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The history of English phrase-level syllabification

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This talk addresses the history of phrase-level syllabification in English, focusing on the behaviour of word-final consonants immediately followed by a vowel across a word boundary. Minkova (2003: ch. 4) provides an authoritative account of phrase-level syllabification in Old and Middle English based on internal linguistic evidence and on data from poetic metre. She shows that Old English avoided stressed onsetless syllables by means of [ʔ]-epenthesis; because Old English words had root-initial stress, this typically had the effect of blocking the resyllabification of word-final consonants before underlyingly vowel-initial content words: e.g. Ēadmund æþeling [‘ʔæd.mund. ‘ʔæ.ðe.liŋg] ‘prince Edmund’ (Brun 3a). In Middle English, in contrast, [ʔ]-epenthesis ceased to be obligatory, and so word-final prevocalic consonants became liable to full resyllabification into the onset: note, for example, the alliteration on /t/ in þat schal I telle te trwly, quoþ þa.t ̮o.þer þenne (SGGK 2444). The aim of the paper is to supply the link between Minkova’s narrative and the synchronic situation in Present-day English, where the syllabic affiliation of word-final prevocalic consonants is not immediately obvious: in Present-day English, such consonants exhibit both onset-like and coda-like properties.

Relying mainly on evidence from /t/-flapping and from the allophony of the liquids /l/ and /ɹ/ across a range of present-day dialects, I shall argue that ambisyllabicity (e.g. Kahn 1976, Gussenhoven 1986) fails to provide a satisfactory answer to our problem. By attempting to use the syllable to channel all the effects of prosody and of morphosyntax on segmental allophony, theories of ambisyllabicity get caught in representational paradoxes. In contrast, stratal-cyclic models of phonology provide a straightforward interpretation of the Present-day English facts in terms of the diachronic life-cycle of phonological processes. In this account, Present-day English consonants exhibit onset-like properties in word-final prevocalic position because in that environment they continue to undergo full phrase-level resyllabification into the onset, just as they did in Middle English. However, these consonants also exhibit coda-like properties because, at the word level (i.e. prior to phrase-level resyllabification in the synchronic derivation), they are in the coda; in this position, they are targeted by lenition processes such as /l/-darkening, which, in the course of their diachronic life-cycle, have had their cyclic domain of application narrowed down to individual grammatical words: i.e. gradient process of phonetic implementation > categorical process in the phrase-level phonology > categorical process in the word-level phonology.

More generally, the range of crossdialectal variation displayed by the allophony of Present-day English consonants, particularly the liquids, can easily be understood in diachronic terms as the result of two major forces shaping the life-cycle of a lenition process: ‘phonetic analogy’, also known as ‘rule generalization’ (Kiparsky 1988: §14.3.1), enlarges its prosodic domain of application; ‘grammatical analogy’ narrows down its cyclic domain of application (Bermúdez-Otero 2007: §21.3.2).

Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (2007). ‘Diachronic phonology’, in Paul de Lacy (ed.), _The Cambridge handbook of phonology_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 497-517.

Gussenhoven, Carlos (1986). ‘English plosive allophones and ambisyllabicity’, Gramma 10 (119- 141).

Kahn, Daniel (1976). Syllable-based generalizations in English phonology. Doctoral dissertation, MIT , Cambridge, MA.

Kiparsky, Paul (1988). ‘Phonological change’, in Frederick J. Newmeyer (ed.), _Linguistics: the Cambridge survey (vol. 1, Linguistic theory: foundations)_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 363-415.

Minkova, Donka (2003). _Alliteration and sound change in early English (Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 101)_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

This talk is part of the Historical Linguistics Research Cluster series.

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