Linguistics Anonymous

20 March 2006

A Lateral Kick to the Shins: Part 2

In which I make a few typographic clarifications.

In the preceding post I used the symbol <š> to indicate one of the sounds under discussion. This, obviously, is not an IPA symbol, but is rather the standard Assyriological notation for a voiceless postalveolar fricative (English <sh>, IPA <ʃ>). This symbol (and phoneme) is conventionally known as "shin," from the name of the corresponding letter in the West Semitic alphabets (Hebrew ש, Arabic ش). This name is the source of the jocular title for this series of posts, in which I discuss how certain instances of this phoneme changed into laterals (hence, they received a "lateral kick"; hilarious, I know). I have chosen this transcription to remain in line with the standard Assyriological transcription for the words I am discussing.

Similarly, I will use an underscore dot to indicate the "emphatic" consonant series, which is pharyngealized in Arabic and ejective in Ethiopic; its realization in Akkadian is unknown, but a dissimilation rule known as Geers' Law suggests that ejective is more likely. The lack of certainly about the phonetic realization of these segments makes an IPA transcription inappropriate in my view.

For the laterals, I will use standard IPA symbols, since there is no alternate orthographic convention to worry about; standard transcriptions just use <l> for everything. I will use <l> for voiced lateral approximants and <ɬ> for voiceless lateral fricatives. Should the need arise I will indicate voiceless lateral approximants by the standard IPA voiceless diacritic (a subscript circle) and voiced lateral fricatives by the IPA symbol <ɮ>. These sounds are somewhat tangential to my main arguments, though, so they won't show up much.

And with that out of the way, on to the linguistics!

18 March 2006

A Lateral Kick to the Shins: Part 1

Hi, I'm Jedediah. If you're reading this you probably already know me. This post is based on the abstract I submitted for the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium. It is just an introduction to the topic, which I will discuss in greater detail in subsequent posts.

Akkadian, the language of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, is one of the longest attested and best documented languages of antiquity. The number of surviving texts, written on easily-preserved clay tablets, is immense for an ancient language and provides a window on the development of the language over its long history, including several notable sound changes.

One such change is that of /š/ to /l/ before coronals, attested in the Babylonian dialect between the Old Babylonian and Middle Babylonian periods, the time of the formation of the literary language known as Standard Babylonian. From a phonological perspective, this is a highly unusual change: it only occurs in a highly restricted environment and the two sounds share very few features. Because of its oddity, this change has attracted the attention of many scholars, who have given a variety of explanations for it. I propose that the answer lies in certain acoustic properties of these sounds, as they were likely realized in this specific environment in Akkadian, that made them more similar than they seem. Specifically, /l/ was probably devoiced before voiceless coronals, which led to confusion with /š/. This confusion led to a perceptually-based sound change gradually spreading analogically to other environments.