Phonological Renormalization

A small definition of a concept.

Across the dialectology of various languages we very often find almost the same segment inventory despite various innovations. I call this phenomenon “phonological renormalization”. It seems somewhat mysterious at first: it is hard to see any way how a language’s status as a part of a large dialect continuum could outright prevent innovative phonological features from arising. However, it does seem to me that there could be an easy way out — by assuming a slight diachronic detour: suppose that new innovations do arise, they simply then afterwards change back into another segment already known in the language’s other dialects. A sufficiently homogeneous “sociophonetic environment” could probably motivate novel phonological segments to often merge with pre-existing close matches. Specifically, learners / innovating speakers faced with the prospects of (1) adopting an innovative form and (2) adopting an innovative segment might prefer the former, but still avoid or fail to manage the latter.

This kind of hammer-down-the-nail development can be sometimes directly attested. Both stages are historically recorded e.g. for the fate of *ð [1] in some western dialects of Finnish: first flapping, to create a new phoneme /ɾ/, then merging with the usual trilled rhotic /r/. Or, in Eastern dialects of Finnish: early loss of medial *-n- in the allegro forms of the 1PS and 2PS pronouns minä, sinä evidently first created a rare transient diphthong /iä/, recorded only in a narrow southwestern corridor from Mikkeli to Hamina; but elsewhere renormalized to /ie/. Even in Mikkeli it has been fortified by the late Savonian–Karelian diphthongization of *ää to /iä/. I also wonder if the Western Finnish allegro forms , actually continue older miä, siä with different renormalization (but before the lowering /ie/ > /iä/).

My aim is not to list extensive amounts of evidence here. Renormalization is pretty easy to notice once you start looking, maybe especially among consonants and/or small phonological inventories? But just off the top of my head, a few other conspicuous examples that come to mind include the following:

  • Glide epenthesis in Finnic and Samic. Both language groups generally turn *w into labiodental /v/ = usually an approximant [ʋ]. Whenever any kind of a labial glide develops later on, e.g. before word-initial /oː/, or in hiatus following any labial vowels, or from lenited *b, this likewise tends to produce /v/, not [w]. Occasionally a [w] can be attested, e.g. in Standard Finnish in cases like *kauɣan > kauan [kau.an ~ kauwan] ‘for long’; for which maybe most dialects however show instead kauvan.
  • Preaspiration *TT > *ʰTT in Samic. This affects first the native Uralic geminates already in Proto-Samic; slightly after that, across western Sami, also secondary geminates introduced by consonant gradation.
  • Lenition-plus-fronting *ɣ > /v ~ j/ in Mordvinic (/v/ in back vowel environments, /j/ in front). This affects first *ɣ from PU medial *k across the whole group, slightly after that also *ɣ from the lenition of *ŋ, across all of Moksha and most of Erzya.

At least the second has been even proposed to actually represent a single innovation, which would postdate *Cˑ > *Cː in western Sami but predate it in eastern. An equivalent scenario, with old *w and *ɣ preserved until the rise of secondary cases, could be sketched from the other two too. But perhaps the phenomenon of renormalization should be a sufficient explanation.

In more general, I suspect this phenomenon could perhaps end up accounting for much of what is normally called “cyclicity” of phonological rules. In a language that e.g. aspirates its initial stops (say, English) it’s not that a newly born /t/ from a source that does not already have aspiration (say, from /θ/) would have to be instantly aspirated, since we do sometimes find allophonic contrasts phonemicizing in this fashion. But if this did create a three-fold contrast /tʰ/ : /t/ : /d/, I predict that this should prove unstable and be quickly followed by an additional merger [t] > [tʰ]. After this the innovation could also no longer spred to other speakers as a “phonetic” change [θ] > [t], only in a purely phonological form /θ/ > /t/ [tʰ : t], potentially quickly leaving any small original areas of /tʰ/ : /t/ in obscurity.

