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In some Semitic languages, the consonant w seems to have become y (a palatal glide) in certain positions: for example Arabic walid "newborn", Hebrew yeled "child", or Arabic waraq "leaves, foliage", Hebrew yaroq "green".

Are there any theories on the mechanism of this change? I ask because w > y (labial to coronal/palatal) doesn't seem like a very common trajectory.

Thanks for any info

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    I don't have enough info for a full answer but one explanation could be that the w was first lost altogether, and then a prosthetic y took its place. – Nikolay Ershov Jan 22 '15 at 15:51
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    I don't know of any parallels for w > y, but it doesn't seem too phonetically implausible; maybe it went through an intermediate stage as a fronted rounded glide (as in French lui). – TKR Jan 22 '15 at 18:39
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    Another idea could be dissimilation after the conjunction "and": wa-w... > wa-y..., which then got generalized. (I have no evidence for this, though.) – TKR Jan 22 '15 at 18:41
  • @TKR You're right that the vowel [u] is often fronted to [y] or similar (Greek, French, Icelandic), but when has this happened to the consonantal form of [u], i.e. [w]? (French has a couple of words where [y] appears before a vowel (lui, huître), but was [u] the stressed vowel in these words when it was fronted, or had the stress already shifted to the following vowel?) – user8017 Feb 2 '15 at 1:37
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    Middle Chinese has a very well-known trajectory from front rounded glides to /y/, /w/ and /j/ e.g. 元 /ŋʉɐn/ [level tone] > Standard Mandarin /y̯ɛn³⁵/, Standard Cantonese /jyːn²¹/, Shanghainese /n̠ʲø²³/, but Hakka /ɲi̯en¹¹/, and then Fuzhounese /ŋuoŋ⁵³/ and Amoy [Xiamen] Hokkien /guan²⁴/. – Michaelyus Aug 15 '17 at 11:52
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In Canaanaic (which includes Hebrew) and Aramaic, Semitic w normally becomes y in initial position only. The notable exception is the conjunction wa "and". Usually historic sound changes do not have any identifiable rationale.

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    Thanks for the additional info. However, I don't agree with you about the lack of identifiable rationale: plenty of sound changes (perhaps most) involve factors such as increased articulatory ease (k > tʃ before front vowels), perceptual clarity (dissimilation, metathesis), etc. – user8017 Jan 22 '15 at 12:50
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    I would describe those as rationalisations rather than rationales: they are ex post facto explanations which are plausible, but untestable. – Colin Fine Jan 22 '15 at 22:44
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    They seem no more inherently untestable than "rationalisations" for e.g. the cause of earthquakes or certain diseases. While not all sound changes easily lend themselves to explanations like ease of articulation, some do, and I see no reason to exempt sound changes (as a category) from causal investigation. – user8017 Aug 14 '17 at 21:09
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This is described in The Semitic Languages: An International Handbook, p. 432:

Two characteristic sound changes are generally accepted as NWS [North-West Semitic] isoglosses (Blau 1978, 35), but they are both very natural and have at least sporadic parallels in other Semitic idioms: first, due to weak labial articulation, word-initial */w/ became /y/ (e.g., *√wrd > √yrd 'to come') excluding the conjunction /wa-/ 'and' (where /w/ was supposedly felt as word-medial) and some other lexemes.

Weninger, Stefan, Janet C. E. Watson, Michael P. Streck, and Geoffrey Khan. 2011. The Semitic Languages : An International Handbook. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, 2011. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed August 14, 2017).

The reference to Blau is to Hebrew and North West Semitic: Reflections on the classification of the Semitic languages, which does not explain reasons for the sound change but uses it to argue the unity of the language group, "since it is not easy to explain it phonetically".

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Sound change seems to be licensed not only by gradient changes of place of articulation but also by percieved similarity between an "easier" and a "less easy" sound. Of course, which sounds are easier is not always quite rational. An example of this would be German x/ç --> f, which has radically different place of articulation, but sounds similar. Something like that might have happened.

Another explanation for seemingly random sound changes is of course that both sounds are innovations and that originally there was one that was more similar to both of them.

The fact that sound changes don't have a provable rationale, as fdb mentions, doesn't mean that there aren't any reasons or regularities at all for sound change, and there are indeed some sound changes which you encounter regularly and some that are virtually unheard of, unless you assume some intermediate steps. For example, PIE /s/ --> Albanian /gj/ or PIE /sw/ --> Albanian /d/ are so strange that there are, as far as I'm aware, no scholars maintaining that this happened in one step.

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  • How are you distinguishing "rationale" in this context ("sound changes don't have a provable rationale") from "reasons" ("... doesn't mean that there aren't any reasons ... for sound change")? I'm not sure that I disagree with you, I just don't understand why sound change would be any more causally opaque than other historical events such as earthquakes, population movements, etc. (I don't mean all documented sound changes, but sound change in general.) – user8017 Mar 15 '15 at 6:01
  • @user8017 This might be due to English not being my native language. I thought the difference was that "sound change has an identifiable rationale" means "we can find out why people decided to do x and there was one reason they did it", whereas "there are reasons for sound change" just means that there seems to have been some kind of reason, although we might not be able to prove it with scientific certainty. – user9315 Mar 15 '15 at 11:12
  • You quote a sound change German x/ç --> f, can you give examples or evidence for this one? I am aware of the opposite direction /f/ -> /x/ (conditioned by a following /t/): High German Graben, Grube, -> Dutch Gracht. – jk - Reinstate Monica Aug 14 '17 at 12:47
  • @jknappen: I wonder if sgf intended to say "Germanic x --> f" and was talking about things like "laugh" in English (although as far as I know, Old English [ç] never corresponds to modern English /f/). – brass tacks Aug 14 '17 at 18:54

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