Evolutionary Phonology review

Juliette Blevins‘ book Evolutionary Phonology was just reviewed on LinguistList. The text of the review is copied below.

AUTHOR: Blevins, Juliette
TITLE: Evolutionary Phonology
SUBTITLE: The Emergence of Sound Patterns
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2004
Announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-1434.html

Jason Brown, Department of Linguistics, University of British Columbia

This book is a study of the diachronic and synchronic patterns in phonology. The book consists of 11 chapters.


This book is composed of 3 parts: Preliminaries, Sound Patterns, and Implications. The chapters in Part I: Preliminaries, lay out the general assumptions and outline the theoretical claims of the book. The chapters in Part II: Sound Patterns, address the issues of common and uncommon sound patterns, and how to account for them. The chapters in Part III: Implications, address the issues of Evolutionary Phonology, and what the implications are for synchronic and diachronic phonology, as well as other domains of linguistics.

Part I: Preliminaries
Chapter 1 What is Evolutionary Phonology?: In this chapter, the goals of the book and the notion of Evolutionary Phonology (EP) are outlined. The importance of diachronic studies compared to synchronic studies (which are emphasized more in present works) is stressed, as is the relationship between sound changes and synchronic processes. The different types of explanation in linguistics are discussed, along with the idea that a simpler grammar is one that accounts for more things with less duplication. The working hypothesis of the book is also laid out, namely that “recurrent synchronic sound patterns have their origins in recurrent phonetically motivated sound change” (pg. 8). The chapter then outlines the various possible approaches to explanation: synchronic vs. diachronic, and goal-oriented vs. not goal-oriented. EP is diachronic, and not goal-oriented.

Next, the evolutionary metaphor used in the book is explained. While central to EP is the concept that language change is a form of knowledge transmission across generations without biological change, and the concept of “parallel evolution” is also important, the author warns that EP is not a theory based on natural selection. Finally, the chapter ends on a discussion of markedness and the role of learning (in EP, everything is learned, including phonemic contrasts, phonetic detail, phonotactics, etc.).

Chapter 2 Evolution in Language and Elsewhere: The subject of chapter 2 mostly involves evolutionary metaphors from the biological sciences. The chapter discusses how “language evolution” is to be defined in this study, where it is only used to describe conditions within a 5/000-7,000 year time depth.

Variation is discussed, as well as the metaphor of natural selection and the sources of natural sound change. While biological evolution is generally conceptualized as things being passed down through DNA, it raises the question of how languages evolve. In this case, it is through individual to individual transmission (which can be noisy). One claim of this chapter is that most all sound patterns are phonetically motivated. This is where the CCC-model of sound change is introduced. The CCC-model consists of the three components Change, Chance, and Choice. The main goal is to account for patterns that repeat and that lots of languages have. The chapter also discusses the various reasons for similarities: direct genetic inheritance, characteristics that aren’t actually as similar as they look, parallel evolution, and physical constraints.

Chapter 3 Explanation in Phonology: A Brief History of Ideas: This chapter provides a brief history of 3 types of explanation in phonology: historical, teleological, and phonetic. Historical explanations aim to account for synchronic patterns in phonology by observing their diachronic origins and pathways. Teleological explanations view sound patterns as moving toward optimal targets, while phonetic explanations look to phonetic detail as underlying phonological structure.

This chapter shows how EP builds on the various existing explanations, including the neogrammarian school, the Kazan school, generative phonology and work in modern phonetics. While not merely a re-synthesis of these earlier traditions, the differences between these types of explanation and EP are also stressed in this chapter.

EP proposes historical, non-teleological, phonetic explanations for synchronic sound patterns. It integrates the neogrammarian view with the H & H (hypo- and hyper-articulation) model (Lindblom 1990) and Ohala’s (1981) model of sound change (i.e. no goal-directed sound change). It also eliminates notions of markedness in synchronic phonological descriptions. Finally, it finds no formal distinction between natural and unnatural patterns in synchronic grammar. These qualities are contrasted with other approaches to phonology, such as natural phonology, underspecification theories, grounded phonology, teleologically-based theories, Optimality Theory, etc.

Part II: Sound Patterns
Chapter 4 Laryngeal Features: The focus of this chapter is on sound patterns involving laryngeal features. The distinctive features involved include [voice], [spread glottis] and [constricted glottis] and their phonetic variation. The specific problem to be addressed is that “segments with identical phonological feature representations may have dramatically different patterns of distribution” (91), such as, for instance, pre- and post-vocalic aspiration. The chapter presents two alternative solutions to this problem. The first is to abandon phonological features by importing phonetics (Steriade 1993, 1997, Kirchner 2000, Flemming 2001). The second is the view of EP, and is to maintain the pure phonological approach, free of phonetic detail. Under the EP approach, phonology appears to be sensitive to phonetic detail because a phonological system is the transparent result of phonetically motivated sound change. Sound patterns that occur frequently (above chance) are due to parallel evolution; this explains their patterns of distribution.

