an appropriate route from
reconstruction to reflex" (p. 1).

In Chapter 1, the author lays the groundwork for her study of the
evolution of the PIE voiced aspirates in Latin and Italic in general. As
she notes, the main problem is that although philology, by which is
meant the study of texts in conjunction with comparative and historical
linguistic analysis, is a time-tested method for phonological
reconstruction, it is of little use in trying to establish the actual paths
that lead from a proto-segment to its reflex(es) in a daughter
language. In order to resolve what she terms "the route problem", JSS
proposes to bring to bear the criterion of phonetic plausibility which
is "evaluated according to two sources of information: phonetic
predictions for sound change derived from applying a phonetic model
of sound change to the sounds in question, together with an
assessment of historically-attested parallel developments of voiced
aspirates in Indo-Aryan" (p. 6).

Two preliminary issues are addressed in Chapter 2. The first involves
the controversial question of whether PIE really had voiced aspirates
given the widespread claims that no such segments can exist in a
language without its having voiceless counterparts. Although a few
Indo-Europeanists have posited the existence of a voiceless aspirated
series, while others have tried to remedy the situation by adopting the
so-called Glottalic Theory wherein the three traditional stop series *t,
*d, *dh are replaced by *t(h), *t', *d(h) (where (h) represents
redundant aspiration), no consensus has been reached on these
proposals. Thus, given that "[m]any Indo-Europeanists would accept
the voiced aspirates as part of an unusual three-series stop system",
JSS simply assumes that "the starting point of our development was a
series of voiced aspirate stops, realized phonetically as breathy voiced
stops, similar to those which are found in contemporary Indo-Aryan

The second issue has to do with the exact route that the PIE voiced
aspirates took on the way to their final Italic destinations. The author
notes that two principal explanations have been put forth in this regard
(with *bh serving as a model for the whole series): the one by Ascoli in
the 1860s whereby they were first devoiced (*bh > *ph) and then
fricativized (*ph > f), with Latin undergoing a further word-medial
development (f > b), and the one by Rix in the 1950s according to
which the voiced aspirates were first fricativized (*bh > *B) and then
devoiced (*B > f) except medially in Latin (*B > b). She thus sees her
task as trying "to identify the most plausible explanation for the Italic
development of the PIE voiced aspirates, be it one of the two existing,
or something different." (p. 29).

The third chapter, which is entitled "Philology: The Evidence for the
Italic Development" and which runs for well over 100 pages, aims to
establish the Italic reflexes for the PIE voiced aspirates and to answer
the three following questions:
1. Were the reflexes voiceless in word-initial position and voiced in
word-internal position in all the Italic languages?
2. What conditioned changes can be established for Italic?
3. How feasible is it to assume a common Italic voicing of word-internal

After an exhaustive examination of all the data relating to the complex
developments of the segments in question in the two main branches of
Italic, viz., Latito-Faliscan and Sabellic (Oscan, Umbrian, South
Picene), JSS arrives at the following answers to each of her questions:
1. It seems more than likely that the reflexes for the PIE voiced
aspirates in all the Italic languages showed a split distribution,
voiceless in word-initial position, voiced in word-internal position.
2. A number of conditioned treatments of the PIE voiced aspirates are
attested across the Italic languages, both by place of articulation of the
original stop, and by its position in certain clusters: following a nasal;
following a sonant nasal; and in clusters with *s or *t.
3. It is not easy to assume a common Italic voicing of fricatives word-
internally in a voiced context.

In Chapter 4, the author endeavors to evaluate the explanations that
have been put forth for the development of the PIE voiced aspirates in
Italic. Incorporating the findings from Chapter 3 into the Ascoli and Rix
models outlined above, she arrives at the following putative
PIE *bh > Proto-Italic *ph > *f-/*-B- > Sabellic f-/-B-, Latin f-/-b-
PIE *bh > Proto-Italic *B > *f-/*-B- > Sabellic f-/-B-, Latin f-/-b-

Moreover, she states that the distribution of the Italic reflexes makes a
third account possible:
Word-initial position
PIE *bh- > Proto-Italic *ph- > *f- > Sabellic f-, Latin f-
Word-internal position
PIE *bh- > Proto-Italic *-B- > Sabellic -B-, Latin -b-

"Phonetics, Predictions, Parallels" is the title of Chapter 5, and in it JSS
assesses the phonetic plausibility of these three proposed routes for
the Italic development of PIE voiced aspirates by resorting to evidence
drawn from phonetic theory, on the one hand, and observed parallel
developments in various languages, on the other. Underlying this
analysis is John Ohala's model of sound change which, in her
estimation, offers a motivated connection between synchronic variation
and potential sound change. More specifically, this model rests on the
premise that sound changes "result from the listener's inappropriate
processing of variation which in turn is a direct consequence of
universal constraints on the articulation, acoustics and perception of
speech" (p. 10).

