Variation in North Germanic preaspiration

February 25, 2017

Fonologi i Norden (FiNo), University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway

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Categories:  North Germanic Laryngeal phonology Substance-free phonology Historical phonology

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I consider the extent of cross-dialectal variation in the expression of laryngeal contrast within North Germanic, with a focus on (voiceless) preaspiration, and suggest that the presence of preaspiration and the diversity of its realization across the North Germanic area have been significantly under-reported in the past.

As discussed by Pétur Helgason (2002), whilst preaspiration and sonorant devoicing in Insular Nordic have long been recognized by the scholarship, their distribution and behaviour in mainland varieties have been less well understood. Traditional descriptions designate preaspiration as characteristic of varieties in Jæren and Gudbrandsdalen, with only passing references for other dialects such as that of Senja. In Sweden, preaspiration had been noted in Härjedalen and parts of Dalarna, as well as in dialects of the Baltic Sea islands (Gräsö, Åland and Åboland). However, as Pétur Helgason (2002) has shown, preaspiration is pervasive in other varieties, notably Central Standard Swedish. More recently preaspiration has also been studied in detail in Trøndelag Norwegian.

Whilst Pétur Helgason (2002) makes an important distinction between ‘normative’ and ‘non-normative’ preaspiration, and highlights some differences in the patterning of preaspiration between dialects, the degree of internal variation in the behaviour of preaspiration so far appears relatively small. This is in striking contrast to the significant variability observed in Scottish Gaelic preaspiration despite the comparable, if not smaller, time depth. For now, it is not clear whether this lack of variation may simply be due to under-reporting in traditional auditory descriptions. Tengesdal (2015), in an instrumental study, has shown Oftedal’s (1947) claim that preaspiration of fortis stops is absent in south-east Jæren (Bjerkreim/Dalane) to likely have been incorrect. Preaspiration in ‘non-preaspirating’ areas is also evidenced in the Nordic Dialect Corpus.

I present a comparative acoustic study of preaspiration in two regions of Norway: Jæren, traditionally considered a preaspirating area, and Northern Norway, where preaspiration has not been consistently described before. I show that preaspiration is in fact prevalent in (some) northern dialects, at rates not dissimilar to those in the west. However, there are also important differences in patterning.

Documenting the diversity of ways in which laryngeal contrast is realized even in closely related varieties is important for our understanding of the relationship between phonological specification and phonetic substance. I argue that the study of microvariation in laryngeal contrast supports a substance-free view of that relationship, in that even relatively abstract substance-bound approaches such as laryngeal realism underpredict the fine-grained behaviour of features such as preaspiration. At the same time laryngeal realism and substance-free approaches both readily account for asymmetries in phonological behaviour between fortis and lenis stops. For instance, they predict that Western Norwegian voiceless lenes should be inert in assimilation despite being categorically voiceless phonetically, which I show to be correct in the case of [ʁ]-devoicing.