Linguistics Anonymous

07 April 2006

A Lateral Kick to the Shins: Part 4

This change is unusual from a phonological perspective, since /š/ and /l/ share few features and it only occurs in a very restricted environment, so it has attracted much attention from scholars over the years. Some early Assyriologists proposed that the answer lay in reassessing the phonetic values of the signs in question; for instance, C. F. Lehmann proposed in 1892 that /l/ was voiceless in Akkadian, while Yehiel Gumpertz suggested in 1942 that it was rather the sound written <š> that was pronounced as a voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ]. These ad hoc proposals, although they do explain the sound change, don't make much sense in the context of the language as a whole, and there is no reason aside from this one change to believe either one.

A more realistic solution is to propose a simple devoicing rule: /l/ --> [ɬ] / _ [(+cor,) -son, -voice] (or something similar). That is, the voiced lateral approximant becomes voiceless before a voiceless (coronal) obstruent. I have placed "coronal" in parentheses because it is not clear how restricted this rule is, and there is probably no way to tell from the evidence available if it operated generally or just before coronals. This is, as you can probably tell, my preferred solution, but I didn't come up with it on my own; it is also proposed in Alice Faber's article "On the Nature of Proto-Semitic *l" in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 109:1 (Jan.-Mar. 1989), p. 33-36. However, her thesis that there were two lateral phonemes in Proto-Semitic, an alveolar /l/ and a velarized /lˌ/, I find dubious at best, and her explanation of how, exactly, this change supports that thesis is muddled. Despite these problems with her proposal as a whole, I have adopted her basic explanation of the sound change, which is to propose the above phonological rule and a subsequent shift of /š/ due to perceptual confusion with the voiceless allophone of /l/ in this environment. I will support this by giving phonetic data from languages that have both postalveolar and voiceless lateral fricatives and showing how they could be confused in medial clusters. For theoretical support I will turn, like Faber, to the work of John Ohala. But he deserves a post of his own.

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