Having thus applied the principles of this phonetic model of sound
change to the case at hand by first making a number of predictions for
change and then confirming them through observations of attested
parallel developments in the history of Indo-Aryan, the author arrives
at the following conclusions on the basis of which an evaluation of the
merits of the three proposed diachronic routes should now be possible:
1. Ohala's model of sound change is a reliable and constrained
predictor of possible sound change.
2. The traditional reconstruction of the PIE voiced aspirates as breathy
voiced stops is phonetically the most plausible option.
3. There now exists a body of reliable and independent information in
the form of phonetically-predicted changes supported by parallel
developments against which the routes for the Italic development may
be assessed.

In the sixth and final chapter, JSS sets out "to fulfill the explicit task of
the book, namely to provide the most plausible reconstruction for the
stages between the PIE voiced aspirates and the Italic reflexes" (p.
226). Her first conclusion is that Rix's account is the least phonetically
plausible, mainly because it presupposes a word-initial shift of *bh to
*B which she estimates to be unlikely on the basis of phonetic
predictions and parallel developments.
Of the remaining two scenarios, Ascoli's is deemed to be less plausible
than the third option which alone assumes that word-initial and word-
final voiced aspirates went their separate ways from the outset. This is
because "[g]eneral observations of the synchronic and diachronic
behaviour of stops often demonstrate predictable differences between
word-initial and word-internal position'" (p. 198).

As a longtime proponent and exponent of the importance of
naturalness in sound change, I cannot but applaud the author's efforts
to reconstitute the relative chronology of such a complex set of sound
correspondences. Too often, such correspondences are taken to be
the sound changes themselves by historical phonologists who seem to
lack any basic methodology for distinguishing the two. As I have tried
to show over the course of many years (see Picard 1994 and
references therein), any attempted reconstitution of the phonological
history of a language, be it in whole or in part, must be guided by a
fundamental principle which is that of the minimality of phonological
change. This major constraint on the nature of sound change, which
was first put forth by Donegan & Stampe, states that "processes
represent responses to phonetic difficulties . . . and each process
makes substitutions by altering a single phonetic property to remedy
the difficulty. Since the substituted sound should, in each case, be as
perceptually similar to the original target as possible, it follows that the
processes make will be minimal" (179:136-7). More succinctly, the
claim is essentially that "it is usual for change to proceed in small steps
which involve the alternation of only one feature at a time" (Bynon

The application of this universal principle to any set of
correspondences involving obstruents, as in the case at hand, will
ensure first and foremost that any change that affects this class of
segments can never simultaneously involve more than one one of its
three major phonetic properties, namely voicing, manner of
articulation, and point of articulation. On this score, the third scenario -
the one proposed by JSS - fares very well since the pathways she
proposes all conform to this constraint, albeit with one minor
adjustment. Thus, the shifts *bh- > *ph- (voicing), *-bh- > *-B- (manner)
and *-B- > /b/ all involve a single phonetic property, and although *ph-
> *f- changes both voicing and point, this can easily be remedied by
positing the well-attested (but often transitory) intermediate stage /P/,
i.e., a voiceless bilabial fricative.

Although the author's failure to give heed to these types of general
conditions on sound change has no serious negative effects on her
own analysis, it does lead her to posit a faulty assessment of the other
two scenarios. In ranking Rix's proposal below Ascoli's in terms of
phonetic plausibility, she overlooks the fact that the latter has *f going
to *-B-, a shift that must be considered implausible not only because it
involves two features (voicing, point) but also because it involves a
strident fricative going to a non-strident fricative, something that
violates another general constraint on phonological change.
Admittedly, Rix does postulate the opposite shift of *-B- to *f- but since
an intermediate /v/ would be a most natural intermediate stage, his
analysis must be deemed at least as plausible as hers in this regard.
Other factors, which I cannot hope to examine here, would have to be
invoked in order to resolve this question.

In sum, although the sheer exhaustiveness and consummate
professionalism of this study are highly commendable, the
methodology JSS employs is not one that promises to travel well,
especially when one has to deal with languages for which written
records are unavailable. Decisions about whether to posit this or that
particular intermediate sound change, which ultimately determine the
plausibility of a reconstructed diachronic scenario, should not be made
at a local level, as was done in the case at hand, but rather should
rest primarily on pre-established conditions and constraints on
phonological change.


Bynon, Theodora (1977) Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Donegan, Patricia & David Stampe (1979) "The study of natural
phonology". In Current Approaches to Phonological Theory, Daniel
Dinnsen, ed. Bloomington: IndianaUniversity Press, pp. 126-73.

Picard, Marc (1994): Principles and Methods in Historical Phonology:
From Proto-Algonkian to Arapaho. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-
Queen's University Press.


Marc Picard teaches phonetics, phonology and written communication
at Concordia University in Montreal. He has published extensively on
synchronic and diachronic phonology and morphology, particularly in
the areas of Romance and Algonkian languages.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0199257736
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Pages: 296
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