This is a guest blog post by Professor John Coleman, University of Oxford Principal Investigator for AHRC Innovation Award ‘Ancient Sounds: Mixing acoustic phonetics, statistics and comparative philology to bring speech back from the past’.

The Ancient Sounds project examines an old question – what did words sound like in the past? – in a revolutionary new way: 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 an earlier phase of my collaboration with John Aston, Professor of Statistics at the University of Cambridge, I worked on the audio reconstruction of spoken Latin words for numbers, from audio recordings in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. John and his group are working on closely related statistical problems, such as: how do we measure the acoustic distances between related languages, and how well does the “family tree” model of linguistic relationships and history fit the space of audio recordings we have collected?

In 2015, with an AHRC Science in Culture Innovation Award, I am extending this work to some Germanic languages (English, German dialects and Dutch, at least), together with Modern Greek, to try to advance the horizon of audio reconstruction into the deeper past of the Indo-European language family. First, I’ve been trawling through various corpora of audio recordings of languages to find as many examples as possible of the spoken digits one to ten, in as many varieties and pronunciations as possible. For Germanic dialects such as High and Low German, Dutch, and Frisian, the Datenbank für Gesprochenes Deutsch, published by the Institut für Deutsche Sprache (IDS) in Mannheim, has been a particularly valuable resource. One of its many corpora, the Zwirner-Korpus, is a treasure trove of dialect recordings digitized from tape recordings made in 1955 onwards, collected by the neurologist and phonetician Eberhard Zwirner and his fieldworkers. Speakers born between the 1880’s and 1920’s from many regions of Germany as it was then – including, for example, the regions of Gdansk (now in Poland, of course) and Kaliningrad (now Russia) – provide us with a spectrum of Germanic dialect pronunciations of great diversity and richness. I was surprised to discover pronunciations of speakers from Lower Saxony and from the Baltic coast that seem to be hardly any different from those of our Saxon and Anglian forebears whose Old English vocabulary and grammar I wrestled with as an undergraduate. You can hear examples of such proxy recordings of Anglo-Saxon ān, twā, þrīe, feower, fīf, siex, seofon, æhta, niġon and tēne on a website I prepared for What that Aprille Day 2015 (1st April 2015), a “celebration of old, middle and ancient languages” organised by the online community of medievalists and Middle English enthusiasts.


I’m now engaged in computational modelling of the ways in which number-words change over time from older to modern pronunciation. One of the delightful surprises of the Zwirner corpus was the discovery of extremely archaic pronunciations of the number one in Oberpfalz Bavarian: oins, which is only a little different from the form reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European, *oinos! We can even discern the historical development of the Germanic dialects played out in physical geography: from Southern German oins progressing northwards into standard High German eins (pronounced [ains]) or ein- ; northwest to Saxon or Frisian ān, and on to Dutch een. Leaving the Saxon shore and heading across the North Sea to Britain, we find ān or een, twā, etc preserved in some Northern varieties, such as Doric (Aberdeenshire) Scots. From Anglo-Saxon ān through Middle English oon we derive successively more and more open vowels in North/Midlands pronunciations [wɒn], SW Midlands [wən], to Southern English [wʌn]. Such correlations between history and geography are among the most exciting outcomes or discoveries of this project. In coming months, I’m starting to plot the sound changes from Proto-Indo-European to some modern day languages and dialects on the map of Europe.

For news updates, please follow the project on Twitter (@sounds_ancient).

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about Ancient Sounds: Mixing phonetics, statistics and comparative philology to bring speech back from the past’ is available here. Follow us on Twitter @AHRCSciculture for updates from the Theme.