Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics

by Tam Blaxter (University of Cambridge)

Quantitative methods in historical linguistics are most often used to answer ‘variationist’ questions. We assume that we know what the possible forms of a language were, but ask questions about their distribution: when was one form replaced by another? Who used which forms? Were some more common in particular linguistic contexts, genres or text types? For this reason, quantitative methods might seem unappealing to historical linguists primarily interested in describing a historical variety—its grammar and lexicon—or describing etymologies. From time to time, however, quantitative data can throw a light on these more basic descriptive questions.

An excerpt from the Old Norwegian Homily Book

Old Norwegian, unlike its better-studied West Nordic sister Old Icelandic, exhibited height harmony of unstressed non-low vowels. Readers familiar with Old Icelandic texts will expect to see three distinct vowels in unstressed syllables: /a i u/ written <a i u>. In Old Norwegian texts we find an additional two graphemes, <e o>, in complementary distribution with <i u>. These vowels agree with the vowel of the stressed syllable for height: <i u> appear in unstressed syllables whenever the stressed syllable was high and <e o> whenever it was non-high. There are two exceptions to this rule: when the syllable contained the vowel normalised ǫ, which was the u-umlaut product of *a, we find unstressed syllables with <u> and either <e> or <i>, and when the stressed syllable contained the i-umlaut product of *a (usually normalised e but sometimes written ę to distinguish it from /e/ < Proto-Germanic *e), we find unstressed syllables with <i> and either <u> or <o>.

In theory, then, we could use the vowel harmony to distinguish between the stressed phonemes /e/ and /ę/ which were not (consistently) distinguished in the orthography: the former should have harmony vowels <e o> while the latter should have <i o/u>. However, Old Norwegian vowel harmony is a slippery creature. Few texts exhibit it totally consistently, making it difficult to sort out what is orthographic and what phonological variation. If we take a qualitative approach in which we read individual texts and describe their orthographies, we can’t confidently interpret deviations from vowel harmony as meaningful. If, on the other hand, we take a quantitative approach which includes data from many different texts, interesting patterns may become clear. Continue reading “Old Norwegian vowel harmony and the value of quantitative data for descriptive linguistics”

Fieldwork on West Polesian

by Kristian Roncero (University of Surrey)

West Polesian belongs to the Eastern Slavonic subgroup and is spoken in the Polish region of Podlasie, the south-western half of the Brest region in Belarus, and the Volynsk region in Ukraine. West Polesian has hardly been studied separately, yet it differs considerably from the national standard  (or literary) languages where it is spoken. One of the main reasons is its isolation. Older stages of the Common Eastern Slavonic language and culture have been preserved thanks to the fact that Polesians live in a marshy area which can be difficult to access as it is frequently flooded. In Žydča (see map), some speakers  remember the times when they were kids and a helicopter would bring bread to the village as the ‘road’ was flooded (before they drained some roads in the 80’s-90’s).

Map of the studied villages in the region of Brest (Belarus)

There is very little work on West Polesian grammar, which is why I decided that I needed to get it from first hand witnesses. Continue reading “Fieldwork on West Polesian”

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 6

Enclisis/proclisis alternations in Romance: allomorphies and (re)ordering

by M. Rita Manzini & Leonardo M. Savoia (Università di Firenze) 

Romance clitic pronouns appear to the left of the verb in I and to the right of the verb in C. This alternation correlates with (a) allomorphy, specifically l- vs. zero; (b) stress shifts; (c) reordering of the clitic string. The alternations in (a)-(c) are also observed between non-negative and negative contexts. The key points of our analysis are: (i) the l- segment is associated with definite content; (ii) interpretively, pronouns scope out of modal/non-veridical operators; (iii) syntactically, the exponent for modality/nonveridicality may have the pronoun in its domain; (iv) externalization of the l- segment is found when semantic scope (ii) and syntactic configuration (iii) are mismatched. Therefore allomorphies (including also stress), far from being morphophonological quirks, contribute to the externalization of syntactico-semantic notions of nonveridicality. In dealing with clitic (re)ordering we propose a model based on the dissociation between Merge and linear order. Phrasal constituents are ordered to the right of the verb in Romance; clitics mirror them in that they are ordered to the left, while keeping the Merge relations constant.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12093

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 5

Notes on the nominal system of Bashkardi

by Agnes Korn (CNRS / UMR Mondes iranien et indien)

This article studies the nominal system and noun phrase of Bashkardi, a language of the Iranian family spoken in Southern Iran in the region of Bashakerd. Bashkardi is a very little studied language, and is in particular need of being documented because it is a minority language endangered by heavy influence from Persian. The article is based on recordings made by Ilya Gershevitch in 1956.

In discussing the Bashkardi nominal system, I compare it to that of geographically or historically neighbouring languages such as Balochi, spoken nearby in the province (and also in the form of the Koroshi dialect spoken in Fars province to the west). From a historical perspective, Middle Persian and Parthian, the only two Western Iranian languages attested from Middle Iranian times, are adduced to elucidate the development of the Bashkardi nominal system.

I argue that the nominal system of Bashkardi agrees with Persian and other Western Ir. languages in having lost the distinction between direct and oblique case (preserved in Kurmanji, Balochi etc.), but that a trace of the oblique case might be present in the possessive marker -ī. Like Middle Persian, Bashkardi employs adpositions to mark syntactic relations, but none of these is used in a systematic way as of yet.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12087

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 4

Collective Nouns in Welsh: a Noun Category or a Plural Allomorph?

by Silva Nurmio (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)

A noun category in Welsh which has a shorter form for a collection/plural meaning and a suffixed singulative for a single instance has been described in the literature as both a number category and a plural allomorph, often with terminological ambiguity and blurring of boundaries between different noun types. This paper is an investigation of the features of these nouns using a number of theoretical approaches which cumulatively support the argument that collective can be considered a full number category in Welsh. 

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12086

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 3

Reduction in Remoteness Distinctions and Reconfiguration in the Bemba Past Tense

by Nancy Kula (University of Essex)

Bantu languages are well-known for having multiple remoteness distinctions in both the past and the future. This paper looks at the 4-way remoteness distinction of Bemba (central Bantu) showing that the system is undergoing change that is resulting in the loss of an intermediate past tense by merger with the remote past. Two factors are central in driving this change; a merger of forms by tone loss and neutralisation and a shift in the scope of semantic function. Because the Bemba tense-aspect system manifests the so-called conjoint-disjoint alternation there is also some reconfiguration of the TA system that accompanies the merger. The different factors involved in this change are unified under a cognitive multi-dimensional approach to tense, which is here extended to account for language change in tense systems.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12084

TPS 115(1) – Abstract 2

Verbal triplication morphology in Stau རྟའུ། (Mazi dialect)

by Jesse P. Gates (Southwest University for Nationalities)

This paper presents the first documentation and analysis of a typologically remarkable process of verbal triplication in the Stau language (Sino-Tibetan). Moreover, Stau’s triplication of verbs to index multiple agents (S/A) and to pragmatically highlight those agents, as is demonstrated in this study, is a morphological process that has not been documented among any of the world’s spoken languages to date. Stau’s verbal triplication, although unique in many regards, falls into a broader typological linguistic pattern of iconicity, demonstrating that there is often a strong tie between form and function.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12083