Paul Boersma’s writings on sound change

The following paper explains the Germanic consonant shifts as the result of “majority votes” on three optimizing principles (perceptual contrast, perceptual salience, articulatory effort). A change is allowed to go through if it would make at least two of these principles happy. The result for the Germanic consonant shifts is circular optimization.

Modelling the distribution of consonant inventories by taking a functionalist approach to sound change.
IFA Proceedings 13: 107–123.

The following paper is a shortened and colloquial version:

Modelling the distribution of consonant inventories.
Proceedings of Linguistics & Phonetics ’90, Prague, pp. 418–426. [Preprint]

The drawback of this “majority vote” optimization is that it is teleological (goal-oriented). In Optimality Theory, however, the same can be modelled with three constraint families (manner faithfulness, place faithfulness, articulatory effort), which exhibit majority-vote effects if allowed to be ranked freely.

Sound change in functional phonology.
Rutgers Optimality Archive 237, 38 pages.
Superseded by chapter 17 of Functional Phonology (1998).
Functional phonology: Formalizing the interactions between articulatory and perceptual drives.
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 504 pages.
A hardcopy edition is available from the author for free!
For more detail on separate chapters, and scripts, see Functional Phonology (1998).

So non-teleological circular optimization is possible, but is it also likely? This is answered in the affirmative (20 percent of the sound changes is circular) in the following paper:

2003 The odds of eternal optimization in Optimality Theory.
In D. Eric Holt (ed.): Optimality Theory and language change, 31–65. Dordrecht: Kluwer. [Abstract]
Earlier version: Rutgers Optimality Archive 429, 2000/12/13.

There remains one problem. The OT papers use “enhancing” faithfulness constraints like “the degree of voicing of a segment underlyingly specified as [-voi] should not be more than that of a typical [p]”. In the 2003 paper mentioned above, this constraint was formulated as a probabilistic faithfulness constraint, i.e. as “do not pronounce an underlyingly [-voi] segment as something that has more than 20 percent probability of being perceived as [+voi].” This formulation is explicitly listener-oriented, hence perhaps not entirely teleology-free. A reformulation within the framework of Parallel Bidirectional Phonology and Phonetics (BiPhon) would get rid of this criticism, because the constraints responsible for the enhancement would be cue constraints such as “a VOT of -20 milliseconds is not [-voi].” A first example of the evolution of auditory contrast without any teleology is the following paper:

2008 Paul Boersma & Silke Hamann:
The evolution of auditory dispersion in bidirectional constraint grammars.
Phonology 25: 217–270.
Material: scripts for the simulations and pictures.
Earlier version: Rutgers Optimality Archive 909, 2007/04/17.
Earlier version: Handout OCP 3, Budapest, 2006/01/17.

The same idea still works with neural networks:

2020 Paul Boersma, Titia Benders & Klaas Seinhorst:
Neural networks for phonology and phonetics.
Journal of Language Modelling 8: 103–177.

Some sound change occurs by lexical diffusion. A typical example is segment deletion, such as the change from English /kni:/ 'knee' to /ni:/. In a parallel bidirectional model of phonological and phonetic production, if the lexicon distinguishes between Meaning and Underlying Form so that Richness of the Base is in the Meaning, such lexical diffusion can occur in lexical selection:

2007/07/08 The evolution of phonotactic distributions in the lexicon.
Presentation Workshop on Variation, Gradience and Frequency in Phonology, Stanford. 32 slides.

A case study:

2007/10/27 Paul Boersma & Joe Pater:
Constructing constraints from language data: the case of Canadian English diphthongs.
Handout NELS 38, Ottawa. 18 pages.

A paper on Franconian tonogenesis, which is inspired by multi-level phonology and phonetics, but does not formalize it (for more, see Limburgian):

2018 The history of the Franconian tone contrast.
In Wolfgang Kehrein, Björn Köhnlein, Paul Boersma & Marc van Oostendorp (eds.): Segmental structure and tone, 27–67. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter.
Earlier version: Presentation NVFW, Antwerpen, 2002/05/24.

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