Say, there is a word that used to be pronounced [ten] but gradually shifted to [tin]. I get it. There is always variety in how people pronounce words. Throw in some population dynamics, and the median of this variety gradually shifts over generations, the difference accumulates - and voila, a new sound.

What I just can't get is how could the same change affect not only [ten], but every other word with the [e] sound too? Even in drastically different phonetic environments (not just in, say, words that rhyme with [ten]).

How exactly does it happen, and why? Does it happen to most words simultaneously, or do some word(s) shift first and the rest follow? If the latter, what makes them follow instead of just retaining a different vowel?

Is there some psychological mechanism, or perhaps some kind of population dynamic, that ensures the regularity of sound shifts?

  • 1
    Not an exact duplicate (your question asks why, while the existing one asks whether it is true), but is still worth reading: Are sound changes regular? Oct 20, 2020 at 0:47
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    Your question is too broad and thus imprecise. The title asks "why" but the last paragraph asks "how". Each "how" could again be followed by a "why". But the second order "why" has a different answer from the first. The first one has to assume that sound is represented regularly. The recent question about feature hierarchies is awesome in this respect, but it is lacking the necessary physiognomic aspect. The "how" depends on external factors, e.g. altitude and latitude by one controversial hypothesis, or because a certain king had a lisp in another.
    – vectory
    Oct 20, 2020 at 15:14
  • May I ask what question about feature hierarchies you're talking about?
    – marcusque
    Oct 20, 2020 at 17:47
  • Many sound changes aren’t regular in that way – most sound changes are limited and occur only in specific contexts. Oct 20, 2020 at 19:45
  • @marcusque sure: linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/37351/…
    – vectory
    Oct 21, 2020 at 14:56

1 Answer 1


I consider this, by Labov, to be the current best answer – also see his numerous prior works on the topic going back to his 1980 LSA address (which I also recommend), cited in the references to the paper. "Sound change" is the product of at least two things, an initiation event, and propagation. On the one hand, there is regular sound change which is a gradual change in the realization of a phonetic property of a phoneme, for example voiceless stops may acquire an increased VOT. This is initially in the domain of perception, and I believe it is more about "sounding like others". Sometimes, those physical-realization effects end up becoming changes in phonemic category, especially when the difference over time is more complicated than "That's how we pronounce /ʕ/ (always)". If an automatic mechanical difference becomes a phonemic difference, then change in phonemic category can spread word-to-word – you learn that "can" has the vowel [ɛ] and "man" has the vowel [æ] (or whatever the situation may be).

So actually, the better question is, which sound changes are regular?

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    Re: "numerous prior works on the topic" — please consider adding some references. Oct 20, 2020 at 18:33
  • 2
    Labov is clearly the gold standard. A longer work that discusses sound change in many details, repeatedly, thoroughly, is Larry Trask's Historical Linguistics.
    – jlawler
    Oct 20, 2020 at 20:16

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