Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/December 1897/Processes of Change in Pronunciation

1391598Popular Science Monthly Volume 52 December 1897 — Processes of Change in Pronunciation1897Michel Bréal




PROFESSOR OSTHOFF, of the University of Heidelberg, has said that phonetic laws are blind and operate with a blind necessity. If, instead of this, he had said that these laws are constant so long as they are the effect of our habits, and that our habits, where nothing contradicts them, are manifested uniformly and regularly, he would have uttered an incontestable truth. But we do not think they are fatal or blind.

Phonetic changes start from one person. If they are not accepted, they remain without effect and are soon forgotten.

At such an age as ours, with a settled tradition of pronunciation, with our schools and academies, the individual has little power. But it has not been so always and everywhere. Suppose that, among a barbarous people, a man of authority and influence, whether by physical defect or from some other cause, commits a fault in articulation. It is imitated, in the family first, and then among the relatives and neighbors. The peculiarity of pronunciation spreads, and is more marked as it spreads; and if nothing occurs to interfere with it, a phonetic change is accomplished. But is there anything fatal in that? The change is very like those which take place in costume, or armor, or in the house; a historic fact, having neither more nor less of the character of fatality than other historical facts. It is true that if we go back to the initial cause we find on final analysis a movement of the vocal organs; but in what act of our life are not our organs the final motive? To assume fatality, it would be necessary to suppose that on a certain day the organs of speech of all the individuals of a group should be modified in the same manner.

There is a reason why the phenomena of language should be specially subject to imitation. Being a medium of communication, it would lack its essential condition if it varied as between one person and another, and would lose its right to be. Hence the necessity of a uniform pronunciation. But this is clearly a matter of social necessity, not of a physical fatality.

A phonetic change may be adopted; or it may be rejected, after a longer or shorter struggle; for peoples are composed of individuals who are not all of the same age, or of the same sex, or of equal education or social position. In the sixteenth century the Parisians were agreed in pronouncing s as r and conversely r as s; Paris became Pasis, and oiseau (bird) became oireau. The poet Marot made this matter the subject of a satire. The usage was contested as a ridiculous affectation, and went out, but not without leaving vestiges. The thick utterance of the incredibles of the Directory is another example of a merely passing fashion.

These fluctuations explain the otherwise incomprehensible variations of geographical maps of dialects. If we make linguistic charts of France in the twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, and sixteenth centuries, we shall find boundaries changing, one province growing larger, another smaller, and reverse changes perhaps taking place in the following period. Revolutions occur much like those of political power, but the two do not always coincide.

Phonetic changes may therefore be tracked. The interchange of s and r is thus traced from its beginning in Roussillon northward through France, till it reached the Norman islands; a second substitution of Germanic consonants, which established a difference between High German on one side and Low Dutch, English, and Scandinavian on the other, passed from south to north to the fifty-first and fifty-second degrees of latitude. The fact is thus explained that linguistic classifications are usually in harmony with geographical conditions. The Pushtu (Afghan language) forms a medium between the Indian and the Iranian; the Arcadian (ancient Greek), between the three Æolian dialects; the Greek, an intermediate point between the Persian and the European languages. The Sardinian is halfway between Italian and Spanish.[2]

There is no absolutely pure dialect. Every population is mixed, has relations with its neighbors, and receives immigrations from abroad. A nation is never isolated, or a province, or a village; but, on the other hand, the closer the boundaries are drawn up, the more frequent are the exterior relations, because the distances to be traversed are less and the means of making one's self understood are easier. Unity is not found even in the family, whose members are in contact with the outside world, but not all in the same way. And finally, when we come to the individual, we have unity of pronunciation and phonetics no more, for we do not speak or pronounce in the same way when we address a single one or many, when we are cool or under the control of passion, when in full vigor and freshness or at the end of a day's work. Nor do we do so when addressing a superior or an equal, for conversation is essentially a work of collaboration, and our interlocutor must have his part in it. We sometimes hear it said of some one that "he knows how to speak to a crowd." All these circumstances modify pronunciation.[3] The supposed phonetic purity of dialects will therefore have to be considered one of the fancies of linguistics.

The words of the same dialect do not all obey exactly the same phonetic laws. The matter is controlled in part by the principle of frequency. Words which we pronounce more frequently are by that very fact pronounced with greater facility; and pronouncing them more easily, we give less attention and effort to them. Examples of this effect of recurring use of words are furnished in the names of persons and places and in exclamations. Words become more subject to alteration as we pay less attention to the meaning of the different elements of which they are formed. As long as we perceive clearly the significance of the two parts of a compound, that compound remains intact. But from frequency relaxation of attention results, or rather the several parts cease to be distinct to the mind, and the whole takes on the value of a single sign, and phonetic alteration has free scope.

