A metrical approach to ternarity in Northern European accentual contrasts

May 27, 2023

30th Manchester Phonology Meeting, University of Manchester, Manchester, UK

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Categories:  Prosodic structure

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Many languages of Northern Europe possess typologically non-trivial systems of prosodic con- trasts, analysed variously as ‘tonal/pitch accent’ (North and West Germanic, Gaelic, Baltic), laryngeal accent/stød (North Germanic, Baltic, Finnic, Gaelic), and ternary quantity distinctions (Finnic, Sámi, Gaelic). In this paper, I show that despite the diversity of phonetic correlates, the fundamental structure of these systems is almost perfectly isomorphic. Specifically, they are often three-way contrasts between stressed syllables that lack the segmental material to support the accentual contrast, and two kinds of stressed syllables that do have such segmental content: one bearing some marked accentual specification and one lacking it. I argue that this generalization is especially well captured by ‘metrical’ (more specifically foot-based) analyses of tonal accents (e. g. Morén-Duolljá 2013, Köhnlein 2016, Iosad 2016, Morrison 2019).

Usually, the contrasts are treated as two-way distinctions with a markedness asymmetry: for instance, Danish stød is considered the marked pole of the contrast (Basbøll 2005), while the relative markedness of North Germanic tonal accents is much debated (e. g. Kristoffersen 2006). Importantly, the two-way contrasts are often neutralized in certain segmental contexts, such as in final stressed syllables (Swedish/Norwegian) or in syllables with insufficiently sonorous rhymes (Danish stød, Franconian and Baltic accents).

Borrowing a term from the Danish tradition (e. g. Grønnum & Basbøll 2001, cf. also Liberman 1984), I will refer to syllables that cannot support the prosodic contrasts as lacking accentual basis. In the paper, I show that different accentual systems in Northern Europe exhibit this basic ternary structure, differing primarily in how they define accentual basis, and in the mechanisms of default vs. non-default prosodification that are responsible for the contrast in syllables with basis.

Importantly, basis is usually defined by size: accentual contrasts can require a bimoraic high-sonority coda (Danish stød, Baltic, Franconian), a bimoraic trochaic domain (Scottish Gaelic), a bimoraic voiced domain (Livonian), or a disyllabic domain (North Germanic tonal accents, Danish short-vowel stød). This framing allows us to treat the ternary systems of languages like Estonian and Aanaar Sámi, where the relevant dimension is quantity rather than ‘accent’, within the same framework: effectively, a light stressed syllable (Estonian Q1 [ˈlinɑ] ‘flax.GEN’) is ‘too small’ to provide accentual basis, whilst heavy syllables (Q2/‘long’ [ˈlinːɑ] ‘town.GEN’ and Q3/‘overlong’ [ˈlinːnɑ] ‘town.PART’) both have sufficient moraic material to support the contrast (cf. the analysis of Estonian Q3 as ‘heavy accent’ [e.g. Hint 1997, Kuznetsova 2018]).

The fundamental identity of ‘ternary quantity’ and ‘accentual contrasts’ is highlighted by cases that submit to either analysis. A notable example is Low German, variously treated as ‘tonal’/‘accentual’ (Prehn 2007, Höder 2020), showing ternary quantity distinctions (Ternes 1981, Chapman 1993), or defining accentual basis by vowel quality (Kohler 2001). A variety of cues of similar structures is also attested in Scottish Gaelic (Ternes 2006), which Morrison (2019) analyses in terms of foot structure.

I argue that metrical approaches such as those of Köhnlein (2016) and Morrison (2019) provide exactly the right level of abstraction to capture the fundamental ternary structure underlying many Northern European accentual systems, whilst also allowing for a variety of phonetic realizations. It is also predicted that ‘metrical’ accentual contrasts can combine with other prosodic specifications like tone to produce more elaborate systems: this is the case in Latvian (Krämer forthcoming). I argue that metrical approaches are superior to frameworks that treat lexically distinctive tones as the analytical key to ‘accentual’ contrast (Hyman 2009, Gussenhoven & Peters 2019): in particular, I suggest that ‘tonal’ approaches are unable to explain the necessary link between size and the definition of accentual basis. Metrical analyses, by contrast, offer an insightful and unified framework for a range of apparently disparate phenomena.


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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