And I wonder further… other kinds of reiterated sound changes could find similar explanations for them too. Juliette Blevins, for example, has a recent paper observing that Austronesian *q has disproportionately few reflexes that are actually /q/ She proposes that this should be taken as evidence that the phonological stability of uvulars is conditional on a language’s vowel system, which might not be all wrong. (Cf. some further comments from me @ Tumblr.) But could it be additionally the case that an area having many languages with /ʔ/ creates a pressure for other languages to “normalize” (hardly “re-“) even an inherited, native *q into /ʔ/…? Or, indeed, even a *k? setting thus the stage for the famously common-in-Oceanic chainshift *t *k > /k ʔ/.

Of course though, this goes both ways and it’s also possible that many cases could be accounted for simply by internal phonological instability. [2] Already in the above examples: e.g. a contrast [w] : [ʋ] would be itself pretty rare, ditto the western Finnish system with all three of /ɾ r rː/. Still, at least the specific direction in which these systems seem to collapse does look to be largely determined areally, and e.g. no cases of the chainshift *r *rː > /ɾ r/, known from places like Ibero-Romance and Albanian, has been described from any western Fi. dialect.

[1] Reminder for the map reader: Kettunen’s ð is usual Finno-Ugric transcription for the alveolar tap = IPA /ɾ/, while δ is the voiced dental spirant = IPA /ð/.
[2] Reminder thanks to my wife Sara Carrier-Bordeleau.

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Posted in Methodology
6 comments on “Phonological Renormalization
  1. Y says:

    What you are suggesting sounds like what Blevins calls “perceptual magnets” (Cambridge Handbook of Areal Linguistics, preprint online), although she discusses contact between distinct languages, not dialects. Did I get that right?

    • sansdomino says:

      Honestly I’m behind on reading my Blevins; thanks for the hint, I should check that out.

      • sansdomino says:

        Yes, turns out I already had that in my reading pile. I think what I’m proposing is more or less the inverse from what she proposes (though yes I’ve though up this concept myself too). A “perceptual magnet” makes it more likely for sound changes that create novel phonological categories to stick, while “renormalization” makes them less likely to stick.

        Also, since we should probably expect both forces to exist to some degree in any language that does not exist in a complete vacuum, it would follow that we do not have good ways to measure the “base rate” of various innovations at all! Following her example of ejectives: if these are extremely salient, and hence either areally encouraged or areally discouraged — yeah, stands to reason that we would only find completely de novo phonologization of ejectives in some small isolated cases like Yapese or Itelmen (even the latter is maybe debatable if we look across the sea towards Na-Dene; I have no idea how old ejectives are in Itelmen exactly).

        Tangentially, she also seems to unduly dismiss the possibility of ejectives being inherited across languages of the NAm Pacific coast. If they generally reconstruct to the known proto-languages, they might as well have been there for a while too; and ultimately come into many of them from deep nodes like Proto-Penutian, Proto-Hokan or the like.

        …She also seems to not know much about preaspiration in Samic; it does not have “spotty diffusion”, it is reconstructed for Proto-Samic and still present in 90% of the varieties. Its loss / shift to post-aspiration in Inari Sami can be readily attributed to Finnish influence; while its shift to /x/ in Kola Sami follows known internal tendencies of sound change.

  2. David Marjanović says:

    More or less similar phenomena come to mind:

    Some sort of *handwave* Mainland East Asian linguistic area aspirates hard. If you overdo that, it breaks, and indeed northern Mandarin has turned [kʰ] – which is preserved farther south – into an affricate. But that affricate is not the expected [kx]; it’s a loudly aspirated [kxʰ]. I think that’s because three aspirated affricates were already present in the sound system, so the aspirate was allowed to remain an aspirate across its affrication phonemically and also phonetically.

    Still, at least the specific direction in which these systems seem to collapse does look to be largely determined areally, and e.g. no cases of the chainshift *r *rː > /ɾ r/, known from places like Ibero-Romance and Albanian, has been described from any western Fi. dialect.

    Here, too, I’m not sure if that’s areal so much as internal. All Finnish dialects already had a length contrast for most other consonants, so /r rː/ was and is nothing unusual. In Ibero-Romance and Albanian, it was the only length contrast in the entire language, so it’s not surprising it got distorted in various ways.

