The Actuation of
Sound Change

ERC Advanced Grant
no. 101053194 (2023-2028)

In William Shakespeare's times, 'knee' and 'knot' were pronounced with a /k/, just like German does today. But why did English and not German drop the /k/? This question is part of the actuation of sound change, recognised as one of the greatest challenges in linguistics, and which is about explaining why sound change happens, and why languages can follow such different paths of sound change. The actuation puzzle remains unsolved principally because the beginning of sound change is so gradual that it is undetectable even with modern instrumentation. Yet a breakthrough is essential for explaining why languages split and diversify. The project remedies this deficiency by determining how the cognitive mechanisms that control human speech processing, the social factors that bind individuals together, and the phonetic properties that shape a community's dialect, can, in combination, cause the sounds of the world’s languages to become unstable and change. The methodological innovation is to recast the elusive actuation puzzle as an empirically tractable transformation of an input (A) into an output (B). Here A and B are two closely related, geographically proximal, living dialects whose sound patterns differ in whether one or more common sound changes have taken place. The actuation puzzle is then solved with experiments in human speech imitation and computational modelling in order to estimate which combination of cognitive, social, and phonetic factors transforms A into B. Generalisation is achieved by selecting dialect pairs from Bantu, Indo-European, and Japanese languages that differ markedly in their sound patterns and sociocultural background. The wider scientific impact lies in the commonality with many disciplines including ecology, economics, and geoscience in understanding complex systems (here: language) in which interactions between sub-components (here: communicating speakers) cause transitions (here: sound change) that are unevenly distributed in time.


Our team is composed of people coming from diverse fields of specialties:

Jonathan Harrington

Jonathan Harrington, Prof.

Laboratory phonology, sound change, development of speech databases

Yuki Asano

Yuki Asano

Hokkaido University, Japan

Fridah Kanana

Fridah Kanana Erastus

Kenyatta University, Kenya

Katerina Nicolaidis

Katerina Nicolaidis

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Nina Topintzi

Nina Topintzi

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Lisa Düringer
Franziska Muck
Katharina Neubert
Magdalena Saumweber


Cunha, C., Hoole, Ph., Voit, D., Frahm, J. and Harrington, J. (2024). The physiological basis of the phonologization of vowel nasalization: A real-time MRI analysis of American and Southern British English. Journal of Phonetics, 104. doi: 10.1016/j.wocn.2024.101329

Greca, P., Gubian, M. and Harrington, J. (in press). The relationship between the coarticulatory source and effect in sound change: evidence from Italo-Romance metaphony in the Lausberg area. Laboratory Phonology, 15/1. doi: 10.16995/labphon.9228. Preprint.

Burroni, F. and Greca, P. (2024, accepted). An exploratory investigation of phonological and phonetic length contrasts perception in Italian vowels and consonants. Speech Prosody, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Cunha, C., Kanana, F., and Harrington, J. (2023). Variation and palatalisation in the production of the plural prefix in Meru: a study of three dialects. Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of the Phonetic Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic.

Greca, P. (2023). Perception of metaphony: a comparison between two dialects of the Lausberg area (southern Italy). Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of the Phonetic Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic.

Bučar Shigemori, L. S., Franzke, R., and Hoole, P. (2023). Articulatory and acoustic analysis of coarticulated /u/ and /y/ produced by female and male speakers of German. Proceedings of the 20th International Congress of the Phonetic Sciences, Prague, Czech Republic.


All data connected to this ERC project will be made accessible to researchers upon request. We will collect large data bases of several languages that will be thoroughly transcribed and analysed.


This research is funded by European Research Council Grant no. 101053194:
The Actuation of Sound Change (2023-2028)
Awarded to Prof. Jonathan Harrington


Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Institute of Phonetics and Speech Processing
Schellingstr. 3 (VG, 2. OG)
D-80799 Munich

+49 (0) 89 / 2180 2758

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