Phonological change in the English language
If you overheard the following statement, the pronunciation of the word tunes might enable you to make a pretty accurate estimate of the speaker’s age:
Changes big and smallPhonological change – changes in pronunciation can come in a variety of forms. Some changes merely affect the way a single word is pronounced: older speakers across the UK tend to stress the first syllable in the word controversy, for instance, while younger speakers increasingly place the main stress on the second syllable, controversy. In other cases, the pronunciation of a particular vowel sound or consonant sound changes gradually across successive generations and thus has an impact on a large group of words. A change in pronunciation might initially take place only in one particular geographic location and remain local. Or it may over time spread nationally and thus affect all varieties of English.
Observing phonological change
All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. We can observe phonological change – a change in pronunciation patterns – by comparing spoken English at different points in time. The phonetician, John Wells, introduced in his book, Accents of English (1982), the concept of using a single word to refer to the pronunciation of a particular group of English words. He calls these word-groups lexical sets and uses a key word, such as BATH to identify them. Over the last 200 years, the pronunciation of words in the BATH set – words such as bath, grass, laugh and dance – has changed in some parts of the country. This gradual shift in pronunciation demonstrates perfectly a number of aspects of phonological change. In monitoring an ongoing change – one that has not yet been adopted by all speakers – we can track, over time, how that change moves gradually through the language itself, across geographical space and along social boundaries.
Click on a location on the map to hear how speakers in different parts of England pronounced words in this set 60 years ago.
Listen to these extracts of speakers using pronunciations that illustrate important, recent changes in spoken English.
Coke of Norfolk was the nephew of the first Lord Leicester
Other examples of changes possibly influenced by spelling include ate, and envelope: younger speakers tend to rhyme ate with gate rather than with get and in the word envelope the initial vowel tends nowadays to rhyme more often with den rather than with don.
An historic moment
an historic moment – not just for ourselves, but for all the women that had gone before
The omission of the <h> sound should not be confused with H-dropping, which is a feature of a number of regional accents of the UK and would apply to any word beginning with an <h> sound.
Superman and Tuesday
if so you’d be a superman and I’m not
Tuesday was, uh, for this for this; Wednesday was for that, you know; baking day and aught like that
After the consonant sounds <t, d, s, z> the situation is even more complex. After <t> and <d> some speakers retain the <y> sound – words such as tube and dune might sound a little like ‘tyoob’ and ‘dyoon’, particularly among older speakers or in careful speech. Many younger speakers, however, now combine the <t> sound with the yod to produce a <ch> sound and the <d> with the yod to produce a <j> sound – thus tube and dune sound more like ‘choob’ and ‘joon’. In the case of <d> this, of course, means pairs such as dune and June or deuce and juice become homophones. This process – known as yod coalescence – also occurs with <s> and <z>. Many speakers retain the <y> glide in words like assume and presume, although the presence of a yod in words such as tissue and visual is perhaps nowadays only a feature of extremely conservative RP speech. Tissue is far more likely to be heard sounding like ‘tishoo ’ and the medial consonant in visual is often the same as the consonant sound we use in leisure, while words like suit and super are seldom heard with a yod among younger speakers.
Speakers with an East Anglian accent famously avoid this <y> sound altogether and thus speakers of all ages here are united by pronouncing the word tune something like ‘toon’, news to rhyme with snooze and beauty is often indistinguishable from booty. Speakers in other parts of the UK (notably the South East of England, the West Country and the East Midlands) might retain the yod after some consonants, but not others.
Listen to the recordings on this site in Read and Nottingham for other examples of yod-dropping.
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