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  • For instance, in German you'll have Der Mann singular, Die Männer plural, instead of, say, Die Männen. It seems this is because you don't want to over-expose the speaker to the "n" sound.

  • In Spanish you have two versions of "and"; "y" and "e". The latter is used rarely when the word following on the right of the conjunction starts with an "i" sound. There is a similar idea for "or".

  • Closer to home, but far-fetched maybe, is the irregular verb "be". You don't have "he be, she be, they be", but rather "he is" and "she is" etc., which are all much easier to pronounce. (Of course, it only makes sense to make the most frequent verbs irregular in this way).

Is there a name for this phenomenon, where the language kind of builds itself around easy pronunciation? Alternatively, am I wrong about this idea?

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  • In the last example, that isn't why 'to be' became irregular, the 'is' forms come from a whole different verb altogether, and I don't see why 'he be, she be, they be' are difficult to pronounce. Jul 20 at 2:40
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Your examples are not about ease of pronunciation. There is a general but mistaken belief that it is "hard" to say forms that deviate from the social norm of a language. "She be" vs "She is" is a case in point. It's just as easy to say "She be" as it is to say "She is". You might not be familiar with dialects where you say "She be cookin'" rather than "She is cooking"; but I assume you don't have a problem saying "Whether she be rich or poor, I still admire her". It's not about pronunciation, it's about the rules of morphology and syntax.

There are some facts of grammar that have something to do with pronunciation, for example in English the use of "a" vs "an" (an before a vowel). In Korean, the nominative case marker is i after a consonant and ka after a vowel. There are quite a number of these rules in languages, where a particular morpheme has two forms, the choice of which is determined by some phonological factor. This is known as "phonologically-conditioned allomorphy".

The underlying causal explanation for such patterns is quite varied, and "easy of pronunciation" is generally not the right explanation. We know, historically, that the form "an" was the earlier form and what happened was that a rule of pronunciation was added that deleted n in the article before a consonant. The reason for this deletion is not that it is hard to pronounce n or any other nasal consonant before another consonant, it is that it is hard to hear the nasal before a consonant (and easy before a vowel).

Some phonological rules are historically related to acoustic challenges where it's hard to hear certain things, and some (such as the flapping rule where /t, d/ both become [ɾ] between vowels in words like "water, rudder") are about articulatory (and aerodynamic) challenges.

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The Spanish use of y vs. e and o vs. u can be classified as an example of sandhi and dissimilation.

Sandhi is a pronunciation change caused by contact between words (or morphemes), usually in a way that can be thought of as making the pronunciation "easier" in some way.

Dissimilation is a change of two similar sounds to less similar sounds.

Your other two examples in my opinion are probably coincidences.

German and -en

Männen is not a plausible plural form of Mann as no German noun forms its plural with umlaut and the suffix -(e)n. Umlaut in the plural is associated with the suffix -er or the ending -e or -∅ (German noun plural reconsidered Dieter Wunderlich,University of Düsseldorf, April 1999; The grammar and typology of plural noun inflection in varieties of German Richard Wiese, page 3).

Mannen is not completely unprecedented the way that Männen would be, but still, it is not a particularly likely plural form to begin with because the German plural suffix -(e)n occurs only infrequently on non-feminine nouns. Because Mann is not feminine, there is no particular reason to expect Mann to form its plural with -en, so the fact that it doesn't end in -en is not a strong sign that German avoids using -en after n. In fact, we do find -en after n in a number of German plural forms such as Allusionen or any word ending in the feminizing suffix -in (plural -innen).

English be

The irregular forms of the verb be have a long history that makes it seem unlikely that the present-day forms of the pronouns specifically influenced the use of is as a form of be.

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    There are pretty many German non-feminine nouns with plural in -en, they are called ‘weak declension’ or ‘N-declension’ nouns. Apart from some one-syllable nouns and the ones ending in -e in sg., there's a big group of nouns of foreign origin that have their accent on the final syllable. The foreign origin is often evident in the word suffixes (-ant, -ast, -ent, -et, -ist, -nom, -oph, -ot, etc.), e.g: *der Polizist, der Assistent, der Philosoph, der Despot, der Astronom, der Gymnasiast, etc.
    – Yellow Sky
    Jul 11 at 11:06
  • If there is "no particular reason to expect Mann to form its plural with -en", what particular reason is there for Herr to follow the weak declension? Maybe things in language do nor always have a particular reason.
    – fdb
    Jul 13 at 11:01

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