Bridging the gap

Tenseness and length in Brythonic vowels

August 30, 2017

New Approaches to Brittonic Historical Linguistics, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin, Republic of Ireland.

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Categories:  Celtic Breton Welsh Historical phonology

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I focus on reconstructing the development of vowel quality distinctions in Brythonic and their connection with the history of vowel quantity between the establishment of the ‘standard’ Brythonic penultimate-stress system and the present day. In the received picture of Modern Welsh phonology, ‘tense’ quality of non-low vowels ([i u e o]) is strongly associated with length and, conversely, ‘lax’ quality ([ɪ ʊ ɛ ɔ]) is associated with shortness, at least in contrastive, i.e.stressed, position. The history of this pattern, however, remains understudied. Some important questions that remain to be addressed are as follows:

  • When and how did contrastive length in penultimate syllables (characteristic of South Welsh, Cornish and most of Breton) become established? Is it original (and thus preserved following the stress shift), or does it represent a secondary lengthening of vowels that had been shortened in unstressed position? What is the position of North Welsh with its exclusively short vowels in stressed penults (cf. Wmffre 2003)?

  • Similarly, does the tense/lax quality of vowels in Welsh reflect tense/lax quality before the stress shift, or does it represent a secondary readjustment? What is the relationship between the pattern in stressed penultimates and in final unstressed syllables (where at least high vowels seem to show an original length conditioning, at least in Welsh)?

  • Is the complementary pattern of vowel and consonant length in penultimate syllables, which is practically universal in Brythonic, original, as implied by e.g.the classic account by Falc’hun (1951), or is it a secondary development following stress shift?

I discuss the problems raised for these issues by traditional sources, notably the focus on taxonomic phonemic transcription and the frequent sidelining of consonant duration. I outline what kinds of studies are needed to mitigate these problems. I also draw attention to some evidence for the existence of dialects in Mid Wales that may lack a tenseness distinction in at least some stressed syllables, and discuss whether such systems can be accepted as evidence for the historically secondary status of tenseness in penultimate stressed syllables.

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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