Contrastive Feature Hierarchies in Old English Diachronic Phonology
by Elan Dresher (University of Toronto)
This article looks at the origins and uses of contrastive hierarchies in Old English diachronic phonology, with a focus on the development of West Germanic vowel systems. I begin with a rather enigmatic remark in Richard Hogg’s A grammar of Old English (1992), and attempt to trace its provenance. We will find that the trail leads back to analyses by some prominent scholars that make use of contrastive feature hierarchies. However, these analyses often appear without context or supporting framework. I will attempt to provide the missing framework and historical context for these analyses, while showing their value for understanding the development of phonological systems. I will show that behind these apparently isolated analyses there is a substantial theoretical edifice that once held a central role in synchronic as well as diachronic phonological theory, and which is still capable of providing insights into the workings of phonology.
The neogrammarian approach to historical phonology involves propounding sound-change laws and explaining exceptions by means such as sub-laws, rearranging the relative chronology, and appeal to special factors such as analogy, borrowing, incomplete lexical diffusion, and sporadic phenomena like metathesis. Progress is mostly made manually, but in the second half of the 20th century some linguists looked forward to the ‘triumph of the electronic neogrammarian’. Although this hasn’t been realized yet, I’ll argue that there are opportunities to make important advances with comparatively little effort.
This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in Cambridge, Selwyn College, Diamond Room, on Saturday, 10 March, 4.15pm.
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.
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”→
The historical causes of general so-called ‘opening’ diphthongization of proto-Romance low mid vowels in stressed open syllables are an enduring matter of dispute in historical Romance phonology, the two principal positions being that the diphthongs originate in the assimilatory process of metaphony conditioned by following unstressed vowels, or that they are a matter of ‘spontaneous’ diphthongization associated with lengthening of the vowels. Most recent scholarship on the subject has tended to favour the latter view. This study, focusing on Tuscan (and thereby on Italian), reasserts the case for the former interpretation, critically reviewing older arguments and adducing new ones to show that the details of Tuscan open syllable diphtongization are significantly correlated with a metaphonic origin, despite claims to the contrary. In particular, I argue that the restriction of the generalized diphthongs to open syllables reflects the early conditions of metaphony, and that the occasional absence of the diphthongs in Tuscan systematically presupposes the historical absence of a metaphonizing environment. In conclusion, I reflect on the significance of my claims both for general Romance historical morphology and, particularly, for the place of Tuscan among the Italo-Romance dialects. The data also show how morphological analogy may play a significant role in the diffusion of the effects of sound change.
The variable operation of high vowel deletion in Old English has long been a point of difficulty, both descriptively – a prehistoric form like *hēafudu is attested variably as hēafudu, hēafdu, and hēafod – and theoretically. Recent work, especially by Bermúdez-Otero (2005b) and Fulk (2010), has indicated that plural forms like hēafudu are most likely original, but accounting for why the medial *u is preserved in this case form, and not in hēafde, the dative singular of the same word, has remained theoretically problematic. These difficulties arise from attempting to describe the prehistoric Old English process of high vowel deletion on the basis of later Old English phonology. At an earlier stage, the nominative-accusative plural *hēafudu could be exhaustively parsed into two precisely bimoraic feet: *[hēa][.fu.du]. The dative singular historically ended with a long vowel, *hēafudǣ, in which the medial *u could not be accommodated within a bimoraic foot: *[hēa].fu[.dǣ]. High vowel deletion is therefore best characterized as the deletion of unfooted high vowels in early Old English, initially operating while length in unstressed vowels remained contrastive. Both this quantitative system and the preference for precisely bimoraic units receive support from Kaluza’s law, an archaic metrical phenomenon in Beowulf which prohibits resolution in secondary metrical ictus if the resulting unit would have more than two moras, and which is sensitive to prehistoric length distinctions. This original system was obscured, linguistically and metrically, in later Old English by the shortening of unstressed long vowels, triggering various morphological reanalyses of the effects of high vowel deletion. A review of these changes suggests that the system of metrical phonology described here provides a more plausible starting point for the reworkings that produced the forms found in later Old English than do alternative accounts such as those of Campbell (1983) or Ringe (2002).