Agglutinative languages, like the Hungarian, are less exposed to alteration than inflectional languages, for each element has a distinct value which remains present to the mind. It would be a mistake to judge of the perfection of a language by the degree to which it has preserved the constituent elements of its words. The language performs greater services the further it is removed from its primary origin. A word is most perfect when it has reached the condition of a simple sign, letting the idea be perceived clearly without obscurity or refraction. Under all these considerations the laws of phonetics are not blind. It may be remarked, for example, that substantives change more readily than adjectives, participles, or adverbs, because the substantive passes more promptly to the state of a simple sign.

It is affirmed by M. Brugmanu that the change in pronunciation starts in the organs before it affects the words; but we can not accept it except in pathological cases. A child born with defective organs will hear and pronounce particular sounds wrong; but this fault, recognized as arising from some deficiency of conformation, has no influence on the development of the language. No matter whether it is corrected or not, nobody imitates it. Minute changes, on the contrary, which in the beginning modify the articulations so slightly that their influence can hardly be perceived, are the important ones, because they are contagious and keep growing larger. It is by changes of this kind, continuing and increasing from generation to generation, that words become shortened, syllables and letters are lost out of them, and the pronounced word becomes so different from the spelled one as to excite remark. In nothing else do we find better illustrated what a modern writer calls the little forces—forces which in the course of ages have differentiated the words of half a dozen languages from their native origins, and have marked the distinctions between the Germanic tongues.

If these changes originated primarily in modifications of the organs, the sounds undergoing the transformations would disappear from the language. Yet we find that the same sounds which are regularly transformed in a larger proportion of words are still maintained in some. Hence the cause of the changes can not be found in modifications of the organs. We still pronounce k in the same way and with the same organs as in the Roman period, although in many of the words in which it once figured it has become ch.

We may obtain some light as to the origin of these phonetic changes by studying a similar phenomenon in writing. The hieroglyphics on the earliest Egyptian monuments are veritable drawings of definite objects. The same signs are found on more recent monuments, but traced as in a current hand, in which the engraver or scribe only indicated the contours. It is very evident that the hand of the scribes had undergone no modification, and that their sight had not changed. Still less had the hieroglyphics gone out of use. The real and only cause of change was that the minds of the people had with the lapse of time become more accustomed to these characters, and that an abridged indication of them was sufficient to make them legible. It was therefore unnecessary to reproduce the detail of the figures, and all that was not essential was omitted. If the line of characters always presented an identical text, one of those unvarying formulas found in all languages, the abbreviations of the design would be still bolder. The hand and the eyes could easily run over these lines, the contents of which were known in advance.

The prime cause of phonetic changes is therefore mental. The word is a sort of vocal image impressed in the memory, the more or less complete reproduction of which is committed to our organs. The mind gradually familiarizes itself with this image, and no longer takes the same pains in reproducing it accurately, for it is sure of being understood. The will ceasing to watch over the organs, they follow their propensities. But if exactness becomes necessary, a slight effort of will is effective, the old consonants appear again, the contracted syllables resume their places, and we hear the word in its primary integrity.

While we have drawn our comparison from hieroglyphics, any movement directed by the will might have furnished a similar analogy. If we make the same gesture twenty times in succession, it will probably be less marked the twentieth time than the first.

Passing from one insensible change to another, it may happen that some sounds will quite disappear from the language, as has occurred, for example, with the liquid l in Zend, where it has been absorbed in r. If the organs in such cases seem incapable, it is not because they are different, but because they lack practice. If a Parisian youth is trained by an English governess, he runs the risk of having an English accent in speaking French. This does not prove that the conformation of his organs is peculiar, but that language has as much to do with making the organs as they with making language.

A third axiom is that the scale of sounds is never returned upon; that is, that when an articulation is once modified, it is never restored in its primitive purity. The habit of the Latin language is to contract its words; but domnus is at least as old as dominus, Hercles as Hercules, and valde as validus; and in inscriptions of the time of the empire, we find discipulina for disciplina, tempuli for templi, and liberitas for libertas. Change of s into r is one of the most general rules of Latin. But this change could not impose itself upon certain proper names, which fidelity or the taste for archaism maintained in their primitive form (Numisii, Papisii, Fusii). Speaking metaphorically, we might say that people avoided pronouncing these names in the same free-and-easy manner as the rest of the language. The law of substitution of Germanic consonants, which is usually taken as the type and model of phonetic laws, presents occasional examples of sounds returned upon. It would, however, be in our opinion a mistake to offer the substitution of the Germanic consonants as a fact that was accomplished at a given moment in the history of the Indo-European languages, and the direction of which can be fixed within the limits of two dates. Substitutions were going on all through the middle ages, as is shown by the manner in which Latin words are written in German, and is still going on, as may be perceived when a Bavarian or a man of Würtemberg talks French. Accustomed by the usage of their own language to a certain way of pronouncing the explosives, they carry the habit everywhere.

