PPC2: Evolutionary approaches to phonology: New goals and new methods (in diachrony and panchrony)

Evolutionary approaches to phonology: new goals and new methods

- Scientific issue and research goals

Evolutionary approaches in phonology are currently developing at a fast rate. In addition to publications by the founder of Evolutionary Phonology (Blevins 2004, 2006, Blevins and Wedel 2009), we consider these approaches to include fine-grained sociolinguistic approaches to change (Labov 1994, 2001) and structural approaches to diachrony (Martinet 2005; Hyman 1975, 1978). The most ambitious formulation within this field is the panchronic program (seminal article: Haudricourt 1940; a book-length attempt at synthesis was proposed by Hagège and Haudricourt 1978; epistemological discussion: Mazaudon and Michailovsky 2007). Its aim is to formulate universal laws of sound change, independent of any specific language group.

Method, analysis and predictions:

So far, the panchronic program has only led to fragmentary realizations, due to practical difficulties which can now partially be addressed through collaborations within the framework of the present project.

(i) The dramatic growth in case studies on language change: A posteriori, outstanding discoveries such as that of the creation of tones (Haudricourt 1961) are all the more admirable in view of the rudimentary state of the documentation available at the time. The ambition to arrive at general laws of sound change, which was formulated as early as the mid-20th century, could not be realized under such conditions. There now exist reconstructions (at different degrees of time depth) for close to 2,000 languages, offering a potential for significant progress toward the realization of the evolutionary/panchronic program: to build a model of the conditions on change, and of its stages.

The wealth of available documents constitutes a methodological challenge. It is clearly impossible for one individual to master all these data. The answer to this challenge lies in team work building on progress in information technologies.

  • The team of this work-package comprises specialists of a significant number of languages from the five continents; most of them have in-depth knowledge of these languages
  • Most participants have some knowledge in computing and can thus collaborate efficiently with IT persons.

(ii) The increasing specialization of phoneticians: A second obstacle to the realization of the Panchronic Program lies in the growing complexity of experimental techniques. The most reputable practitioners of experimental phonetics were traditionally well-versed in historical linguistics (from Rousselot to Ohala 1989); however, the degree of specialization required for state-of-the-art phonetic explorations is now such that a majority of specialists are medical doctors or engineers with limited contact with practitioners of historical linguistics. Acoustics, physiology, neurology and psycholinguistics all constitute virtually separate subfields. A practical consequence is that new advances in phonetics hardly profit historical linguistics: diachronicians still reason mostly in terms of articulatory mechanisms (less commonly acoustic or perceptual dimensions).

The solution proposed to this second challenge is the following method. The points of origin and end of a given change are determined by diachronicians; languages that currently stand precisely in-between these two situations are then sought out: ‘missing links’, i.e. unstable language states whose fine-grained experimental study allows for the modeling of the process of change itself.

(iii) A third challenge which will be addressed in this work-package is that of the interactions between phonology and morphology in language change. There exist morpho-phonological alternations that are due to analogy, and do not have any phonetic basis (see Blevins and Garrett 2009); morphology has a potential for inhibiting phonetic change in certain contexts (Blevins and Wedel 2009). Such phenomena are not only essential to the study of individual languages: they are to be integrated into general (panchronic) models of sound change. The issue is thus: To what extent can general rules be formulated about analogy phenomena? There already exist some observations on this topic, e.g. Kuryłowicz’s law and Mańczak’s law. Further work requires a quantification of the frequency of use of each form. Computer tools are therefore central to this project.


We plan to develop a database of changes that allows for a study of the correlation between phonetic changes and structural properties of the phonological and morphological systems. It should include, for each individual attested change, the greatest possible amount of detail about the state of the system before and after the change: inventory of phonemes; phonotactic constraints (in particular: inventory of clusters, and of restrictions that depend on prosodic context); and functional yield of each of the phonemes.

