Making sense of consonant palatalization vowel backness in Irish

December 3, 2016

Language Documentation and Linguistic Theory 5, SOAS University of London, London, UK

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Categories:  Irish Phonetics-phonology interface Language documentation

(with Máire Ní Chiosáin)

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Despite its status as a minority language, Modern Irish has a rich body of phonetic and phonological descriptions, based on (near-)native fieldworker knowledge and traditional auditory methods. In this paper, we draw on a range of up-to-date instrumental and quantitative methods in order to verify and expand the traditional findings regarding the nature and status of the interaction between consonant palatalization and vowel backness in Irish.

According to the descriptive literature, there are several types of consonant-to-vowel coarticulation in Modern Irish. In the case of long vowels, the distribution of front and back vowels is free with respect to surrounding consonant palatalization: ciúin /k’uːn’/ ‘quiet’, ‘buíon’ /biːn/ ‘company’. However, descriptions recognize the phonetic reality of ‘on-’ and ‘off-glides’ when the backness of the long vowel does not match that of the neighbouring consonant: [kʲuːʲn], [bʷiːˠn]. In the case of short vowels, it is commonly argued that (some) front and back vowels show complementary distribution driven by consonant palatalization, such that, for instance, giobal ‘rag’ (surface [ɡʲʊbəl]) and duine ‘man’ (surface [dɪnʲə]) both contain the underlying segment (phoneme) /ɯ/, and are derived from /ɡ’ɯbəl/ and /dɯn’ə/ by ‘vowel separation’ rules. At the same time, some of the more careful phonetic descriptions also recognize the existence of finely grained (though apparently categorical) vowel allophony driven by consonant palatalization.

We report the results of a project aiming to disentangle the categorical and gradient aspects of this coarticulation using instrumental methods. Previous studies show that for low vowels the effect of consonant palatalization on the quality of adjacent vowels cannot be described as simply a ‘glide’ — the consonant exerts an influence throughout the duration of the vowel — and that consonant-vowel coarticulation in Irish is gradient. In this paper, we focus on a controlled acoustic study of short vowels, claimed in the literature to undergo both categorical (complementary distribution) and gradient (fine-grained allophony) coarticulation.

We present the results of fitting a variety of generalized additive mixed models to the acoustic data, and show that both kinds of effects co-exist in Modern Irish: a categorical rule enforcing (near-)allophony and gradient consonant-vowel coarticulation. We argue that this is a theoretically interesting example of the phenomenon of ‘rule scattering’, which would have been difficult to establish with confidence solely on the basis of traditional descriptions. We also discuss some of the challenges associated with gathering balanced data (necessary for quantitative analysis) using reading tasks from a minority language, even one with a well-established tradition of literacy.



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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