As to the origin of this phenomenon, it is hardly credible that a population should have agreed to disfigure the sounds of their language by substituting, according to their whim, hard sounds for soft, aspirates for hard sounds, and soft sounds for aspirates. It is easier to comprehend that an alien people, adopting an Indo-European language, should have brought to it the habits of its native pronunciation. A second substitution of consonants, which proceeded from the south of Germany northward, corresponds probably with a new afflux of foreign population, which, bringing similar habits of pronunciation to an idiom already once transposed, displaced the consonants in a new degree, but still in the same direction. The difference between the High German and the Low German and Scandinavian idioms may be explained in some such way as this.

A fourth and last principle of phonetic changes is that they are effected according to the law of least effort. In view of the causes already considered, the tendency of language is to economize effort, and consequently to replace sounds that exact some degree of energy with weaker sounds. Thus the Latin labials p and b become v in French; some letters cease to be pronounced; and assimilations take place in groups of consonants. If we should listen to a Roman of the second or third century from the foundation of the city, we should probably be surprised at the energy of his pronunciation and the intensity of his articulations. Yet it would be incorrect to take this as a constant rule. The shortening and the softening down of words do not always result in diminution of effort. New groups of consonants are formed in the course of changes, which do not require less expenditure, but sometimes more. Reduction of time is thus often attained at the cost of increase of effort.

Among other observations which escape the ordinary rules of assimilation or weakening are those lately studied in the book of Meringer and Meyer on Faults of Speech, in the shape of metatheses, contaminations, articulations, etc., one class of which consists in the interchange of consonants by shifting them from the syllables to which they belong to others, so that the displaced consonant takes the position of the one that has displaced it. Such steps taking place in an idiom without literature or education are as contagious as the others. It is in this way that the root spek, which gives the Latin spectare and the Sanskrit spak, is in Greek σκεπ, whence (σκέπτομαυ, σκοπός, σκοπέω), and in French the Latin scintilla, which should make échintelle, has given étincelle. The vocal image has been reversed.

In the laboratory of experimental linguistics which has been instituted in this college, these phenomena of phonetics will be subjected to a scientific study, the articulations of individuals will be examined at the moment they are made in the mouth; and by means of the instruments of Edison and Marey we shall be able to write the sounds, or rather they will write themselves, so that they will offer to the minute and protracted observation of the eye what the ear necessarily perceived in a confused and fugitive way; and thus a whole order of research and discovery is opened to linguists, however little taste they may have for physics and the natural sciences.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

In a book recently brought to light, De Naturis Rerum, or Concerning the Nature of Things, by one Neckham, who was some time in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century a professor in the University of Paris, the game of chess is treated entirely as a military diversion. The actions of the several pieces are compared to the military deeds of the heroes of old or to strategical devices in war. There are other evidences that it was played in Europe ordinarily or chiefly by soldiers. Among them is the presence of the chess rook (castle) in the coats of arms of twenty-six English families. It was discouraged by ecclesiastics about Neckham's time as a vanity and source of quarrels. One council, in fact, went so far as to order clerks excommunicated who indulged in it. For the same reasons John Huss is said to have deplored that he ever learned it. Neckham's account of the game includes a story of Louis the Fat, of France, who. when fleeing from Henry I, of England, killed a soldier who had caught his horse by the reins, saying that the king could never be taken, even in chess; and tells of several sanguinary feuds, with the loss of many lives, being occasioned by Reginald Fitz Ayman slaying a nobleman in Charlemagne's palace with a chessman. Neckham's book is a very curious one, covering most of the lore of his time, and treats of poetry, biblical criticism, astronomy, popular myths, birds, fishes, the structure of the earth, trees, compasses, fountains, animals, and many other subjects.
  1. An address delivered at the institution of the Laboratory of Experimental Phonetics in connection with the Collége de France.
  2. J. Schmidt, Vokalismus, ii, 182. Schuchhardt, Vulgär Latein.
  3. This is well understood in the theatre, and we may learn much from actors on this subject.