Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony


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The constraint hierarchy has been confirmed in most varieties; on the other hand, the quantitative dimension of cluster reduction differed between varieties, and this was interpreted as a linguistic expression of socioethnic differentiation particularly in African American and Hispanic English; see Chapter 4. With the aim of providing a more general approach to phonotactic change in English, this book also focuses on processes in earlier developmental stages of English.

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This is particularly promising since Old English phonotactics admitted a variety of consonantal sequences that are no longer found in contemporary varieties. A number of clusters Introduction 9 were modified or lost entirely so that the phonotactic system of English was weakened in a number of ways.

For instance, cluster loss occurred in some lexical items only in which case it was lexically conditioned. Historical phonotactic change could affect the frequency with which clusters occur red , as a result of which some clusters are less frequent now than they were historically. German Schwester, where the cluster has been maintained. Phonotactic change may also be a function of phonological change.

A similar yet slightly different case of phonotactic modification is the permanent loss of a cluster through sporadic, unconditioned and often lexeme-specific change.

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The last process is of particular importance here, and the historical literature on the development of English lists a number of clusters that disappeared even though there was no accompanying phonological change to account for it. This book intends to link synchrony with diachrony by identifying which conditions are favourable towards phonotactic adaptation in contemporary forms of English, and then applying such insights to processes that occurred historically thus applying a uniformitarian framework.

The aim of this approach is threefold: 1 to identify factors that speed up or slow down phonotactic change; 2 to pinpoint when and under what conditions variation leads to permanent change; and 3 to find whether there exists a common set of principles that 10 Consonant Change in English Worldwide Table 1. These questions are addressed in detail in Chapters 3 to 5.

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Contact linguistics and genetic linguistics Cluster reduction is an essential variable for the investigation of linguistic contact phenomena, the common view being that an analysis of phonotactic variation and change allows the reconstruction of contact histories and substratal transfer processes. One notes some overlap with language universals and linguistic typology, most notably in what concerns the direct contact of phonotactic systems. The most frequent and regular syllable types that is, universal CV or CVC usually stand a higher chance of being selected in contact scenarios that involve competition between languages with distinct phonotactic systems even though this depends on the contact scenario and a variety of linguistic and language-external criteria; see Chapter 4.

In other words, when languages with final clusters come into contact with languages that admit only single C segments in a syllable coda, then cluster reduction is the usual outcome. This process can be observed in situ in many contact settings in the English-speaking world , and it has also been interpreted for historical processes for example, for discussions on the historical evolution of African American English.

There are two main reasons why cluster reduction is an important linguistic tool for the determination of genetic relationships. First, when synchronic varieties have comparatively higher levels of cluster Introduction 11 reduction, then this is indicative of a contact history with other languages. Second, in an input scenario that involves contributions from several varieties, reduction levels offer information as to which of the contributing donor varieties was most influential. As cluster reduction is conditioned by language-internal factors, the positive match of overall reduction levels and internal constraints in distinct varieties is a strong indicator of genetic resemblances and common ancestry.

This emphasises the importance of cluster reduction in contact linguistics and is investigated here with data from South Atlantic and New Zealand English. A crucial point in this context is exactly what causes cluster reduction to increase. Phonotactic change is typically ascribed to linguistic contact, and this has led some authors such as Wolfram, Childs and Torbert to suggest that it is exclusively an external process.

In contrast, the role of internal change has received little if any attention. The question is thus not whether and when cluster reduction is an internal or an external process, but when it is internal and when external, whether these two differ at all and when and under what conditions one is favoured at the expense of the other.

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Chapter 3 will look into these questions in detail. Language acquisition, learning and psycholinguistics The last major point introduced here concerns the agency of change. Language change has occasionally been attributed to language acquisition, and children have been considered as primary agents discussion in McMahon The analysis of phonotactic variation therefore gains from a discussion of how phonotactic systems are acquired.

CCs are linguistically marked and characterised by late appearance in acquisition. It is consequently of importance to focus on the realisation of clusters by children, to address in what order CCs are acquired, by which age they are mastered, and so on. This throws light on an interesting link with language typology.

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The literature on language acquisition indicates that the first syllable types produced by children are CV and V and that the most preferred syllable pattern in child language 12 Consonant Change in English Worldwide is CV. Moreover, at a stage when clusters are first produced, children use various strategies to realise CCs as structures that are easier to articulate.

Following Labov , this raises the question as to whether there are any parallels between historical changes and modifications in child speech. Chapter 2 indicates that there are some parallels indeed, but that it is doubtful whether children should be the primary agents of change here. A final discipline involved is psycholinguistics. Chapter 5 assesses the role of lexical recognition and speech processing for phonotactic change. The point taken is that word recognition and psycholinguistic processing can to some extent explain why clusters are much more likely to undergo variable reduction in some environments than in others.

The deletion of cluster-final segments at the end of lexical items results in a lower degree of information loss than reduction in the beginning of words, and cluster reduction is more frequent when word recognition is well-advanced or completed. With this aim, the cohort model in psycholinguistics Marslen-Wilson and Tyler , is discussed with reference to phonotactic variation and change. This accounts for questions such as how clusters are reduced in syllable onsets and codas, why they are subject to historical change, how we can account for the interplay of constant variation and sporadic change, and also who is most likely to instigate phonotactic change.

