Pavel Iosad (Edinburgh): The northwest European phonological area: New approaches to an old problem

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Date(s) - 29/09/2016
4:10 pm - 5:00 pm

University of Edinburgh - Dugald Stewart Building, Room 3.10/3.11


Linguistic Circle talk by Pavel Iosad (Edinburgh)


In this talk I discuss the recurrence of several cross-linguistically rare phonological phenomena in unrelated languages spoken in northwestern Europe. Identified already by Jakobson in the 1930s as forming part of a ‘Baltic’ Sprachbund defined by the use of ‘tonality’, the northwest European ‘phonological province’ is characterized by the presence of features such as preaspiration (North Germanic, Sámi, Scottish Gaelic — but also Welsh and English), tonal accents and laryngealization (North Germanic, Scottish Gaelic, West Germanic, Baltic — and some Finnic languages), sonorant pre-occlusion (in North Germanic, Sámi, Cornish, Manx), and excrescent vowels (Sámi, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, some West Germanic varieties). These similarities have been long recognized (see Eliasson 2000, Koptjevskaja-Tamm 2006, Rießler 2008 for relatively recent overviews), but frequently ascribed to bilateral contact (e.g. North Germanic Sámi or North Germanic -> Goidelic Celtic) or considered ‘typological’ in some vaguely defined sense.

I reconsider the nature of these similarities taking into account the availability of new data and new analytical tools. It is apparent that the occurrence of the relevant ‘rare’ phenomena has been underestimated, since they often function in a variable way, and only in some cases do they become categorical phenomena. I also draw attention to the fact that in many cases the origin and functioning of the relevant phenomena is closely connected with metrical (in particular foot and moraic) structure. This, I suggest, indicates that the role of contact may have been overstated, and that the appearance of rare phenomena such as phonological preaspiration and tonal accents may be due to the (re)use of laryngeal phonetic cues to metrical structure.


  • Eliasson, Stig. 2000. Typologiska och areallingvistiska aspekter på de nordeuropeiska språkens fonologi. In Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.) Språkkontakt: Innverknaden frå nedertysk på andre nordeuropeiske språk, 21–70. København: Nordisk ministerråd.
  • Koptjevskaja-Tamm, Maria. 2006. The circle that won’t come full: Two potential isoglosses in the Circum-Baltic area. In Yaron Matras, April McMahon & Nigel Vincent (eds.), Linguistic areas: Convergence in typological perspective, 182–226. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Rießler, Michael. 2008. Substratsprachen, Sprachbünde und Arealität in Nordeuropa. NOWELE 54/55, 99–130.

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