When does a (sound) change stop progressing?

While the default model of a sound change is an incremental shift from one variant to another, there are cases when a sound change in progress fails to go to completion, or even reverses.

  • Thu 5 Oct 17

    16:00 - 18:00

  • Colchester Campus


  • Event speaker

    Dr Lauren Hall-Lew

  • Event type

    Lectures, talks and seminars

  • Event organiser

    Language and Linguistics, Department of

  • Contact details

    Victoria Mead

Such cases are surprising if we view the mechanism of sound change propagation to be “an automatic consequence of interaction” (Trudgill 2004:28), interrupted only in exceptional cases by things like “deliberate linguistic divergence.”

Our model of sound change must be more nuanced than this, because it seems unlikely that “deliberate,” i.e., conscious, acts of divergence would arrest wide-spread changes in progress. In fact, the “automaticity” of linguistic convergence is itself social, because agency is orthogonal to consciousness and deliberate action (Eckert 2016).

What follows from this perspective is that both the steady propagation of sound changes as well as cases in which they slow down, stop before completion, or reverse, are fundamentally social.

Further, I suggest that the theoretical contrast between social meaning as a motivating factor and social meaning as parasitic on change (Trudgill 2008) may be a distraction from understanding the “total linguistic fact” (Silverstein 1985).

While some have conducted close social analyses of linguistic innovators (e.g., Labov 2001), in this talk I review the current body of evidence on cases where speakers appear to be resisting sound change, and introduce some ideas from research outside of linguistics on reversals of social change.

Drawing particularly on vowel data from San Francisco’s Sunset District, I argue that cases of sound changes slowing, pausing, or reversing are a part of speakers’ responses to major social changes in their local community.

To make this argument, I suggest that a full understanding of sound change is not possible if we cleave to the dichotomies of automaticity and intentionality, positivism and interpretivism, ‘correlational’ and ‘interactional’ sociolinguistics (Gumperz 1972; Gal 2016:456), or one wave and another (Eckert 2012).

Rather, progress in the field of language variation and change will be made by taking advantage of the broad range of methodological and theoretical perspectives we now have access to, and applying them with equal respect and rigor to answering our core theoretical questions.


  • Eckert, Penelope. 2012. Three Waves of Variation Study: The Emergence of Meaning in the Study of Sociolinguistic Variation. Annual Review of Anthropology 41: 87–100.
  • Eckert, Penelope. 2016. Variation, meaning and social change. In Nikolas Coupland (ed.), Sociolinguistics: Theoretical Debates. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 68–85.
  • Gal, Susan. 2016. Labov in anthropology. Journal of Sociolinguistics 20(4): 453–463.
  • Gumperz, John J. 1972. Introduction. In John J. Gumperz and Dell Hymes (eds.), Directions in Sociolinguistics. New York: Holt. 1–31.
  • Labov, William. 2001. Principles of Linguistic Change: Social Factors. Language in Society, Vol 2. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Silverstein, Michael. 1985. Language and the Culture of Gender: At the Intersection of Structure, Usage, and Ideology. In Elizabeth Mertz and Richard Palmentiers (eds.), Semiotic Mediation. New York, NY: Academic Press. 219–259.
  • Trudgill, Peter. 2004. New-dialect formation: The inevitability of colonial Englishes. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  • Trudgill, Peter. 2008. Colonial dialect contact in the history of European languages: On the irrelevance of identity to new-dialect formation. Language in Society, 37(02): 241–254.