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Phonological change in the English language

Do you pronounce ‘dune’ exactly the same as ‘June’ or do you distinguish between the two? Discover how pronunciation changes can affect an individual word or English accents more fundamentally.

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:

“we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes because we hadn’t a wireless

The pronunciation of the word tunes here is very revealing. Many older speakers in the UK would pronounce a <y> sound in between the initial consonant and vowel of a word like tune or dune – so that they sound like ‘tyoon’ and ‘dyoon’ respectively. Younger speakers are far more likely to blend the consonant and <y> sounds into a <ch> and <j> sound respectively. Thus the word tune might sound something like ‘choon’ and the word dune might be pronounced like June.

Changes big and small

Phonological 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.

Nephew

Coke of Norfolk was the nephew of the first Lord Leicester

This speaker uses a <v> sound for the medial consonant in the word nephew, where most of us nowadays tend to use a <f> sound. The <v> is the traditional pronunciation for speakers of all accents, but is rarely heard among younger speakers nowadays. It is unclear why this change has occurred, but it is probably because of the spelling. Over the past 100 years or so, access to education has increased and thus more of us are aware of the written appearance of the word. A similar process has happened with the word if.

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 

Speakers are divided according to age as to whether they prefix the word historic with the indefinite article, a – in which case the initial <h> sound is pronounced – or by the indefinite article, an – in which case the <h> sound is omitted. This speaker is in the latter camp, and this alternative is becoming increasingly rare, particularly among younger speakers. The same choice is available with the word hotel, where an hotel (without the <h> sound) perhaps sounds increasingly old-fashioned. Interestingly in the USA the <h> is nearly always omitted on the word herb, but this is not the case in British English.

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

There are a number of words where a <y> sound – known as a yod – was historically present between certain consonants and an <oo> vowel sound in English. For most speakers in the UK, it is still pronounced after the consonant sounds <p, b, m, f, v, k, g, th, h> – as in pewter, beauty, music, few, view, cube, argue, enthuse and huge. Following a <l> sound the picture is a little less clear – pronouncing words such as revolution with a yod now sounds old-fashioned, although one still generally hears a <y> sound in salutation, albeit seldom in salute.

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.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.