Vowel insertion in Scottish Gaelic

PHO Aug 14Post written by Michael Hammond, Natasha Warner, Andréa Davis, Andrew Carnie, Diana Archangeli and Muriel Fisher,University of Arizona

Based on an article recently published in the journal Phonology

Scottish Gaelic has a process whereby a vowel is inserted into a hetero-organic cluster when the preceding vowel is short, the first consonant is a sonorant, and the second consonant is not a voiceless stop, e.g. arm`army’ /arm/ ->[aram], seanmhair`grandmother’ /ƪɛnvɛr/ -> [ɛnɛvɛr], etc.

These have been cited as instances of excrescent vowels (Hall, 2006). One of the defining properties of such vowels is that they are phonologically inert and are not motivated by-nor do they contribute to-the syllable structure of a language. The basic idea is that excrescent vowels are essentially gestural transitions from one segment to another, without phonological motivation or consequence.

In this paper, we report on a series of six experiments tapping into native speakers’ intuitions of syllable structure in Scottish Gaelic. Our first two experiments tap into whether subjects can distinguish items with inserted vowels from those without. The general result here is that they can.

Experiments #3 and #4 ask subjects to give the number of syllables in a word, either by counting (#3) or by knocking (#4). These show that there is indeed a difference between words with inserted vowels and those without. Interestingly, the results show that inserted vowels are distinct from non-inserted vowels, they are not the same. They contribute significantly to the syllable count, but not as much

as a non-inserted vowel. Finally, experiments #5 and #6 tap into whether the syllabification of intervocalic consonants is affected by the insertion status of the following vowel. Our results show that it is indeed. In general terms, when the following vowel is inserted, the consonant is less likely to affiliate to the left, than to the right.

Our results suggest that the inserted vowels of Scottish Gaelic are not phonologically inert. These vowels contribute significantly and directly to native speaker intuitions, affecting both the number of syllables and the affiliation of consonants to those syllables. Thus, insofar as intuitions about syllable count and the syllabification reflect phonological structure, the inserted vowels of Scottish Gaelic are part of the phonology. However, our results also establish that the relevant vowels have an intermediate phonological status, distinguishing them from underlying vowels as well.

Read the full article ‘Vowel insertion in Scottish Gaelic’ here.

1 comment to Vowel insertion in Scottish Gaelic

  • alexander macrae

    This is very interesting – when working in Madrid, a colleague from Galicia mentioned that they had the same feature – in the case under discussion, as children we would say ‘arum’ for arm.

    Furthermore, I heard a well-known speaker from the Lebanon, on Radio 4, exhibiting the same trait.

    If it is learned behaviour then it is learned as a very young child from other young children – in my village, saying “arum” for ‘arm’ would be regarded by adults as not speaking properly. As a child, however, we would regard it as the proper way to say arm.

    I believe that its basis lies in something like physiological efficiency between phonemic transitions.

    One common but perhaps less well-known example from my childhood would be pronouncing ‘door’ as “doar”

    None of us were Gaelic speakers, as such, We conversed in English. However, it does exist in Gaelic, as you have so well researched.

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