Bringing speech from the distant past back to life
Professor John Coleman is Director of the Phonetics Laboratory at Faculty of Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics, University of Oxford, and a recent recipient of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship on the "Eastern Origins of English". His main research interests are in phonetics (especially acoustic phonetics), speech technology, laboratory phonology and computational linguistics.
In historical linguistics, the comparative method reconstructs hypothesised ancestral forms of words based upon their modern or historical written forms. But the data used is text, usually alphabetic transcriptions. Recently, progress has been made in modelling processes of changing sounds using continuous functions: curves and surfaces. As speech parameters such as formant frequencies, amplitude contours, and spectrograms can be represented using continuous functions, it is becoming possible to model linguistic history and prehistory using these methods and to reconstruct audible sound files instantiating hypothesized spoken forms from the past, including distant ancestral pronunciations and intermediate forms at each generation. These acoustic simulations of sound change are in some respects testable against observations or other sources of data. Gradual, incremental, acoustic modelling of sound changes enables us to estimate the varying rates at which words have changed over millennia. I present and discuss a selection of changing pronunciations in the long history of English over timescales of hundreds and thousands of years, with audio simulations of sounds from the distant past.
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