Functions of Vowel Length in Language: Phonological, Grammatical, & Pragmatic Consequences

by Larry Hyman (University of California, Berkeley)

In this talk my starting point is to frame the different functions of vowel length (lexical, morphological, syntactic, pragmatic) in terms of how they compare with other phonological properties, in particular tone, which has been claimed to be able to do things that “nobody” else can do (Hyman 2011). Rather than providing a cross-linguistic typology, I focus on the different functions of vowel length in Bantu—as well as how these functions have changed. Although Proto-Bantu had a vowel length contrast on roots which survives in many daughter languages today, many other Bantu languages have modified the inherited system. In this talk I distinguish between four types of Bantu languages:

  1. Those which maintain the free occurrence of the vowel length contrast inherited from the proto language;
  2. Those which maintain the contrast, but have added restrictions which shorten long vowels in pre-(ante-)penultimate word position and/or on head nouns and verbs that are not final in their XP;
  3. Those which have lost the contrast with or without creating new long vowels (e.g. from the loss of an intervocalic consonant flanked by identical vowels);
  4. Those which have lost the contrast but have added phrase-level penultimate lengthening.

I will propose that the positional restrictions fed into the ultimate loss of the contrast in types (3) and (4), with a concomitant shift from root prominence (at the word level) to penultimate prominence (at the intonational and phrase level). In the course of covering the above typology and historical developments in Bantu, I will show that there are some rather interesting Bantu vowel length systems that may or may not be duplicated elsewhere in the world and that vowel length is probably second only
to tone in what it can do.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting at SOAS, University of London, Djam Lecture Theatre (DLT, Main SOAS Building), on Friday, 15 February, 4.15pm .

Continue reading “Functions of Vowel Length in Language: Phonological, Grammatical, & Pragmatic Consequences”

The diachrony of initial consonant loss in Cape York Peninsula (Australia)

by Jean-Christophe Verstraete (University of Leuven)

This paper revisits the diachrony of initial consonant loss, a type of sound change that is found in several areas in Australia (Hale 1976a, Alpher 1976, Blevins 2001), but is rare from a world-wide perspective (Blevins 2007). So far, the literature has mainly analysed initial loss as the outcome of a gradual process of initial weaking, caused by a shift of stress away from the initial syllable (Alpher 1976, Blevins & Marmion 1994). In this paper, I use data from a set of eight Paman (Pama-Nyungan) languages of Cape York Peninsula (Australia), which illustrate not just loss of initial consonants, but also initial consonant lenition and the loss of entire initial syllables. Using these data, I argue that (i) the classic model of gradual initial weakening needs to be supplemented with more abrupt mechanisms, specifically analogy-driven loss based on synchronic alternations, and contact-induced loss, and (ii) the causal link with stress shift needs to be refined, and in some languages loss of initial consonants in part of the lexicon may itself cause changes in the stress system.

Cape York Peninsula, in Australia’s northeast, has several ‘hotspots’ of initial loss (Alpher 1976, Sutton 1976), e.g. in the north and on the central east coast. This paper focuses on the eastern hotspot in the Princess Charlotte Bay area, specifically eight languages from three different subgroups of Paman, viz. Middle Paman (Umpithamu, Yintyingka, Umpila), Lamalamic (Lamalama, Umbuygamu, Rimanggudinhma) and Thaypanic (Kuku Thaypan, Aghu Tharrnggala). The Middle Paman languages show a combination of retention, lenition and loss of initial consonants, as shown in (1) for Umpithamu, while the Lamalamic and Thaypanic languages show systematic loss of initial consonants, as shown in (2a) for Umbuygamu, and/or of entire initial syllables, as shown in (2b) for Lamalama (Proto-Paman reconstructions from Hale 1976b).

(1) a. kuwa ‘west’ ~ *kuwa b. ya’u ‘foot’ ~ *caru c. aangkal ‘shoulder’ ~ *paangkal
(2) a. agarr ‘flesh’ ~ *pangkarr b. karr ‘flesh’ ~ *pangkarr

When confronted with these data, the classic model of gradual initial weakening only works for Umpithamu, which shows phonologically systematic patterning of initial consonant loss, lenition and retention. The other languages deviate in two ways, suggesting two further pathways to initial loss. In Umpila and Yintyingka, lenition, loss and retention of initial consonants do not show any phonological systematicity: their patterning can only be explained in terms of contact-induced change, specifically borrowing from neighbouring languages that do have gradual initial weaking. In Lamalamic and Thaypanic, loss of initial consonants is complete, but initial vowels are retained or lost. Against expectations in the literature (e.g. Blevins & Garrett 1998, Sommer 1976), initial vowels in these languages do not show any signs of weakening, but are in fact in a strong position, with a large number of contrasts. Instead, initial loss in these languages can be related to specific phrasal structures that induce construction-specific loss of the initial vowel of the first lexeme, which creates a regular synchronic alternation between forms with and without an initial vowel, and can serve as an analogical model driving the systematic loss of initial vowels.

