The northwest European phonological area

New approaches to an old problem

September 29, 2016

Linguistic Circle, University of Edinburgh

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Categories:  Language contact Historical phonology North Germanic Celtic Scottish Gaelic Welsh Prosodic structure

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This is a local colloquium talk with some preliminary ideas on the topic. If you have any kind of feedback, do please get in touch!

I discuss the recurrence of several cross-linguistically rare phonological phenomena in unrelated languages spoken in northwestern Europe. Identified already by Jakobson in the 1930s as forming part of a ‘Baltic’ Sprachbund defined by the use of ‘tonality’, the northwest European ‘phonological province’ is characterized by the presence of features such as preaspiration (North Germanic, Sámi, Scottish Gaelic — but also Welsh and English), tonal accents and laryngealization (North Germanic, Scottish Gaelic, West Germanic, Baltic — and some Finnic languages), sonorant pre-occlusion (in North Germanic, Sámi, Cornish, Manx), and excrescent vowels (Sámi, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, some West Germanic varieties). These similarities have been long recognized, but frequently ascribed to bilateral contact (e.g. North Germanic → Sámi or North Germanic → Goidelic Celtic) or considered ‘typological’ in some vaguely defined sense.

I reconsider the nature of these similarities taking into account the availability of new data and new analytical tools. It is apparent that the occurrence of the relevant ‘rare’ phenomena has been underestimated, since they often function in a variable way, and only in some cases do they become categorical phenomena. I also draw attention to the fact that in many cases the origin and functioning of the relevant phenomena is closely connected with metrical (in particular foot and moraic) structure. This, I suggest, indicates that the role of contact may have been overstated, and that the appearance of rare phenomena such as phonological preaspiration and tonal accents may be due to the (re)use of laryngeal phonetic cues to metrical structure.

About me

I’m Pavel Iosad, and I’m a Senior Lecturer 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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