The languages of North-Western Europe — including various branches of Germanic and Celtic, and non-Indo-European languages like the Sámi languages — share a surprising number of phonological features that are at the same time quite rare cross-linguistically. A Circum-Baltic Sprachbund was proposed by Roman Jakobson as early as the 1930s, on the basis of commonalities in the suprasegmental domain (‘tone accents’, ‘word tones’ and the like). Later work has identified a whole raft of common features that these languages share but that cannot be due to common inheritance, from preaspiration to vowel patterns to foot structure. In many cases, more or less plausible contact scenarios can be proposed to explain the commonalities as borrowings, for instance in connection with Viking expansions.
However, much of the research in this areas presupposes a solid understanding of the phonetic and phonological properties of the relevant phenomena, which has only recently started becoming available. Even so, it is fast becoming apparent that the diversity of phenomena traditionally seen as unitary (such as preaspiration) has been underappreciated. In other areas, such as the study of tone accents, advances in empirical and theoretical research have offered new analytic insights that could be usefully transplanted into the historical context. The time is now ripe for a reconsideration of the existing evidence and working towards a better understanding of these questions on the basis of new data.
To date, members of the AMC community have conducted research on:
Tonal accents in North Germanic and Gaelic (Dr Pavel Iosad),
Preaspiration in Welsh (Dr Pavel Iosad)
A new Carnegie Research Incentive Grant was recently awarded to Dr Pavel Iosad for the project “Preaspiration in North Germanic: interval variation and language history“. For more on this project see here, and the news item here.