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Sound change and alternation


Cheshirisation, or cheshirization, is a term coined by James Matisoff to refer to a type of sound change where a trace remains of a sound that has otherwise disappeared from a word. The term is a neologism, i.e. it is not an established scientific term. It is used here to describe a process that is real but so far has no generally accepted name. The term rephonologization has sometimes been used to describe this process; see below.

Essentially, a distinction between two sets of words that was formerly expressed through one phonological feature (e.g. a particular sound) is preserved (or partly preserved) through being re-expressed using a different phonological feature. This typically occurs through two sound changes: One that introduces a modification of some sort, conditioned on the presence or absence of a particular feature, followed by another change that deletes or changes the conditioning feature.

A common example is Germanic umlaut. In many Germanic languages around 500–700 AD, a sound change fronted a back vowel when an /i/ or /j/ followed in the next syllable. Typically, the /i/ or /j/ was then lost, leading to a situation where a trace of the original /i/ or /j/ remains in the fronted quality of the preceding vowel. Alternatively, a distinction formerly expressed through the presence or absence of an /i/ or /j/ suffix was then re-expressed as a distinction between a front or back vowel.

As a specific instance of this, in prehistoric Old English, a certain class of nouns was marked by an /i/ suffix in the (nominative) plural, but had no suffix in the (nominative) singular. A word like /muːs/ "mouse", for example, had a plural /muːsi/ "mice". After umlaut, the plural became pronounced [myːsi], where the long back vowel /uː/ was fronted, producing a new subphonemic front-rounded vowel [yː], which serves as a secondary indicator of plurality. Subsequent loss of final /i/, however, made /yː/ a phoneme and the primary indicator of plurality, leading to a distinction between /muːs/ "mouse" and /myːs/ "mice". In this case, the lost sound /i/ left a trace in the presence of /yː/; or equivalently, the distinction between singular and plural, formerly expressed through a suffix /i/, has been re-expressed using a different feature, namely the front-back distinction of the main vowel.

Examples Edit

Before disappearing, a sound may trigger or prevent some phonetic change in its vicinity that would not otherwise have occurred, and which may remain long afterward. For example :

  • In the English word night, the gh sound disappeared, but before or perhaps as it did so it lengthened the vowel i, so that the word is pronounced /ˈnt/ "nite" rather than the /ˈnɪt/ "nit" that would otherwise be expected for a closed syllable.
  • In French, a final n sound disappeared, but left its trace in the nasalization of the preceding vowel, as in vin blanc Template:IPA-fr, from historical [vin blank].

Other examples:

Other names Edit

In a 1994 paper, Norman used the term rephonologization to refer to the same type of process, in the context of a proposed Old Chinese sound change that transferred a distinction formerly expressed through putative pharyngealization of the initial consonant of a syllable to one expressed through presence or absence of a palatal glide /j/ before the main vowel of the syllable.[1] Note that rephonologization is occasionally used with another meaning,[2] referring to changes such as the Germanic sound shift or the Slavic change from /ɡ/ to /ɦ/, where the phonological relationships among sounds change but the number of phonemes stays the same. This can be viewed as a special case of the broader process being described here.


  1. Norman, Jerry (July–September 1994). Pharyngealization in Early Chinese. Journal of the American Oriental Society 114. Specifically, the glide /j/ occurred whenever the initial consonant was not pharyngealized.
  2. Trask, R.L. (1995). A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology, Routledge.


See alsoEdit

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