Saturday, August 07, 2004

Morphologically Conditioned Sound Change?!?

There has been a relatively long and deep consensus (excusing certain malcontents like Yakov Malkiel) that sound changes are never morphologically conditioned. If a sound change appears only in a certain morphological environment, there must have been some phonological conditioning factor there at the time the sound change took place, even if we can't see it now. Knowing this, I'm a bit troubled by something I discovered today. I was comparing data from a language I just did some elicitation on (Sorbung, a previously undocumented Tibeto-Burman language of Manipur, India) and Moyon Naga (which appears to be more closely related to Sorbung than any of the other languages I've looked at). These languages both have lexical prefixes (usually with no transparent function) associated with noun and verb roots. In nouns, we find the following correspondence:
We find a different correspondence in verbs:
Looking at these data, the default assumption would be that these two prefixes (one a noun prefix and the other a verb prefix) were originally phonologically distinct, but have become homophonous through some set of sound changes in Sorbung, while in Moyon, they have remained distinct. The problem with this assumption is that at least some of these prefixes are supposed to reflect homophonous Proto-Tibeto-Burman suffixes, as in *m-ka ‘jaw’ and *m-nwəy ‘laugh’. So what's the deal? Are the reconstructions wrong? Is this really a morphologically conditioned sound change?

I think I might have an answer. If anyone's interested, I'll share it later.


At 6:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if the language ever had stress it could differentially affect stressed [m@] in nouns and unstressed [m@] in verbs.

Or if it had verb prefixes, these could reduce [m@] to [m].

And while sound changes don't recognize morphology, analogy does, and an [n] prefix on some verbs for some phonetic reason could spread to others that had [m] because of a different environment.

-- entangledbank (

At 9:16 AM, Blogger David Mortensen said...

This is quite true. However, in related languages which preserve theses prefixes, the stress pattern is exactly the same. In brief, feet are iambic and stress preferentially falls on heavy syllables. The roots are heavy syllables and prefixes are light syllables, in both nouns and verbs. So which I do think there was a phonological conditioning factor here, I don't think it was stress specifically.

At 9:22 AM, Blogger David Mortensen said...

I should have made clear, in my previous comment, that I was talking about your stress solution only. As for your proposal that the difference between the two cases was an additional prefix, I think that this is quite right, though I think that the prefix may have been in the nouns, rather than the verbs (based on other evidence, which I didn't make available in the post).


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