There is a tendency in all of the world’s languages to drop word sounds, especially unstressed syllables. One example is the word for “winter” in Proto-Algonquian, “peponwi”, which developed into “aa” in Cheyenne, after a series of sound droppings1. So, other processes must take place in order to counterbalance this tendency. One such process is grammaticalization, which transforms content words into functional words. Eventually some of these functional words become affixes. That way, while some sounds are eroded, new sounds get incorporated into old words.

Are there other phenomena, besides grammaticalization, that compensate for the loss of sounds in a language?

  • 1
    why do you think "other processes must take place in order to counterbalance this tendency"?
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 21, 2011 at 11:20
  • 2
    @LouisRhys because if sound changes were only a matter of erosion, languages would eventually "wear away into dust". This is an exaggeration, of course, but you get the point ;-) Sep 21, 2011 at 13:36
  • maybe it is going to be that? Or there will be a limit where erosion will no longer be feasible?
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 21, 2011 at 13:48
  • My guess is that the level of ambiguity would become unacceptable long before that limit is reached. Take a look at @JSBᾶngs's answer. Sep 21, 2011 at 14:55

6 Answers 6


The most common ways to compensate for the loss of phonological distinction in a language are morphological: grammaticalization, as you mentioned, as well as compounding and borrowing. A striking present-day example of compounding occurs in English dialects that have the pin/pen merger, in which the compound "ink pen" has been coined to compensate for the ambiguity. This sort of thing happens frequently in all sorts of languages.

But also don't forget that phonological loss is often compensated by other phonological processes, as well. There is epenthesis and straight-up insertion. There is compensatory lengthening (as Cerberus mentioned), as well as nasalization, vowel harmony, and other phonological processes that can preserve featural information and distinctiveness even if segments are lost. It's not the case that phonological change is always destructive!

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    Random example: German past participle of essen (eat) used to be ge-essen, then gessen (loss of a phoneme), now it’s gegessen (straight-up insertion I guess).
    – Timwi
    Sep 15, 2011 at 14:44
  • I wonder which dialect is that. How they pronounce those words? Like pin or pen? Sep 4, 2014 at 8:38
  • @LưuVĩnhPhúc, many dialects from the south and west of America pronounce "pin" and "pen" the same. Their pronunciation sounds more like "pin" in the standard dialect. Sep 4, 2014 at 18:25

I'm shocked to see that no-one has mentioned Chinese. Chinese has undergone some severe sound changes going from Middle Chinese to modern Mandarin. There is a famous poem constructed in Classical Chinese so that when pronounced in Mandarin, all the words are [ʂʐ̩], with varying tones. The Wikipedia page linked to also gives pronunciations in the other varieties of Chinese; the number of syllables distinguished in Cantonese is closest to the number distinguished in Middle Chinese.

So how has Chinese coped in the face of such homophony? Well, in Mandarin, one notices that there are more polysyllabic common words than in other dialects (or, indeed, Classical Chinese): homophonous monosyllabic words were replaced by compound words in order to disambiguate. For example, the word for ‘tooth’ in Mandarin is 牙齒 [ja˧˥tʂʰʐ̩˨˩˦], ostensibly a compound of 牙 (‘tooth’) and 齒 (‘tooth’); in Cantonese, the word is just 牙 [ŋɐː˧˩]. This happens in English too, as JSBᾶngs points out.

  • I knew that poem! It's very nice. :)
    – Alenanno
    Sep 25, 2011 at 15:10

There can be sound splits in languages, which develop new phonemes ex nihilo. One example of such a development is the history of the fricatives /f θ s/ in English, which were not distinguished from /v ð z/. Specifically, the unvoiced fricatives were pronounced as voiced when occurring between voiced segments. With the Norman conquest and the concomitant influx of French loanwords with a phonemic difference between /f θ s/ and /v ð z/ (like vile contrasting with native file), English began to distinguish between these two classes of sounds, as it does today.

  • Can you add an example to your answer?
    – Mitch
    Sep 21, 2011 at 11:35
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    @Mitch, isn't the it about English and French an example of a sound split? What more information would you like to see?
    – Aaron
    Sep 21, 2011 at 15:23
  • I mean an example or two of specific words in Old English/Modern English, Old French/Modern French (or whatever is useful) with these specific changes that you describe. Is this the example of OE heofon -> E heaven? If so then give the example with the French context (does it work word final too?) Not everyone knows OE/OF/French, so it is better to explain with specific examples that confirm the rule.
    – Mitch
    Sep 21, 2011 at 15:51
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    @Mitch, it is difficult to illustrate the rule with individual words. The fact is, Old English had only one sound /f/ that was sometimes pronounced [f] and sometimes [v]. After some internal changes and some contact with French, English grew a sound /v/ that is different than /f/. I edited the answer to try to make this more perspicuous by showing one loan word which has this contrast. Does this help?
    – Aaron
    Sep 21, 2011 at 21:21
  • thanks that helps. But if there's actually only one word with this phenomenon, how can you possibly make a claim that it is a general rule, much less generalize the rule to other fricatives?
    – Mitch
    Sep 21, 2011 at 22:51

A common way in which the loss of a sound is compensated for is by changing the sounds around it according to fixed rules. Consider the s of the Greek aorist:

  • Root angel- ("announce")
  • Sigmatic aorist suffix -s-
  • Resulting aorist stem angel-s- => angeil-

The e is lengthened and closed to compensate for the lost s: ei. As a result, the changed vowel in the stem clearly indicates that the aorist aspect has been added to the root, without the actual aorist s actually being present.


There's a sound change process (that can be seen as compensatory) where the merging of phonemes causes what used to be conditioned variation to be contrastive. I'll use an example from Chinese:

  1. Middle Chinese had 4 tonal categories (although one of the "tones" was really just that the syllable ended in a stop consonant).

  2. Middle Chinese also had a voicing distinction. The voiced register included syllables that started with vowels, sonorants, and voiced consonants. The unvoiced register syllables started with unvoiced-unaspirated and unvoiced-aspirated consonants.

  3. Presumably the phonetic realizations of the tones was influenced by the voicing of the initial consonants. This was not contrastive though, just conditioned variation.

  4. Most Chinese 'dialects' have lost truly voiced initial stops. However, in some of the daughter languages, this caused the (formerly conditioned) variation in tone to become contrastive, resulting in 8 tonal categories.

    • In Middle Chinese, and had the same final and tone, but started with a /p/ and with a /b/.

    • In Cantonese, and have the same initial and final, but is 1st tone and is 4th tone.


I would resist calling the mergers distructive as well. Certainly the which/witch merger doesn't cause much confusions. Most people don't even know that there used to be a pronunciation distinction between those two spellings. Also, my cot/caught merger only causes confusion when I'm trying to dicuss American vowel changes with students or colleagues.

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