LINGUIST List 5.1206

Mon 31 Oct 1994

Disc: Articulatory Effects on Phoneme Sequence Distribution

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  1. Suzanne E Kemmer, articulatory effects on phoneme sequence distribution

Message 1: articulatory effects on phoneme sequence distribution

Date: Sat, 29 Oct 94 15:01:30 CDarticulatory effects on phoneme sequence distribution
From: Suzanne E Kemmer <>
Subject: articulatory effects on phoneme sequence distribution

Michael Kelly's posting about possible articulatory effects on the
distribution of phoneme sequences raises an interesting question about
the relation of articulatory motivations, synchrony, and diachrony.
The situation of the English velar plus /i/ sequences is, I think, a
perfect illustration of that relation.

First, there is a historical reason why English shows the
distributional skewing it does for velar followed by /i/ vs. other
stops followed by /i/.

The sequence velar + /i/ underwent a sound change very early in the
history of English whereby /k/ turned to /ch/ before /i, e/ and /g/
turned to y (i.e. /j/) before /i, e/. That is, cirice turned to
church, ceas to cheese, ceap to cheap etc. ( The c's in these words,
historically velar stops, were probably already pronounced ch in Old
English, but ch was just an allophone of /k/, rather than a
distinctive phoneme as it is now.)

Similarly, gear turned to year, geard to yard, and geonian to yawn
(all with original velars). Words like get, give, and kill are
loanwords from Scandinavian which came after the sound change was
completed; other examples of present- day ki- were from old English cy
(k + front rounded vowel) like king < cyning, kiln < cyline (and of
course we have still later loanwords like kinetic etc.) So it's no
wonder there are relatively few words with velars followed by non-low
front vowels in English--all the original ones underwent sound change,
and no longer fall into that class.

Now for the interesting question--the relation of the diachronic facts
to synchronic articulatory motivations.

Rather than starkly putting it this way: "Articulatory incompatibility
of velars with front (non-low) vowels will disfavor such sequences", I
would say that there is a tendency toward assimilation of
articulatorily distant but temporally adjacent sequences that leads to
a reduction in such sequences. In particular, velar + high front
vowel is a historically unstable sequence.

So, there is a synchronic, articulatory-driven factor (assimilation to
get rid of troublesome sequences) that leads to diachronic tendencies
that in turn result in the synchronic skewings that we see.

We don't want to simply say that the synchronic, articulatory factor
is "the" explanation for the skewings, because it doesn't have very
strong, direct, immediate effects on the phonology, but effects which
slowly manifest themselves in sound change. The conventional system is
the mediating factor that keeps the articulatory tendency from
immediately reaching into the phonology and getting rid of all the
not-quite-optimal sequences.

 --Suzanne Kemmer
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