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Do sound and grammar changes affect acronyms, that can be pronounced as words, differently than other words in a language?

Are words based on acronyms treated differently or not when sound/grammar changes evolve?

  • more immune to the sound changes that the rest of the language undergoes.
  • not immune but more resistant (taking longer before being treated like any other word).
  • treated exactly the same from the get go.
  • dependant on the language/s in question and as such, do what you want as long as you are consistent.

I want to figure out if I need to make special exceptions, or not, for words in my conlangs that are originally based on acronyms.

For example, English acronyms that can be pronounced as words:

  • LiDar
  • Sonar
  • fubar
  • Nato
  • Noaa (I've always internally pronounced it "noah", but a quick Google search says other people may pronounce it phonetically)

Not so much English acronyms that you still pronounce out loud phonetically:

  • eg
  • wtf
  • gis

2 Answers 2

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It depends on the word in question. Not that many English speakers would recognise laser as an acronym, so it has effectively become a 'normal' word. And it can be inflected, as in She was lasering away that old tattoo.

It is different for acronyms that are spelled all in upper case, I think; NATO is kind of 'frozen' in that respect, and I doubt it will ever undergo the same process as laser.

In the past, SPQR was a common acronym, but I don't know of any acronyms that morphed into words, so it is difficult to give any historical examples regarding sound changes.

I would make a distinction between 'word-like' acronyms (radar, laser, ...) and clear abbreviations (NATO), and treat the former like other words, but keep the latter fixed. It can also depend on what the acronym describes: a tool (laser) is different in applicability from a group of countries (Benelux). You can't easily turn the latter into a verb.

Regarding the need to be consistent: you don't need to. Languages are not logical, they evolve. There is no requirement to be consistent at all. Have as many irregularities and exceptions as you like!

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  • Regarding laser specifically, I've actually heard (and used) the back-formed verb "to lase", probably in analogy with "taser", another lexified acronym.
    – No Name
    Jan 15 at 0:30
  • I heard lase long before there was Taser, but in the sense ‘behave as a laser’ (“any gas can lase”) rather than ‘use a laser’. Jan 26 at 17:09
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Acronyms are, for the most part, a relatively recent phenomenon (as they make the most sense with a high level of literacy), and so it's hard to really look at what's happened in natural languages.

Prior to the modern era, we have a small number of initialisms (e.g. SPQR), but as these do not seem to be pronounced as words in their own they're not a good point of reference. They also don't seem to have remained in continuous use, also limiting their usefulness.

An exception to this is Hebrew. The Jewish community has had a high of literacy for a long time, and many acronyms have been attested since the Middle Ages or earlier (e.g. Tanach "Hebrew Bible" < TNK < Torah 'Instruction', Neviʾim 'Prophets', and Ketuvim 'Writings'). Unfortunately to my knowledge, none of the sound changes to Hebrew since these acronyms are first attested would have affected them, and so we can't actually see if they behaved like normal words or not.

My hunch would be that acronyms would behave like normal words (at least in the short/medium term), but also be more liable to spelling pronunciations.

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