Lenition in English

Patrick Honeybone

in The Oxford Handbook of the History of English

Published in print November 2012 | ISBN: 9780199922765
Published online November 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Lenition in English

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  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics
  • Phonetics and Phonology


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Certain kinds of segmental change have been proposed to form part of an overarching type of change known as lenition, forming a continuum of changes that consonants can spontaneously undergo. The types of change that are typically recognized as lenitions include “spirantization,” “approximantization,” “debuccalization,” and “voicing.” This article discusses some fundamentals about what lenition might actually be and considers several phenomena which can be described as lenitions from the history of English. I argue that so-called “voicings” in English need to be viewed through the lens of the “Laryngeal Realism” approach to laryngeal specification and should be reinterpreted as cases of “delaryngealization”, and that the unity of lenitions lies in their environmental patterning: they are the weakly unconditioned changes, which are not “promoted” by any phonological environment, but are inhibited in certain well-defined sets of environments.

Keywords: lenition; English; historical phonology; voicing; spirantization; flapping; Laryngeal Realism; Liverpool English; linguistics; continua

Article.  6738 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Historical and Diachronic Linguistics ; Phonetics and Phonology

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