Linguistics Anonymous

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.


  • Can you give us some examples and transliterations of words where this sound change occurs? Are there any words in which this doesn't happen? What about your proposal for /l/s devoicing before voiceless coronals, are there any other rules which are similar or would suggest this rule (do the signs change)? Could an aleph be to blame? What other environments did this start in or spread to? Does this only occur in SB? Does this occur in related languages or decendants? Who was the last person to publish on this change and in what year?

    Two potential problems with your idea: Standard Babylonian is constructed and Assyriologists don't study linguistics. If this sound change only occurs in SB, then I would doubt its applicability to the language. Ask anyone who studies Arabic for reasons why.

    Probably more relevent though, is the fact that Assyriologists don't usually study linguistics and thus have very little knowledge about what sound changes are actually logical. Look at Sumerian, the sound changes that are posited for this language would make a phonologist's head explode. My experience has taught me that in Assyriology many rules and explainations are followed only because some imported/respected guy said that it was true 50-75 years ago and not because logic, evidence and modern linguistic knowledge suggest that they should be followed.

    Sorry to flame a bit, but I hate falling back on perception to explain language quarks (especially with a shin and an /l/) and I have studied Assyriology enough to know that if a rule seems odd or wrong, good chance that it is wrong or else it's explaination relies on very, very little data and thus it is only ad hoc.

    By Blogger Russ, at 8:00 PM  

  • Ahh, didn't see that you would be posting more, I'll wait to see if you answer my questions.

    By Blogger Russ, at 8:02 PM  

  • Yeah, don't worry, Russ, all your questions will be answered in subsequent posts. If the answers don't satisfy you then, we can argue some more.

    By Blogger Jedediah, at 3:43 PM  

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