This ambitious project aims to assemble, format and make available to phoneticians and phonologists data that are currently difficult to access. The availability of such a tool would facilitate the testing of complex hypotheses, such as: is change A only attested as part of chain shifts; is change B only attested in languages that have such-and-such a structural imbalance? Such a database would also provide diachronicians with a reference for reconstruction, presenting the historical linguist's portfolio of attested changes in a systematic fashion.

References cited:

Blevins J., 2004, Evolutionary phonology: The emergence of sound patterns, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Blevins J., 2006, A theoretical synopsis of Evolutionary Phonology, Theoretical Linguistics, 32(2), pp. 117-166.

Blevins J. et Garrett A., 2009, Analogical morphophonology, in The Nature of the Word: Essays in Honor of Paul Kiparsky, S. Inkelas et K. Hanson, Cambridge, MA., MIT Press, pp. 527-546.

Blevins J. et Wedel A., 2009, Inhibited sound change: An evolutionary approach to lexical competition, Diachronica, 26(2), pp. 143-183.

Hagège C. et Haudricourt A.-G., 1978, La phonologie panchronique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Haudricourt A.-G., 1940, Méthode pour obtenir des lois concrètes en linguistique générale, Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, 41(1), pp. 70-74.

Haudricourt A.-G., 1954a, Comment reconstruire le chinois archaïque, Word, 10(2-3), pp. 351-364.

Haudricourt A.-G., 1954b, De l'origine des tons en vietnamien, Journal Asiatique, 242, pp. 69-82.

Haudricourt A.-G., 1961, Bipartition et tripartition des systèmes de tons dans quelques langues d'Extrême-Orient, Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, 56(1), pp. 163-80.

Labov W., 1994, Principles of linguistic change. Internal factors, Language in Society 20, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Labov W., 2001, Principles of linguistic change. Social factors, Language in Society 29, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Mazaudon M., 2007, A low glide in Marphali, in Linguistics of the Himalayas and Beyond, R. Bielmeier et F. Haller, Trends in linguistics. Studies and monographs 196, Berlin/New York, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 163-188.

Mazaudon M. et Michailovsky B., 2007, La phonologie panchronique aujourd'hui: quelques repères, in Combats pour les langues du monde: hommage à Claude Hagège, J. Fernandez-Vest, Paris, L'Harmattan, pp. 351-362.

Mazaudon M. et Michaud A., 2008, Tonal contrasts and initial consonants: a case study of Tamang, a ‘missing link’ in tonogenesis, Phonetica, 65(4), pp. 231-256.

Ohala J., 1989, Sound change is drawn from a pool of synchronic variation, in Language change: Contributions to the study of its causes, L. E. Breivik et E. H. Jahr, The Hague, Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 173-198.

Ohala J., 1993, The phonetics of sound change, in Historical linguistics: problems and perspectives, C. Jones, London, Longman, pp. 237-278.


- Team of the Operation

Coordinators: Martine MAZAUDON (2011-2012), Guillaume JACQUES (2013-2017) and Alexis MICHAUD (2018-2020)

Participants in the LabEx:

first name

given name


main scientific contributions




historical linguistics, Altaic, Caucasian, Basque




Caucasian and Amerindian languages




Ubanguian, Adamawa, Sudanic




Oceanic languages




Sino-Tibetan languages




Oceanic languages; structural diachrony




Niger-Congo languages (especially Mande)




Asian languages; structural diachrony/panchrony




Slavic; comparative Indo-European grammar




Amerindian languages; Finno-Ugric; Romance; Caucasian




Asian languages; structural diachrony/panchrony




East and Southeast Asian languages; phonetics/phonology




Subsaharan languages




Chinese; Austronesian; East and Southeast Asian languages





External collaborators:



Univ. Limoges

Indo-European languages

- Results, publications and productions

[Participants are kindly requested to send us the references of their publications for addition to this list]

Chirkova, Katia (in press) “Ersu” [Illustration of the IPA], Journal of the International Phonetic Association

Chirkova, Katia & Yiya Chen. 2013. "Xumi, Part 1: Lower Xumi, the Variety of the Lower and Middle Reaches of the Shuiluo River" [Illustration of the IPA], Journal of the International Phonetic Association 43: 363-379.