The challenge, consequently, is to identify the relevance of cluster reduction for each of the various branches, while at the same time considering its wider implications on an interdisciplinary level. Thus, the approach adopted here is both specific, namely in that it contextualises this feature within each of the contributing fields, and broad, in that it is based on the assumption that phonotactic complexity is explained as the interaction of various branches.

The book is structured as follows. The interplay of universal versus language-specific principles is of particular importance, since it does not only give insights into general phonotactic processes but is also essential for individually preferred modification strategies reduction, epenthesis, and so on. Further, Introduction 13 Chapter 2 outlines syllable structure effects, discussing the structure of clusters in onset and coda positions, the differences and parallels in the two environments, and how these influence the rate and trajectory of reduction.

Special emphasis is given to theoretical implications that embed cluster reduction in linguistic theory, for example, natural phonology Stampe ; Donegan and Stampe or markedness theory as discussed in Lass This leads to the next point, namely the most common change and adaptation mechanisms that operate on clusters. Manifestations of phonotactic change are discussed and illustrated with historical examples from English and other languages.

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This is taken up in Chapter 5, which discusses the impact of language-specific phonological properties on cluster modification processes. Chapter 2 ends with an introduction to the causes and motivations behind this process: who are the agents of change and what conditions favour it? With these objectives, it discusses and contextualises internal and external effects and assesses the roles of children and adults.

Chapter 3 looks into the reduction of word-initial clusters. It looks into exactly when these clusters were lost, how long it took these changes to reach completion, and whether and how they were connected; moreover, it addresses issues related to linguistic insecurity, lexical change versus phonological change and so on. With this aim, it examines the role of linguistic factors phonetic environment, word status as well as the contribution of regional and social criteria. Finally, the last point addressed is the heavy degree of restructuring and phonotactic reduction in the context of creolisation.

Section 3. The findings are summarised and compared with the aim of identifying a common set of parallels and characteristics in initial cluster reduction in English. Chapter 4 discusses word-final cluster reduction. Surveying previous work on this variable, it is shown that this is both a variety-specific and a language-universal process, and that its inherent variability is a prerequisite for consonantal change and phonotactic restructuring that manifested itself throughout the history of English.


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Chapter 4 thus brings together new and existing material, which in combination represents the most extensive comparative analysis of cluster reduction in English. This chapter also looks into the trajectory of cluster reduction in contact scenarios and weighs evidence that this feature serves both as a quantitative and a qualitative indicator of linguistic differentiation. The relevance of the last point is assessed for the continuing spread of English around the world.

Chapter 5 compares and assesses the main findings from the analytical chapters and discusses phonotactic variation and change in English from a more general perspective.


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This chapter is subdivided into three sections, which discuss some of the in my personal view most important and promising implications from Chapters 3 and 4. It revisits implications for language change in general reassessing the role of internal and external factors in cluster reduction and weighs the contributions of variety-specific and universal features discussing what features differentiate World English quantitatively and qualitatively. It ends with the suggestion that this is at least in part a psycholinguistically motivated process, which heavily depends on the effects of syllable structure on word recognition.

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In brief, this book addresses a number of issues that have received little attention in the literature on English historical linguistics, and its aim is to stress the importance of consonantal change in historical and Introduction 15 contemporary English. Consequently, this book aims at anchoring phonotactic variation and change at the crossroads of various linguistic disciplines. It argues that the interdisciplinary nature of this process accounts for parallels and differences between individual varieties and supports this with synchronic evidence of cluster reduction from a variety of Englishes around the world.

Moreover, the historic dimension of this process is studied with a corpus-based analysis. The integration of contemporary and historical data provides a broad database which allows the testing and critical assessment of current approaches and views. The findings and results of this study thus complement and on occasion challenge current assumptions, many of which are based on findings from a single variety only. Moreover, they make a case for the importance of studying consonantal change in English historical linguistics, and by doing so contribute toward a better understanding of phonotactic variation and change in English.

A central point is that the phonotactic system of English has witnessed historical instability with the result that a number of consonants have changed their tactic behaviour. Clusters are rarer than the individual consonants they contain and they undergo modification because minority features adapt to majority patterns. As a result, a number of clusters both in word-initial and -final environments have been reduced to a single consonant with which they effectively merged, and English displays several deletion and insertion strategies to modify clusters. Some processes operate over lengthy periods of time for example, representing continuations of changes that began in Proto-Germanic , whereas others are ad hoc and manifest themselves more quickly; the interplay of both accounts for the complexity of this feature.

First of all, we need to distinguish whether the processes at hand are general or specific. Do the strategies entail permanent effects, so that clusters are lost from the phonotactic system of English entirely, or nonpermanent ones, so that cluster segments undergo reduction in specific environments only due to assimilation? The interplay of synchrony and diachrony is essential for phonotactic variation and change in English; it accounts for recurring patterns in phonotactic variation, providing a vital link between non-permanent and permanent effects on the one hand and between variation and change on the other hand.

What CC types are found in the phonotactic system of English? Which of them have the potential to undergo reduction and for what reasons? Exactly how are CCs modified? How context-sensitive are these processes? How can we trace the diachronic evolution of English CCs? Is reduction a language-internal process or is it catalysed by external factors, or is it both?

What external and language-internal effects underlie this process? How can we account for the fact that reduction occurs at different rates and in different environments, and how does it manifest itself cross-linguistically and typologically?

Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony
Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony
Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony
Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony
Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony Consonant Change in English Worldwide: Synchrony meets Diachrony

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