Why *p-*f?

X99Lynx at aol.com X99Lynx at aol.com
Sun Jan 31 09:06:11 UTC 1999

In a message dated 1/29/99 11:26:00 PM, Glen Gordon wrote:

<<Now, weather, genetic irregularities and religion are the most absurd ideas
for phonemic change I've ever heard.>>

My point - way back when - was that "external causes" just interfere with the
methodology of historical linguistics and should not be a main focus at all.
So I just sort of picked those examples out of the air.  But, once you do go
to cultural history, I suspect it is a little bit overconfident to dismiss any
cause too quickly.

An equally "absurd idea" perhaps is that such powerful forces as religion and
climate (weather over the long term) and disease could not affect language
structure when they can totally alter every other aspect of human culture.
Take a look at "Viruses, Plagues and History" by B.A. Oldstone for a notion of
how randomly and profoundly disease can alter every other aspect of human

You'll allow that language structure changes "simply take place because the
human species is imperfect (or too lazy)."  But you seem certain that such
powerful things as religion can't do it.

But consider this in the development of Church Latin.  Early on, the elite
"Church Fathers" are becoming critical of local pastors who are using "bad
language" to speak to their congregations, "such as dolus for dolor, effloriet
for florebit, ossum for os."  Despite this St. Augustine, who was well trained
in Greek and Latin syntax, told his audience: "I often employ words that are
not [true] Latin and I do so that you may understand me. Better that I should
incur the blame of the grammarians than not be understood by the people (In
Psal. cxxxviii, 90)."  The breakdown in regularity is so bad that, despite
many prior translations of the Greek Septugant, St Jerome must issue forth the
official Latin Vulgate "in good language."  We still have his teacher's -
Donatus - essay on the extensive spread of "barbarisms" (not meaning
foreignisms) in latin which include, with examples: "...changing and
transposing of letters, syllables, tones and aspiration." (This piece is on
the web.)

Point is that if religion didn't start isolated language structure changes, it
could sure spread them (or try to stop them.)

<<Changes simply take place because the human species is imperfect (or too

Interesting.  In some quarters, changes take place because people are striving
to be perfect or are too ambitious.  Could go either way, I suppose.  Can't be
too sure.

<<The change of *p to *f or *k to *x, etc. is nothing more than a tendency
towards "softening" the stop and is a very valid sound change.>>

So what happened to the softening of the stop in b>p? At this level, the only
basis for saying the sound change is valid is because it happened.  It's a
found rule, not a necessary one.  "Hardening" towards a stop could be just as
natural in other cases. It must have happened at some point for stops to even

I think the following might suggest evidence for an explanation for *p>f (from
the Linguist list 9/98):

<<Originally the Greek letter "phi" was pronounced like a "p" with a strong
puff of air afterwards--that is, more or less like "p" followed by "h" (this
was as opposed to the letter "pi", which was pronounced like the unaspirated
"p" you get in many languages other than English....  Much later, the letter
"phi" underwent a sound change and started being pronounced like "f"....

You can actually date the sound change by looking at Roman misspellings--when
uneducated Romans or Roman schoolchildren misspelled "philosophia" before the
sound change, they would spell it "pilosopia"--afterwards, it was
"filosofia".>>  - N. Richards

Now that's evidence.  P>f showing up among uneducated Romans (like soldiers)
as a variant of ph>f.

<<Deal with it. :)>>

Same to you.  And good luck.

Steve Long

PS - you wrote:
<<You are probably doing it to English right now as we speak. There's no
religion involved, you don't have a cleft palette and it happens whether it's
sunny or cloudy.>>

Amazing.  Wrong on all three counts. A lot of folks around here are either
talking funny ever since the new preacher from North Carolina has us singing
songs that rhyme things like "the Lord" with "adode."  Or because they all
went hard of hearing due to that virus or maybe the weather, and now you've
got to harden those stops just to be understood.

So I doubt if my cleft palette had much to do with it.
Of course you'd have no way of knowing I have one with the limited information
you had. :)

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