mixing acoustic phonetics, statistics and comparative philology to bring speech back from the past

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 Phonetics Laboratory


What we are trying to do
Audio demonstrations
Indo-European digits database



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From 1st October 2021, the work of the "Ancient Sounds" project is supported by a three-year Research Fellowship awarded to John Coleman by the Leverhulme Trust, in order to greatly expand the number of words for which we are building audio simulations of their development from Proto-Indo-European. For over 350 words, we shall also model how they developed into selected "Eastern" languages, illustrating how English has a common origin with languages spoken in far-away parts of the world. Please follow this link to the new webpage to see/hear the results of this work in progress.


In the series of "Ancient Sounds" projects, we examine an old question – what did words sound like in the past? – in a revolutionary new way. Since the 19th century, historical linguists have studied in detail the forms of words in many languages at different points in history, the varieties and mechanisms of sound change, and, for the Indo-European language family in particular, they have used that knowledge to infer the forms of words from a time before writing. For example, from word-forms as diverse as Old English weorc, Old High German werc, Latin orgia, Greek ergon, and Armenian gorc, philologists infer a Proto-Indo-European stem u̯erg̑-, a formula that hints at a pronunciation something like werg. But what did it actually sound like? The innovation of this project is that, rather than reconstructing written forms of ancient words, we are developing methods to triangulate backwards from contemporary audio recordings of simple words in modern Indo-European languages to regenerate audible spoken forms from earlier points in the evolutionary tree. In 2014 we worked on the audio reconstruction of spoken Latin words for numbers, from audio recordings in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. In 2015, with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, we extended this work to some Germanic languages, together with Modern Greek, to try to advance the horizon of audio reconstruction into the deeper past of the Indo-European language family. Having already developed most of the necessary technical methods for realising this extraordinary ambition, these early successes opened up a wide range of new questions, which were the focus of the 2015 project: How far back in time can extrapolation from contemporary recordings progress? How “wide” and diverse must a language family tree be in order to triangulate to sounds that are plausible i.e. reasonably consistent with written forms from antiquity? Are any attested sound changes outside the limits of the acoustic transformations we can currently model, and if so, how to address that? How do we deal with changes that not acoustically continuous or gradual, such as analogical formations and loanwords? We also begin to be able to address questions of rate of change e.g. do sound changes proceed at a uniform, gradual rate? Or if not, how can we model varying rates of sound change in different branches of a language family, or in different periods?