Academic journal article Journal of Slavic Linguistics

The Evolution of Sibilants in Polish and Russian

Academic journal article Journal of Slavic Linguistics

The Evolution of Sibilants in Polish and Russian

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper provides an explanation for a sound change affecting Polish by which palatalized palatoalveolars became retroflexes. An extension of the account to a similar (but probably independent) Russian sound change is also considered. We argue that the sound change was motivated by the needs of perceptual distinctiveness within a rich sibilant inventory and provide an analysis within the framework of Dispersion Theory. This analysis is further supported by a typological survey and by phonetic data. This case study supports the view that "unconditioned" sound changes, and allophonic rules resulting from them, can be motivated by contrast, and further shows that the notion of dispersion in phonology can be usefully applied to consonants.

1. Introduction

Around the sixteenth century, Polish experienced a seemingly odd sound change. Its series of palatalized palatoalveolars depalatalized, and more unexpectedly, became retroflexes: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] similar change occurred in Russian about two centuries earlier. These changes were most likely independent.

Following Zygis (2003b), we argue that Polish retroflexion was motivated by contrast dispersion. (1) Specifically, Polish had earlier developed the alveolopalatal sibilants [tc, dz, c, z], from a series of palatalized dentals. This resulted in a contrast between palatalized palatoalveolars and alveolopalatals, e.g., [??] versus [c] and so on. Such a contrast, we argue, is highly disfavored on perceptual grounds. Polish repaired the problem by depalatalizing and retroflexing the palatalized palatoalveolars, creating a more dispersed contrast among sibilants.

The diagram in (1) illustrates the idea. (Sound changes are shown by arrows and perceptual distances by horizontal lines.) Due to the change [sj] [right arrow] [c], the perceptual distance between [??] and [??] was closer than between the original [sj] and [??]. In order to create a more optimal contrast, the palatalized palatoalveolar [??] changed to [~]. As a result, a perceptually stable contrast between [c] and [s] was introduced into Polish, where it exists today. (2) The facts of Russian are more complicated but similar in important respects, and we consider ways of extending the Polish account to Russian.



Besides further motivating the importance of perceptual distinctiveness of contrast for phonology, the arguments here are of theoretical interest in several ways. First, recent work has argued that some allophonic rules are driven by the need to keep contrasts perceptually distinct (Kingston and Diehl 1994, Padgett 2001, 2003a, 2003b, Ito and Mester 2007). The Polish and Russian facts provide another case of this sort: in the modern languages, non-alveolopalatal postalveolar sibilants are allophonically retroflexed, as a result of the sound changes in question. Despite their ubiquity, allophonic processes remain largely mysterious in the context of phonological theory (putting aside assimilatory cases). Seeking to explain allophony by appealing to contrast is therefore interesting.

Second, this analysis adds to a long list of sound changes that can be argued to result from the needs of perceptual distinctiveness. "Unconditioned" sound changes like Polish retroflexion--that is, changes that occur regardless of environment--are common. Some pregenerative work argued that there is in fact conditioning for some of these rules--in the paradigmatic system of contrast rather than the syntagmatic environment (see especially Martinet 1952, 1955). However, such functional notions have received much less attention in the generative literature. This is perhaps in part because they were not precise enough (due to limitations in theory, in experimental methods, and in technology). This paper attempts to avoid this shortcoming by casting the analysis within Dispersion Theory, a formal framework for the understanding of contrast (Flemming 1995/2002, 2004, Padgett 2003a, 2003b) and by providing phonetic and typological data supporting the perceptual distinctiveness claims we make. …

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