The northwest European linguistic area

New approaches to an old problem

April 20, 2016

UiT — The Arctic University of Norway (local talk)

Categories:  Celtic North Germanic Sámi Language contact Historical phonology

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In this talk 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 (see Eliasson 2000, Rießler 2008 for relatively recent overviews), but frequently ascribed to bilateral contact (e.g. North Germanic <-> Sámi or North Germanic -> Goidelic Celtic).

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 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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