    (…though phonetically the outcomes are not [ɾ r]. In Spanish, *rː is still long, indeed possibly longer than before, at 4 to 5 contacts – though the trick with trills is that you can speed them up, so it’s not always long in absolute time. *r is strictly a one-contact trill; there’s literature on this, and I’ve never heard a flap in my limited exposure to Spanish either. On top of that, *r is apical, while *rː is laminal. Portuguese and various kinds of Occitan have increased the distance further by turning *rː into [ʀ]; various sorts of Portuguese in Brazil have gone further to [x] and even [h]. I’ve heard very little Albanian, but what I’ve heard has actually turned *r into [ɹ]. – Contrast Italian, where *r has 1 to 2 contacts, *rː has 3 to 4, they’re both apical, and the length contrast extends across most of the consonant system.)

    Areal sound systems can be pretty impressive. For the last 2000 years, most sound changes in (the ancestors of) Castilian, Basque and Gascon either served to make their phonological sound systems and phonetic sound inventories more similar to each other or spread across all three. But this independence of areas and dialect continua also holds in the other direction: German is (part of!) a dialect continuum, but few German dialects can be written with Standard German spelling conventions unless you’re willing to end up with an English-like latitude between spellings and phonemes or sounds.

    In a language that e.g. aspirates its initial stops (say, English) it’s not that a newly born /t/ from a source that does not already have aspiration (say, from /θ/) would have to be instantly aspirated, since we do sometimes find allophonic contrasts phonemicizing in this fashion. But if this did create a three-fold contrast /tʰ/ : /t/ : /d/, I predict that this should prove unstable and be quickly followed by an additional merger [t] > [tʰ].

    That’s exactly what must have happened across Scandinavian, Faroese, West Frisian and (one island after another, in the 20th century) North Frisian.

    However, the High German Consonant Shift sensu stricto left Upper German with a strange plosive inventory: [b̥ t g̊ pː tː kː]. (I think this is real. In texts from that time & area, there’s b~p and g~k/c (rarely also ~ch) variation, but d was never used as far as I know.) This was patched by [θ] > [d̥]. That shift dragged along the very rare [θː] > [d̥ː], which soon merged into [tː] (i.e. the spelling changes to dd and then to tt). Meanwhile, [θ] > [d̥] spread north along the dialect continuum to places that still had a voiced [d]. Low Saxon and (parts of?) Central German ended up with a merger /θ/ > /d/. Low Franconian, on the other hand, had developed an allophone [ð] for prevocalic-or-so /θ/; this [ð] was merged into /d/, while the few remaining [θ] and [θː] merged into /s/ and /sː/.

  3. B. Blasebalg says:

    This is very convincing. A similar yet not identical phenomenon is the preservation of the _structure_ of the phoneme inventory, such as vowel harmony.

    It always struck me as remarkable how e.g. Chuvash has expereinced several vowel shifts that “cross borders” as to vowel harmony. The expected result would be the (at least partial) collapse of the harmony system (as in standard Estonian).

    However, in an environment where vowel harmony is the norm, apparently there were forces to adjust and “correct” the non-initial syllables of affected words. In psychological terms, this seems to be a similar procedure to what you describe.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    More examples of probably purely language-internal renormalization:

    – Intervocalic /b/ generally merges into /ʋ/ in my dialect. Like all obstruents, /b/ is voiceless. Given that the phenomenon isn’t quite obligatory, you’d expect the occasional [b] or [β] to surface, but they never do. I suppose every [b] has been reinterpreted as /b/ and every [β] as /ʋ/ long ago that, by now, speakers first decide whether to go for /b/ or /ʋ/ and then produce [b̥] or [ṽ] accordingly.

    -nf- is [mf] in native words in my dialect and in Austrian Standard German, mostly [nf] in Latinate loans. Very much unlike in English, [ɱ] never occurs; people decide to go for /m/ or /n/ and produce [m] or [n] accordingly. Similarly, -fen is [fm̩] in my dialect and in Austrian Standard German, [fɐ] in some closely related dialects, [fə̃] in one little subdialect in (apparently) Vienna, and again [fɱ̩] does not occur to the best of my knowledge. The solution with [ə̃] is interesting, though, because that vowel does not occur anywhere else in the language; it is not renormalized even though it isn’t [ɱ̩] (anymore).

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