The classic model of stress shift towards the second syllable is equally problematic when confronted with these data. Lamalamic languages show the predicted pattern of stress on the first consonant-initial syllable in the root, but crucially Middle Paman languages do not. In Umpithamu, for instance, stress placement can be generalized in terms of a right-aligned system of moraic trochees, which crucially allows initial stress for some types of vowel-initial roots. This suggests that the classic model of linear stress shift causing initial loss does not seem to work. Instead, initial consonant loss in part of the lexicon, as observed in Umpithamu, may itself be a crucial factor leading to a shift in stress alignment from left to right edge (compare Lahiri 2015 on reanalysis driving changes in stress alignment in the history of English). This still leaves the root causes of initial loss to be addressed, but at least it shows that stress shifts in these languages are not always simple linear shifts, and that they are not necessarily the cause of patterns of initial loss but can also be an effect.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting at the University of London, Senate House (Room G3), London WC1E 7HU, on Friday, 19 October, 4.15pm.


Alpher, Barry. 1976. Some linguistic innovations in Cape York and their sociocultural correlates. In Sutton, ed. Languages of Cape York. Canberra: AIAS. 84-101.

Blevins, Juliette & Doug Marmion. 1994. Nhanta historical phonology. Australian Journal of Linguistics 14: 193-216.

Blevins, Juliette. 2001. Where have all the onsets gone? Initial consonant loss in Australian Aboriginal languages. In Simpson, Nash, Laughren, Austin & Alpher, eds. Forty years on: Ken Hale and Australian languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics. 481-492.

Blevins, Juliette. 2007. Endangered sound patterns: Three perspectives on theory and description. Language Documentation and Conservation 1: 1-16.

Blevins, Juliette & Andrew Garrett. 1998. The origins of consonant-vowel metathesis. Language 74: 508-556.

Hale, Ken. 1976a. Phonological developments in particular Northern Paman languages. In Sutton, ed. Languages of Cape York. Canberra: AIAS. 7-40.

Hale, Ken. 1976b. Wik reflections of Middle Paman phonology. In Sutton, ed. Languages of Cape York. Canberra: AIAS. 50-60.

Jolly, Lesley. 1989. Aghu Tharrnggala. A Language of the Princess Charlotte Bay Region of Cape York Peninsula. BA Hons thesis, UQ.

Lahiri, Aditi. 2015. Changes in word prosody: Stress and quantity. In Honeybone & Salmons, eds. The Oxford handbook of historical phonology. Oxford: OUP. 219-244.

Rigsby, Bruce. 1976. Kuku-Thaypan descriptive and historical phonology. In Sutton, ed. Languages of Cape York. Canberra: AIAS. 68-77.

Sommer, Bruce. 1976. A problem of metathesis. In Sutton, ed. Languages of Cape York. Canberraː AIAS. 139-143.

Sutton, Peter. 1976. The diversity of initial dropping languages in southern Cape York. In Sutton, ed. Languages of Cape York. Canberra: AIAS. 102-123.

Thompson, David. 1988. Lockhart River ‘Sand Beach’ Language. An Outline of Kuuku Ya’u and Umpila. Darwin: SIL.

Bashkardi – a language by convergence?

by Agnes Korn (CNRS, Paris)

Bashkardi, spoken in Southern Iran inland from the Strait of Hormuz, is a very little known language. The dialects differ on all levels of grammar and show strong influence of Persian. This talk will present some salient features of the phonology and morphology of Bashkardi and compare them to other Iranian languages to shed light on the development of the grammatical structures. I will examine the hypothesis that Bashkardi is not a genetic entity, but a group of Iranian dialects of diverse origin which developed common traits by a process of convergence, having found themselves next to each other in a small region that remains remote even today.

This paper will be read at the Philological Society meeting in London, SOAS, Brunei Gallery building, first floor, room B104, on Friday, 11 May, 4.15pm.

TPS 116(1) – Abstract 1

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.

DOI: 10.1111/1467-968X.12105

Mechanising historical phonology

by Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth University)

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.

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”

TPS 114(2) – Abstract 3

Italo-Romance Metaphony and the Tuscan Diphthongs

by Martin Maiden (University of Oxford)

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.

Read it online