Chirkova, Katia; Yiya Chen; & Tanja Kocjančič Antolík. 2013. "Xumi, Part 2: Upper Xumi, the Variety of the Upper Reaches of the Shuiluo River" [Illustration of the IPA], Journal of the International Phonetic Association 43: 381-396.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2014. “Denominal affixes as sources of antipassive markers in Japhug Rgyalrong”, Lingua 138:1-22.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2014. “Transitive NEED Does Not Imply Transitive HAVE: Response to Harves and Kayne 2012”. Linguistic Inquiry, Volume 45, Number 1, 147–158.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2013. “Applicative and tropative derivations in Japhug Rgyalrong”, Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area, 36.2:1-13.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2013. “Harmonization and disharmonization of affix ordering and basic word order”, Linguistic Typology, 17.2:187–215.

Jacques, Guillaume (2013) The sound change *s > n in Arapaho. Folia linguistica historica 34:43-57.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2012. “From denominal derivation to incorporation”. Lingua 122.11:1207-1231.

Jacques, G. 2011. "A panchronic study of aspirated fricatives, with new evidence from Pumi." Lingua 121(9). 1518–1538.

Jacques, G. and A. Michaud. 2011. "Approaching the historical phonology of three highly eroded Sino-Tibetan languages: Naxi, Na and Laze." Diachronica 28(4). 468-498.

Mazaudon, Martine. 2012. Paths to tone in the Tamang branch of Tibeto-Birman (Nepal). The Dialect Laboratory: Dialects as a testing ground for theories of language change, Gunther de Vogelaer and Guido Seiler eds., 139-177. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Mazaudon, Martine. 2012. The influence of tone and affrication on manner: some irregular manner correspondences in the Tamang group. LTBA 35/2:  1-17.

Michailovsky, Boyd, Martine Mazaudon, Alexis Michaud, Séverine Guillaume, Alexandre François & Evangelia Adamou. 2014. Documenting and researching endangered languages: the Pangloss Collection. Language Documentation and Conservation.

Michaud, Alexis. 2012. Monosyllabicization: patterns of evolution in Asian languages. In Nicole Nau, Thomas Stolz & Cornelia Stroh (eds.), Monosyllables: from phonology to typology, 115–130. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. http://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00436432

Michaud, A., G. Jacques and R.L. Rankin. 2012. " Historical transfer of nasality between consonantal onset and vowel: from C to V or from V to C?" Diachronica 29.2: 201-230.

Michaud, Alexis. 2013. The tone patterns of numeral-plus-classifier phrases in Yongning Na: a synchronic description and analysis. In Nathan Hill & Tom Owen-Smith (eds.), Transhimalayan Linguistics. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Nguyen, Thi-Lan, Alexis Michaud, Do-Dat Tran & Dang-Khoa Mac. 2013. The interplay of intonation and complex lexical tones: how speaker attitudes affect the realization of glottalization on Vietnamese sentence-final particles. Proceedings of Interspeech 2013. Lyon.

Other productions:
- Ongoing translation project: selected works of Haudricourt:
Studies in the evolution of languages and techniques
Contract signed with De Gruyter Mouton.

- A documentary film about linguistic fieldwork and language documentation: "Sound Hunter" (路•音), Tianjin TV, in Chinese (20 mn); December 2012.

- A Workshop about Sino-Tibetan languages of Sichuan organized in 2013:


- Related projects and websites

Guillaume Jacques's “Panchronica” blog

“Panchronic phonology” entry on Wikipedia

Blog of the ANR Corpus project HimalCo


- Contacts

Guillaume Jacques: rgyalrongskad@gmail.com

Martine Mazaudon: martine.mazaudon@vjf.cnrs.fr

Alexis Michaud: alexis.michaud@mica.edu.vn


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