Phonological convergence in north-western Europe

Language contact or drift?

June 16, 2021

12th International Conference of Nordic and General Linguistics, University of Oslo

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Categories:  Historical phonology Celtic Germanic

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I offer a framework for understanding convergent diachronic developments in the phonological systems of unrelated languages, informed by the life cycle of phonological processes. I focus on preaspiration of |fortis| stops (the traditional /p t k/ series) in several languages of north-west Europe where preaspiration cannot be due to shared inheritance, including the North Germanic languages, varieties of English, the Gaelic languages, Welsh, and the Sámi languages. Preaspiration is often claimed to be typologically rare and diachronically unstable (Silverman 2003, Blevins 2017); hence, its appearance in unrelated languages with a history of contact is often ascribed to that contact (Marstrander 1932, Posti 1954, Wagner 1964, Borgstrøm 1974, Salmons 1992, Gunnar Ólafur Hansson 2001, Rießler 2008, McKenna 2013). However, this scenario is open to challenge. First, more or less convincing non-contact scenarios for the development of preaspiration in individual cases have been proposed (Ó Baoill 1980, Ó Murchú 1985, Ní Chasaide 1986, Goblirsch 2005). Second, it has been argued (Pétur Helgason 2002, Clayton 2010) that variable, ‘weak’ forms of preaspiration, which authors such as Silverman (2003) argue to be diachronically unstable, can persist over long time periods. Third, preaspiration appears to be more widespread than often assumed, being recently described for Irish (Ní Chasaide 1986), Welsh (Morris & Hejná 2019), English (Docherty & Foulkes 1999, Hejná 2015, Kettig 2015, Fiasson 2016), and North Germanic vernaculars (Pétur Helgason 2002, Schaeffler 2005, Tengesdal 2015). Fourth, historical and sociolinguistic evidence does not always support the possibility of contact-induced transfer (Iosad 2020).

Taken together, these arguments undermine the case for contact as the primary vector of the spread of preaspiration in north-western Europe. I suggest, however, that the convergent development of preaspiration in North Germanic, the Gaelic languages and the Sámi languages should not be entirely written off as coincidental. Instead, I propose to view this development as an instance of drift along the lines of Sapir (1921). Specifically, I suggest that the similarities arise because the development of preaspiration follows the life cycle of phonological processes (Bermúdez-Otero 2007, 2015). Under this account, preaspiration arises as a variable by-product of the realization of laryngeal contrast. It can remain a variable phonetic rule (as in Ulster Irish, Welsh, English, and some Norwegian varieties), but it can also (as in Icelandic and some Scottish Gaelic varieties) enter the phonological grammar, with a concomitant narrowing in the range of variation. Compatible accounts of the diachrony of preaspiration are offered by Gunnar Ólafur Hansson (2001) and Pétur Helgason (2002) for North Germanic and Ó Maolalaigh (2010), Clayton (2010) and Iosad (2020) for the Gaelic languages.

The suggestion that drift can arise as a consequence of initially variable phonetic patterns proceeding along the life cycle, which makes them progressively more entangled in the categorical grammar, is consistent with the proposal by Joseph (2013) that the historical source of ‘drift’ in related languages is the narrowing of the range of variation found in the proto-language. In the cases considered here, however, the original variation is not inherited, even though the mechanism of drift is the same. I further suggest that the convergent developments have been facilitated by the fact that the languages share significant commonalities in their phonological grammar, particularly with respect to the role of moraic quantity (these may or not may be contact-induced at a greater time depth; cf. Salmons [1992]). These similarities may ‘prime’ (in the sense of Kiparsky [1995]) the co-option of similar phonetic cues such as preaspiration to signal quantitative patterns, further contributing to the convergence. I also suggest that a similar mechanism may have led to the rise of at least two other areal phenomena in the region: tonal accents and sonorant pre-stopping.

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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