Examining the life cycle of phonological processes: considerations for historical research

  • Ranjan Sen University of Sheffield


The life cycle of phonological processes (e.g. Bermúdez-Otero 2015) provides an account of how a sound change might develop over the history of a language, from its beginnings in the pressures of speaking and hearing, through its progress to a cognitively-controlled process and maturation into a categorical phenomenon, to its final resting-place as a lexical or morphological pattern. It has been the subject of increased research in recent times, but has faced strikingly few challenges to its diachronic aspects, notably its predictions of unidirectionality and cycle-based dialectal splits. Furthermore, the cognitive mechanisms rooted in morpheme-based learning which are required to predict domain narrowing (phrase > word > stem) rather than broadening need to be tested through child (and adult) acquisition studies. This paper examines how a historical phonologist might go about interrogating the life-cycle model using extensive historical data spanning several centuries, and methodically ascertaining what the model predicts in order to know what to look for. The paper concludes by briefly addressing some of the many other questions raised by the model which have faced comparatively little investigation given the purported pervasiveness of the life cycle.