David Kamholz, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

An Ontology for Sounds and Sound Changes

It has long been recognized that certain sound changes are found again and again crosslinguistically, while others are more rare. While much progress has been made in understanding the phonetic and phonological factors capable of explaining these changes, there has not as yet been a comprehensive survey of attested sound changes. The main cause of this failure has been the difficultly of devising an acceptable, universal ontology for sounds and sound changes.

Such an ontology has a number of requirements. It must be capable of specifying phonetic and phonological features of segments, so that sound changes may be grouped together by various criteria (e.g. changes of stops to fricatives or cases of word-final devoicing). It must also be capable of representing stress, tone, and other prosodic features. Finally, there must be a way of representing each sound change as a whole, including the (proto-)language in which it occurs, whether the change is attested or reconstructed, the extent and nature of its effect on the phonological system, and so on.

Work is currently underway at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig to design standard electronic formats for representing this information. In its current form, GOLD has no way to represent most of the relevant concepts. It would be very useful to move towards resolving this deficiency so that descriptions of sounds and sound changes can be compared in a standard way across languages. The ongoing research at the Institute can offer substantial input to this process.