Working paper Open Access
Lavoie, Lisa M.
The term lenition is often used to describe sound changes, both historical and synchronic,
but the range and limits of lenition have not been well-defined.
This report presents the results emerging from a data base of consonant strength alternations from over 165 languages. The data base represents a significant advance in the study of consonant strength by providing specific examples in sufficient quantity to compare types and frequency of alternations across languages. These generalizations demonstrate that common notions of lenition, rooted in historical change, over-regularize the phenomenon.
The logically possible types of lenition and fortition are not evenly distributed; some are overwhelmingly common and others practically non-existent. The environments of alternations are often overlooked but crucial in determining if an alternation is lenition or fortition. The data base shows that consonant strength behavior exhibits asymmetries when compared to standard assumptions of sonority and consonant strength.