Phonetic (non-)explanation in historical phonology: Duration, harmony, and dissimilation

December 4, 2015

The Second Edinburgh Symposium on Historical Phonology, The University of Edinburgh, Scotland

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Categories:  Historical phonology Welsh Irish North Germanic Nivkh Phonetics-phonology interface

(with Bert Botma and Hidetoshi Shiraishi)

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We consider the value of phonetically based explanations for phonological change by tracing the phonologization paths of durational asymmetries between vowels. The literature on phonetic motivations for phonological change identifies relative shortness of one vowel with respect to another as an important precursor to vowel reduction, which, in turn, may feed hypercorrection of the reduced vowel to give rise to vowel harmony phenomena. We examine such a case from Nivkh in detail.

In other language, similar durational asymmetries fail to promote hypercorrection, instead becoming the basis of sound change whereby the height of vowels changes to adjust their inherent duration in line with the asymmetry. This promotes apparent dissimilation phenomena; we examine such a case from Irish.

Thus, durational asymmetries provoke both harmony and dissimilation as phonological changes. While this is unsurprising given the sotchastic nature of phonologization, we suggest that such cases weaken the predictive power of ‘evolutionary’ theories of sound change: without detailed phonetic information on the precursors of phonological change, it cannot be said that explanations eschewing a role for formal factors are not necessarily more explanatory than ones that do incorporate formal theorizing.

About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I'm a Lecturer in Theoretical Phonology in the department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Edinburgh. ¶ You can always go to the start page to learn more.



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