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The diachrony of lenition in Middle Welsh

Friday 8 March 2019
Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (CIEL) Seminars
P.N. van Eyckhof 3
P.N. van Eyckhof 3
2311 BV Leiden


All surviving Celtic languages have morphophonemic lenition, whereby word-initial consonants turn into a more sonorous counterpart in specific grammatical environments. In all of these languages, original voiced stops turn into their fricative counterparts, (e.g. /d/ lenites to /ð/). However, lenition of the voiceless stops is realised differently in the Goidelic and Brittonic branches: lenited voiceless stops turn into their voiceless fricative counterparts in Goidelic (e.g. /t/ → /θ/), but into their voiced counterparts in Brittonic (e.g. /t/ → /d/). In most present-day Brittonic dialects, these lenited voiceless stops have merged with the unlenited voiced stops. However, some dialects of Breton maintain a distinction between lenited voiceless stops and unlenited voiced stops where the latter series is pronounced longer than the former.

This raises the question how the lenited voiceless stops must have sounded in the shared ancestor of Goidelic and Brittonic. I suggest that, in this shared stage, length exclusively marked the difference between unlenited and lenited voiceless stops, where longness marked unlenited consonants, and shortness marked lenition. I then propose that the present-day Brittonic voicing of these short stops was originally redundant with shortness, and only became phonemic following the loss of phonemic consonant length. In some Breton dialects this loss has still not occurred, but in Welsh it has. Loss of consonant length distinctions then led to the merger of unlenited voiceless stops and lenited voiced stops. I then discuss  the date of this merger between lenited voiceless stops merged with unlenited voiced stops in Welsh. I argue that these series merged in the thirteenth century, based on sandhi in alliteration patterns in early poetry, as well as orthographical evidence.

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