Phonology squib: Conditional *h-loss in Estonian

The history of Proto-Finnic *h provides several illustrative examples of the diachronic development of “laryngeal” consonants. The primary overarching pattern is a north(east)–south(west) cline of gradual loss. This demonstrates that *h-loss processes have arisen independently in multiple lineages, and in multiple layers in many of them:

  • Karelian, Ludian–Veps: generally retained in all positions
  • Northernmost dialects of Finnish: retained but with several metathesis rules
  • South Ostrobothnian Finnish: retained in most positions, but word-final *-eh has been analogically generalized to -es
  • Ingrian, most remaining dialects of Finnish, South Estonian: generally retained in the initial (stressed) syllable and following it, lost after unstressed syllables; additionally word-final retention in some SE
  • North Estonian: retained in the initial syllable and in *CVhV, lost after unstressed syllables and in *CVRhV
  • Votic: retained in *CVhV and *CVhCV, otherwise lost
  • Livonian: *h > [ʔ] (“broken tone”, “stød”) in *CVhV and *CVhCV, otherwise lost

Further detail exists still. One such case is standard North Estonian, where we find word-initial loss in several words. The traditional explanation attributes this to dialect borrowing. There are indeed North Estonian dialects showing complete loss of word-initial *h, so there’s nothing impossible about this. Dialect borrowing would be moreover partially paralleled by the example of word-initial /h/ in Votic, originating in Finnish and Ingrian loans (obvious also by other markers in some cases).

It however seems to me that in Estonian a clear sociolinguistic motivation for dozens of *h-less loanwords from folk language into the literary prestige standard is lacking. We can contrast this with the early development of the Finnish literary standard; despite having Turku as its initial seat of development, standard Finnish has generally shunned specifically Southwestern dialectalisms. Instead the effect has been to “dilute” the dialect of Turku towards standard Finnish and away from the rural SW dialects. [1] Also pronunciation respelling seems unlikely to be the main mechanism; people usually tolerate entirely silent letters quite well (there does not seem to be major pressure to respell kn- in English, h- in French or Spanish, lj- in Swedish, etc.)

I see instead evidence for a further conditional sound change: *h- is lost preceding another *-h- + a voiced segment, i.e. in *hVhRV, *hVhV.

The *hVhRV case has a good half a dozen examples and no counterexamples that I can find:

  • ahel ‘chain’ < *ahl < *hahla (cf. Fi. haahla; ← Germanic)
  • ehmes ‘fluff, down’ < *hehmes (← Baltic *šeusm-)
  • ihn ~ hihn ‘strap’ < *hihna (cf. Fi. hihna; ← Baltic)
  • ihne ‘stingy’ < *hihneh (← Baltic *šikšn-)
  • uhmer ‘mortar’ < *huhmari (cf. Fi. huhmar)
  • ühm ~ hühm ‘slush’ < *hühmä (cf. Fi. hyhmä)
  • õhv ‘heifer’ < *hëhvo (cf. Fi. hieho)

For the *hVhV case there is only one really obvious case + another that shows secondarily inserted medial *h:

  • iha sleeve’ < *hiha (cf. Fi. hiha)
  • ihuma ‘to whet’ < *hiho- < *hi.o- < *hijo- (cf. Fi. hioa, dial. hijoa)

but I suspect that also some cases of *h-loss from *hVhTC belong here, which may have lost their *h in the weak grade:

  • uht : gen. uha ‘swidden’ < ? *huht : *uha < *hukta (cf. Fi. huhta)
  • uhtma : 1PS uhan ‘to rinse’ < ? *huhtma : *uhan < *huhta- (cf. Fi. huuhtoa)
  • õhk : gen. õhu ‘air’ < ? *hõhk : *õhu (cf. Fi. hehkua ‘to radiate, emanate’; hohkua ‘id.’)
  • õhkama : II inf. õhata ‘to sigh, emanate’ < ? *hõhka- : *õha- (cf. the previous)

A general loss of *h also in *hVhTV cannot be the case, per hahk ‘gray; eider’. Potentially the vowel difference could matter, but I would not assume this by just one example.

Phonetically, dissimilation of h…h would be natural. But why should the identity of the following segment matter? I think that allophony of /h/ is involved: at least in Finnish there is variation between voiceless [h] (word-initially and before voiceless consonants) ~ at least partly voiced [ɦ] (between voiced segments). If this is or has been the case in Estonian, too, then we could assume that *[hVɦ] first assimilates to *[ɦVɦ], followed by *[ɦ] > ∅ word-initially.

The Central Finnic (North Estonian & Votic) innovation *Rh > *R, where *R ∈ {n, l, r}, could be also naturally routed thru an *[Rɦ] stage. This is not strictly necessary though, since there is no contrasting **th or the like.

— There is slight evidence also for another even more minor *h-loss sound law: juus ‘hair’ < *hibus and juuk ‘fine’ < *hiukka seem to involve *hiu- > *hjuu- or *hʲuu- > juu-.

I do not know offhand if any traditional Estonian folk dialects would follow exactly the *h-loss patterns I’ve identified here. Still, even just acrolectal standard (North) Estonian probably could have gone thru some sound changes all of its own, early on in its development.

[1] Partly this is also because major cities will draw in population from wider out than just from their immediate environments, as demonstrated in the Finnish case by the so-called “Tavastian wedge” dialects that arisen along the old Turku–Hämeenlinna road, in the parishes of Kaarina, Lieto, Marttila, Kaski etc. in the central parts of Finland Proper.

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