SoundAct:
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.

people

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

Kenyatta University, Kenya

Katerina Nicolaidis


Katerina Nicolaidis

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

Nina Topintzi


Nina Topintzi

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

publications

All publications associated with SoundAct will be listed here.

press

Research from this ERC project has been featured in the following articles online:

funding

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

contact

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

+49 (0) 89 / 2180 2758

sekretariat@phonetik.uni-muenchen.de

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