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Neogrammarian Hypothesis

  The Neogrammarians were a group of German linguists working within the field of comparative-historical linguistics towards the end of the 19th century. They were notable for their desire to establish a rigorous methodology for investigating how the pronunciation of a language changes over time. An overriding claim was that sound changes take place gradually, but strictly in accordance with phonetic laws which are applicable, without exception, to the entire range of potential targets for change.

The Neogrammarians claimed that sound changes originate in the language of one particular speaker and then spread in a regular fashion to other individuals and groups, for reasons of prestige. These changes are said to filter down from the top strata of society towards the bottom. They are initiated, in part, because speakers do not pronounce a particular word in precisely the same way on each occasion of utterance. It was argued that the regular repetition of minor deviations from standards of pronunciation may be cumulative and lead towards the establishment of a new norm. A further source of sound change was said to be the speech of children learning their mother tongue. It was suggested that children are liable to misperceive the speech of adults, with the result that they produce their own, idiosyncratic, versions of linguistic elements which eventually take root and become permanent changes within the language. In fact, there is scant evidence to support this hypothesis, as is the case with many Neogrammarian claims. Yet their desire to place linguistics on a truly scientific footing has exerted a lasting influence. MS



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