This isn't about sound change in general, but the changes that took place in the pronunciation of individual words. Does such a compilation exist? It would be interesting to know how divergent pronunciations developed, and how people pronounced certain words in earlier ages.

MORE DETAILS: What I'm seeking is something similar to the documentation on changes in orthography and semantics that exist in etymological dictionaries for pronunciation. This by its nature is more difficult, of course; but since linguists have been able to piece out the pronunciation of the words of languages long dead, it might not be impossible.

EVEN MORE DETAILS: Of course, changes in pronunciation might occur more frequently than changes in spelling, which would only add to the difficulty of the problem.

Why I ask is that certain words in English appear to have very peculiar pronunciations - ones that strike one as not being optimal in terms of how easy it is to say them. Semi-non-native speakers (such as for instance educated people in India, where I lived for a few years) pronounce words like distribute with the emphasis on the first syllable instead of the second, which to me seems an easier way to say the word. I've even heard some native speakers, unless they speak with great care, place greater stress on the first syllable than native speakers normally do. Was it always pronounced like this? I would think that far more variation might have existed in pronunciation, as it did in spelling, before communication and writing were sufficiently developed to make something of a standard variety possible.

Also English words tend to lack consistency in terms of pronunciation. "Finite" is pronounced differently when it's in the word "infinite". "Demoniac" is "dee-MOH-nee-ac" but "demoniacal" is "dee-mo-NAY-uh-cal". Words that are very similar in terms of spelling and language of origin are nonetheless pronounced differently. The schwa is far more common in syllables without primary stress than it was earlier.

I think I might find suitable answers to these questions if such a guide to historical pronunciation as I seek existed.

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    History is still going on, all over the globe. It's not a matter of reversion; it's more a matter of innovation and adaptation to new contexts.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 21:02
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    A good, large dictionary will cover diachronic phonology / pronunciation changes in the etymological section of each entry, in so far as the information exists. (Prehistoric etymology is exclusively about pronunciation, because no written form existed.) Etymological dictionaries can be a good source too.
    – Cerberus
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 21:33
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    there is a four-volume set "cambridge history of the english language" that probably has some articles on phonology. you may also consult R. Lass's "Old English Phonology"
    – user483
    Commented Jan 15, 2013 at 23:35
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    Or anything by David Crystal, especially his Cambridge Encyclopedias.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 0:33
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    Now, for the 20th century, this is rather doable - take various editions of Daniel Jones' Dictionary and compare them. A caveat: it described the RP only.
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jan 16, 2013 at 1:54

1 Answer 1


There is no exhaustive list as such. For a list of catalogued items:

A Historical Phonology of English (Edinburgh Textbooks on the English Language - Advanced) – by Donka Minkova

For probably the best account of how languages change: Language Change: Progress or Decay? (Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics) - by Jean Aitchison

For an exhaustive list of processes: The Handbook of Language Variation and Change (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics) - by J.K. Chambers (Editor), Peter Trudgill (Editor), Natalie Schilling-Estes (Editor)

One minor correction, I'd propose a change in the question. Maybe reword the part about spelling because it is completely arbitrary and has nothing whatsoever to do with language change. It is more a social - cultural - political phenomenon.

Ona major correction: "Also English words tend to lack consistency in terms of pronunciation." - This is simply not true. These are all rule governed. The fact that the rules are no longer used, or are masked by time, or that multiple rules are at work does not make pronunciation inconsistent.

  • The spelling isn't completely arbitrary, and the lack of consistency is in fact related to language change. Many of the spellings were becoming standardized during the Great Vowel Shift, and unfortunately, tended to standardize based on the pre-shift pronunciation. Then the vowels shifted, and the spelling didn't make sense, but, aside from some minimal attempts at fixes (which led to many of the discrepancies between British and American English spellings), nobody could be bothered to try to update them. Commented Dec 6, 2019 at 3:46

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