The author notes that “phonological features show distinct patterns of distribution which appear to be dependent, at least in part, on their phonetic realization” (95). Laryngeal features are more perceptually salient in some contexts more than others. The overarching generalization is that “positions of contrast for a particular feature are those in which neutralizing sound change is unattested, while positions of neutralization are precisely those where phonetically motivated sound change is common” (97). Common sound changes, like neutralization, tend to occur in less salient positions. These types of changes make up the common distributional patterns of laryngeals (i.e. neutralization). Just as common patterns can be attributed to sound change, so can uncommon distributions.

Chapter 5 Place Features: The focus of Chapter 5 is on sound patterns involving place features. The first area of discussion is on the recurrent patterns that are found in the distributions of place features. The chapter deals with release features (such as the major place features [labial], [coronal], [dorsal]) and closure features (such as retroflexion). For instance, word final neutralization of major place features is common; however, word-initial neutralization of place is unattested (while the behavior of closure features such as retroflexion is the opposite, however). Some of the topics discussed are the patterns of place distribution, the status of coronal as just another place feature and not as the “unmarked” place, and neutralization (both in final position, and in consonant cluster simplification).

Chapter 6 Other Common Sound Patterns: Carrying on from where chapters 4 and 5 left off, chapter 6 is an overview of other common sound patterns. In each case, a sound pattern is identified, then examples are shown how the pattern can also be an example of a sound change in some language. A phonetic explanation is then provided for the sound change. Situations where both articulation or perception as the source for sound change are discussed, and in particular, sound patterns and changes that are not necessarily easily describable in articulatory terms are discussed, as well as all of the changes associated with each type. There is also a discussion of structural analogy, and the conclusion is reached that it is not a property of grammar, but a property of cognitive processes that give rise to grammars. The chapter concludes with some unexplained changes, such as the loss of utterance-initial consonants in Australian languages, the phenomenon of y-accretion, and low vowel dissimilation.

Chapter 7 The Evolution of Geminates: This chapter addresses the issue of how and why geminates evolve in phonological systems. The author identifies at least 7 pathways that result in a length contrast. These include assimilation in CC clusters, assimilation in VC or GC sequences, vowel syncope between identical consonants, lengthening under stress, boundary lengthening, the reinterpretation of an obstruent voicing contrast, and the reanalysis of identical C+C sequences. Also discussed are the issues of geminate inalterability and integrity, the moraic or non-moraic status of geminates and antigemination.

Chapter 8 Some Uncommon Sound Patterns: While the content of Chapter 6 was on common sound patterns, the focus of Chapter 8 is on uncommon patterns. Uncommon patterns are defined as those limited to few languages, families, or geographic regions (and they are typically patterns that push the articulatory or perceptual envelope). In particular, uncommon segment types (clicks and pharyngeals) and uncommon contrasts (voicing distinction on vowels, 3-way vowel and consonantal length contrasts, and 3-way nasality contrasts) are discussed, as well as uncommon syllable types and harmony/blocking patterns. This chapter shows how these uncommon sounds and sound patterns are typically the result of regular types of sound change, paradigmatic pressures, or random events in cultural evolution and world history.

Part III: Implications
Chapter 9 Synchronic Phonology: This chapter discusses the implications of EP for the study of synchronic systems. As has been stressed in earlier chapters, much of the explanation is placed in diachronic terms. The first section deals with phonological acquisition and argues that much phonological knowledge is learned. The second deals with the relationship between sound patterns and phonetic content. In particular, it deals with some traditional ideas of generative phonology such as markedness constraints, structure preservation, and the elsewhere condition. After this, the chapter sets up what “pure phonology” is under EP (i.e. “what systematic aspects of synchronic phonology are left to be studied” (251), since most of explanation now lies in diachrony). The conclusion is reached that very little universal phonology remains. EP is then contrasted with other phonological models.

Chapter 10 Diachronic Phonology: This chapter discusses the role of EP and diachronic phonology. The CCC model is shown to be compatible with traditional views of sound change. Not only are the mechanisms of sound change regular (like neogrammarians), but “their formulation as part of a general learning algorithm results in typical regularity at the level of the individual” (259). The chapter considers typical “markedness” explanations, but points out that they rule out patterns that are attested, and also do a poor job of explaining why certain patterns are more marked than others.

