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Sound change and alternation

In historical linguistics, transphonologization is a type of sound change whereby a phonemic contrast that used to involve a certain feature X evolves in such a way that the contrast is preserved, yet becomes associated with a different feature Y.

For example, a language contrasting two words */sat/ vs. */san/ may evolve historically so that final consonants are dropped, yet the modern language preserves the contrast through the nature of the vowel, as in a pair /sa/ vs. /sã/. Such a situation would be described by saying that a former contrast between oral and nasal consonants has been transphonologized into a contrast between oral vs. nasal vowels.

The term transphonologization was coined by André-Georges Haudricourt.[1] The concept was defined and amply illustrated by Hagège & Haudricourt (1978: 74-111); it has been mentioned by several followers of Panchronic phonology,[2] and beyond.[3]

Other tentative terms have been used to describe the same phenomenon – including rephonologization and cheshirization – yet with less success (see below).

Transphonologization resulting in a new contrast on vowels


A common example of transphonologization 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. This distinction survives in the modern forms "mouse" /maʊs/ and "mice" /maɪs/, although the specifics have been modified by the Great Vowel Shift.

outside Germanic

Similar phenomena have been described in languages outside Germanic.

  • For example, 17 languages of northern Vanuatu have gone through a process whereby former *CVCV disyllables lost their final vowel, yet preserved their contrast through the creation of new vowels: e.g. *mati vs. *mata vs. *matu transphonologized to /mɛt/ vs. /mat/ vs. /mɔt/.[4] This resulted in the expansion of vowel inventories in the region, from an original five-vowel system (*i e a o u) to inventories up to 10 or 11 vowels (depending on the language).

Nasalization of vowels

Compensatory lengthening

  • In American English, the words rider and writer are pronounced with a [ɾ] instead of [t] and [d] as a result of flapping. The distinction between the two words is preserved by (or transferred to) the length of the vowel (or in this case, diphthong), as vowels are pronounced longer before voiced consonants than before voiceless consonants.

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:

Tone languages

  • The existence of contrastive tone in modern languages often originates in transphonologization of earlier contrasts between consonants: e.g. a former contrast of consonant voicing (*/pa/ vs. */ba/) transphonologizes to a tonal contrast (*/pa ˥/ vs. */pa ˩/)
  • The tone split of Chinese, where the voiced consonants present in Middle Chinese lowered the tone of a syllable and subsequently lost their voicing in many varieties.
  • Floating tones are generally the remains of entire disappeared syllables.

Transphonologization resulting in a new contrast on consonants

Other examples

  • The prevention of sound change by a lost consonant in Lahu;
  • In Estonian and some other Uralic languages, when case endings are elided, the changed root indicates the presence of the case, see consonant gradation.
  • In Turkish, ğ lengthens the preceding vowel, unless when followed by another vowel (which it separates into another syllable) or consonant after /e/ or /i/ (which becomes pronounced as /j/ in such a case. In the Eastern and lower Ankara dialects, it is pronounced as /ɰ/.

Other names

Rephonologization has been used by Roman Jakobson (1931 [1972]) to refer to essentially the same process, yet the term didn't catch on, due to its ambiguity. In a 1994 paper, Norman (1994) used it again 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.[6] However, rephonologization is occasionally used with another meaning,[7] 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.

James Matisoff (1991:443) attempted the coinage cheshirization, as a synonym for transphonologization. This term jokingly refers to the Cheshire Cat, a character in the book Alice in Wonderland, who "vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone". The term “cheshirization” has been used by some authors (e.g. McWhorter 2005; Chappell 2006) but never really caught on, due to its opacity.


  1. ^ See Haudricourt (1965), Haudricourt (1970).
  2. ^ E.g. Mazaudon & Lowe (1993); François (2005):452-453); Michaud, Jacques & Rankin (2012).
  3. ^ See Hyman (2013), Kirby (2013).
  4. ^ See François (2005), François (2011: 194-5).
  5. ^ See Michaud, Jacques & Rankin (2012).
  6. ^ Norman, Jerry (July–September 1994). "Pharyngealization in Early Chinese". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 114 (3): 397–408. doi:10.2307/605083. JSTOR 605083. Specifically, the glide /j/ occurred whenever the initial consonant was not pharyngealized.
  7. ^ Trask, R. L. (1995). A Dictionary of Phonetics and Phonology. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-11261-1.


  • Chappell, Hilary. 2006, "Language contact and areal diffusion in Sinitic languages." In Areal diffusion and genetic inheritance: problems in comparative linguistics. Aleksandra Aikhenvald & Robert M. W. Dixon, eds. Oxford University Press, p. 344.
  • Dahl, Östen, 2004, The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity. John Benjamins, p. 170.
  • François, Alexandre (2005), "Unraveling the history of the vowels of seventeen northern Vanuatu languages" (PDF), Oceanic Linguistics, 44 (2): 443–504
  • François, Alexandre (2011), "Social ecology and language history in the northern Vanuatu linkage: A tale of divergence and convergence" (PDF), Journal of Historical Linguistics, 1 (2): 175–246, doi:10.1075/jhl.1.2.03fra.
  • Hagège, Claude; Haudricourt, André-Georges (1978). La Phonologie Panchronique. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Haudricourt, André-Georges (1965). "Les Mutations Consonantiques des Occlusives Initiales en Môn-khmer". Bulletin de La Société de Linguistique de Paris. 60 (1): 160–172.
  • Haudricourt, André-Georges (1970), "Les doubles transphonologisations simultanées", Actele celui de-al XII-lea Congres international de Lingvistica si Filologie romanica, Bucuresti: Ed. Academiei Republicii Socialiste Romania, pp. 315–317
  • Hyman, Larry M. (2013), "Enlarging the scope of phonologization", in Yu, Alan C.L., Origins of sound change: Approaches to phonologization, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–28, ISBN 9780199573745
  • Jakobson, Roman. 1972. Principles of historical phonology. In A. R. Keiler (ed.), A Reader in Historical and Comparative Linguistics. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 121–38.
  • Kirby, James (2013), "The role of probabilistic enhancement in phonologization", in Yu, Alan C.L., Origins of sound change: Approaches to phonologization, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 228–246, ISBN 9780199573745
  • Matisoff, James, 1991, "Areal and universal dimensions of grammatization in Lahu." In Approaches to grammaticalization, Traugott & Heine, eds. John Benjamins, pp. 383–453.
  • Mazaudon, Martine; Lowe, John B. (1993), "Regularity and exceptions in sound change", Annual Conference of the Linguistic Society of Belgium, Bruxelles: Linguistic Society of Belgium, pp. 1–26
  • McWhorter, John H., 2005, Defining Creole, Oxford University Press, pp. 12–13.
  • Michaud, Alexis; Jacques, Guillaume; Rankin, Robert L. (2012). "Historical transfer of nasality between consonantal onset and vowel: from C to V or from V to C?". Diachronica. 29 (2): 201–230. doi:10.1075/dia.29.2.04mic.
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