Nordeuropäische Lautgeographie revisited

Posted on February 5, 2014 by

On Tuesday 11th Feb, Pavel Iosad (Edinburgh) will be visiting Manchester to give a talk on Nordeuropäische Lautgeographie revisited: the view from theoretical phonology. The talk will be in Ellen Wilkinson A2.16, as usual, with drinks, crisps and dinner afterwards. Here’s the abstract:

Since at least Jakobson (1931) it has been known that the languages of northern (or more narrowly north-western) Europe present a number of striking phonological commonalities that could not plausibly be ascribed to common origin. These include stop preaspiration (North Germanic, Sámi, Scottish Gaelic), stop preglottalisation (English, Jutland Danish, Sámi), pitch accents and stød/glottalisation (North Germanic, West Germanic, Scottish Gaelic, Livonian), a system of ‘fortis’/’lenis’ contrasts in stops (Germanic, Celtic), ‘preocclusion’ of sonorants (North Germanic, Sámi, Cornish, Manx), and initial stress (Celtic, Germanic, Finnic); see e.g. Eliasson (2000) for a relatively up-to-date summary.

The explanations for these commonalities have tended to involve either bilateral contact (e.g. Borgstrøm 1974; Gunnar Ólafur Hansson 2001; Kusmenko 2008) or even more vague notions of a possible common substrate (notably Wagner 1964). In this talk I revisit the issue by adopting a theoretically informed perspective on the relevant phenomena. I argue that most of these commonalities share a connection with surface contrasts in prosodic structure (e.g. foot constituency, moraicity, syllabic counts). I argue that since laryngeal activity is commonly implicated in marking prosodic constituency and that the pool of possible cues to such constituency is not very large, it should not be at all surprising that similar phonologisation processes recur in unrelated languages. Although a certain role for bilateral contact (albeit possibly reinforcing rather than causal) cannot be excluded for at least some of the cases reviewed here, I suggest that an overarching contact- or substrate-based framework is not necessary.


Borgstrøm, Carl Hjalmar. 1974. On the influence of Norse on Scottish Gaelic. Lochlann 6: 91–107.
Eliasson, Stig. 2000. Typologiska och areallingvistiska aspekter på de nordeuropeiska språkens fonologi. In Ernst Håkon Jahr (ed.) Språkkontakt: innverknaden frå nedertysk på andre nordeuropeiske språk. København: Nordisk ministerråd, 21–70.

Gunnar Ólafur Hansson. 2001. Remains of a submerged continent: preaspiration in the languages of northwest Europe. In Laurel J. Brinton (ed.) Historical linguistics 1999. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 157–173.

Jakobson, Roman. 1931. Über die phonologischen Sprachbünde. Travaux du cercle linguistique de Prague 4, 164–183.

Kusmenko, Jurij. 2008. Der samische Einfluss auf die skandinavischen Sprachen: Ein Beitrag zur skandinavischen Sprachgeschichte. Berlin: Nordeuropa-Institut der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin.

Wagner, Heinrich. 1964. Nordeuropäische Lautgeographie. Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 29(1), 225–298.