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THEORY: Sound changes in literate societies

From:Eli Ewing <celticslim@...>
Date:Tuesday, June 25, 2002, 16:05
I was sitting around thinking about some of sound changes that have been
discussed lately on this list (and some others that haven't), and I was
considering the possibility that the incoherent system of spelling in English
was based largely on sound changes that have occurred since English became a
written language.  But then I realized that there were some problems with

1. Other modern languages have been written for just as long, and often have
very coherent spelling systems.

2. Writing or not, English-speaking society really only became basically
literate relatively recently (as did most of the West).

So I began to wonder if literacy has any effect on sound changes at all, and
if so, what could it possibly be?  Surely, there are cases where sound
changes can fit within the context of a present spelling system.  Take the
word "bind" as an example.  If, over the course of time, bind began to be
pronounced as "bint," there would certainly not be too many eyebrows raised.
What if, however, a more dramatic shift occurred.  What if this new word
"bint" began to be pronounced as "bints" or "binth?"  Could a literate
society justify such a discrepancy from the normal pronunciation(s) of

My first inclination is yes, since sound shifts tend to happen uniformally.
Since every "-nd" would become "-nts" at the end of a word, it wouldn't even
appear to *be* a discrepancy.  This answer seems too simple, however.  Aren't
the following two options also possible?

1) The spelling of words keeps people from making such dramatic sound shifts.

2) The shifts occur, but rather than changing the pronunciation of letters,
people change the way they spell the word to reflect the shift.

I've also considered the possibility that option 1 is possible, but unlikely
because the society isn't literate enough, and option 2 is possible, but
unlikely because the society is too literate.  In other words, perhaps we're
at a point where neither of these options are really plausible because the
conflicting forces of literacy and illiteracy rule them out.

At any rate, contemplating the effects of literacy on sound shifts kept me up
last night, so I thought I'd see what you all say.



a. koch <k.aleks@...>
Nik Taylor <fortytwo@...>