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I'm working on a conlang at the request of a script-writer who wants something very accurate. No problem for me since I spent a lot of time describing minority languages. The point is, the producers request a very realistic grammar so that future episodes can be consistent. Fun.

Long story short, this conlang has several dialects. While the dialects are distinguished mainly by morphology and lexical differences, there are some minor phonological differences, too.

For example, there is a kind of uvular harmony in dialect 1 but not dialect 2

Dialect 1. xeqepo
Dialect 2. heqepo (x-initial words are disallowed)

Simple, right? Sure.

The question is, were this a natural, human language, which would more likely be the more conservative dialect (based on this particular property alone). i.e.: Is it more likely that there's a rule

h->x/_Vq

or like this?

x->h/_[word-initially

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    Spoken by H. sapiens. Hmmm. Is /h/ more or less "uvular" than /x/? In languages I'm familiar with that have front and back velars (e.g, Lushootseed), there are usually velar and post-velar [x] phonemes in contrast; /h/ is an outlier, and frequently deleted. So I'm not following the rules very clearly. At the least, we need a bit more information than an abstract rule.
    – jlawler
    Jul 17 '14 at 14:59
  • I'd say either of those rules is exactly as likely as the other. There's no way of determining by theory alone which is the more conservative dialect from that one feature. Jul 17 '14 at 16:31
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    Yes, I agree with @jlawler. Did you mean [χ] (uvular fricative) as opposed to [x] (velar fricative)? Jul 17 '14 at 16:54
  • Yes, sorry for ambiguity, I mean that h alternates with the uvular fricative.
    – Teusz
    Jul 18 '14 at 5:05
  • I understand that it is now way to figure out what dialect is more conservative. Fine! But as a linguist describing this imaginary language, would you differentiate between the <h> and the <X> in orthography? Or just make a rule that e.g. <h> in the context of uvular stop becomes <x>.
    – Teusz
    Jul 18 '14 at 5:06
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I started writing another comment, but I figured I'd just bite the bullet and turn it into a response...

It's not quite true that there's no way to figure out which dialect is more conservative; it's just that there's no way to figure it out with the one data point you've provided. As a phonologist I'd look for more data to support one rule vs. the other.

If there are other examples of [χ]-initial words in D1 that don't contain uvulars later in the word, and those words are pronounced with an initial [h] in D2, then I'd go for the second rule. If, on the other hand, there are in fact words that start with [χ] in D2, then I'd go for rule 1.

Note that by saying "χ-initial words are disallowed" you're basically asserting that the former is true, in which case the data point you gave does not provide strong evidence for uvular harmony in D1. Simpler to assume that the underlying form is just /χeqepo/. But if there is a word that starts with [k] in D2 that is pronounced with an initial [q] in D1, that would be stronger evidence for uvular harmony:

Dialect 1: qaqewa

Dialect 2: kaqewa

Or if there is evidence from morphology in D1, like a root that starts with [k] or [h] gets changed when a uvular-initial suffix gets attached to it:

Dialect 1:

i doku - 'one lathe'

wa doquqe - 'two lathes'

hahewa - 'I eat'

hahepi - 'you eat'

hahewe - 'she eats'

χaχeqa - 'we eat'

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