Further claims of this chapter are that change is NOT teleological, and is NOT driven by markedness. Related to this is the notion of symmetry in phonological inventories. The claim of the chapter is that phonetically motivated sound change is blind to symmetry: symmetrical explanation is a post-hoc motivation for a symmetry-creating change. Changes appear to be functionally or structurally driven, but rather they are simply accidental or emergent phenomena.

Chapter 11 Beyond Phonology: This chapter expands the theory of evolutionary phonology and provides historical explanations for the distributional patterns of other linguistically significant units. These include sign language phonology, morphology, and syntax.

With regard to the differences in modality between sign and spoken language, the evolutionary approach has no problem in viewing the spoken features as being replaced by visual features. It is claimed that in other theories, such as Optimality Theory, there is a problem of innateness in that visual AND spoken markedness constraints are required.

In considering the prospects for an evolutionary view of morphology, phenomena such as morpheme order and scope, and paradigm leveling and markedness are discussed. In terms of a possible evolutionary syntax, the chapter focuses on cross-categorial harmony (specifically the relations between word order and pre- and postpositions) and the combinations of syntactic features that are more rare (such as the rarity of tense on nominals).

The evolutionary approach is then summarized, and the important observation is made that: “One general implication of the evolutionary approach is that most of the content of traditional descriptive grammar constitutes learned aspects of human behavior.” (312)


The book is extremely interesting and well written. It should be interesting for scholars working in anthropology, evolutionary biology and linguistics, and it is written in a style that is accessible to a wide audience. A very positive aspect of the book is that it is written with lots of argumentation based lots of empirical data and on several typological patterns, all of which make the theoretical claims understandable and believable. Another positive aspect is that the book recasts some current debates in phonological theory into diachronic terms. One example is the syllable-based vs. linear licensing debate (cf. for example Steriade 1997, Howe & Pulleyblank 2001, etc.). The author carefully analyzes the relevant data, then makes new and interesting proposals based on diachronic dynamics.

One of the most interesting, and no doubt controversial, aspects of the book is the discussion of markedness. In several sections the author launches criticisms around the role of markedness in grammar. The author argues, for instance, that coronal is not the unmarked place. This is in line with current criticisms of “coronal unmarkedness” (such as Hume & Tserdanelis 2002); however, the idea expressed here is that there is no encoding of segmental markedness in grammar at all. The author states that “markedness and naturalness are emergent properties of grammar, and are highly context- dependent” (129), a sentiment that is quickly gaining support in the field (for instance, the notion of the emergence of phonological features is discussed at great length in Mielke’s [2004] recent Ph.D. dissertation). It is just this type of re-evaluation of the fundamental ways that traditional phonology operates that makes this book such an incredible piece of work.

Even if it is at times only metaphorical, the discussion of non-linguistic evolution will prove extremely informative to those not familiar with many concepts. For instance, the discussion of adaptation using the toepads of lizards as an illustration is helpful. The discussion of non- aptations & disaptations (the latter illustrated by the case of a three- way nasalization contrast in Palantla Chinantec) is also useful. Finally, the meat of the book, the notion of natural selection in the world of sounds, highlighted by the claim that “adaptation occurs with respect to a specific phonetic context” (54) is highly intuitive and is likely to carry great influence in the research area of language evolution.

Overall, Evolutionary Phonology is exceptionally written, well argued, and should absolutely be on the bookshelf of any serious phonologist.


Flemming, Edward. 2001. Scalar and categorical phenomena in a unified model of phonetics and phonology. Phonology 18:7-44.

Howe, Darin & Douglas Pulleyblank. 2001. Patterns and timing of glottalisation. Phonology 18:45-80.

Hume, Elizabeth & Georgios Tserdanelis. 2002. Labial unmarkedness in Sri Lankan Portuguese Creole. Phonology 19:441-458.

Kirchner, Robert. 2000. Geminate alterability and lenition. Language 76:509-45.

Lindblom, Björn. 1990. Explaining phonetic variation: a sketch of the H&H theory. In William Hardcastle & Alain Marchal (eds.), Speech production and speech modeling. Dordrecht: Kluwer. pp. 403-439.

Mielke, Jeff. 2004. The emergence of distinctive features. Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University.

Ohala, John J. 1981. The listener as a source of sound change. In Carrie S. Masek, Robert A. Hendrick and Mary Frances Miller (eds.), Papers from the parasession on language and behavior. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society. pp. 178-203.

Steriade, Donca. 1997. Phonetics in phonology: The case of laryngeal neutralization. Ms, UCLA.

Steriade, Donca. 1993. Closure, release, and nasal contours. In M. Huffman and R.A. Krakow (eds.) Nasals, nasalization and the velum. Phonetics and phonology 5. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 401-470.


Jason Brown is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia. His research focus is on phonological theory, with special interests in the phonetics-phonology interface, phonological representations, and feature theory.

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