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Preaspiration in Shetland Norn

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image of Journal of Language Contact

The Shetland dialect of Scots does not contain preaspiration, a phonetic areal feature that is otherwise prevalent in languages around the North Atlantic Ocean. While it is understood that Shetland’s pre-language shift Scandinavian variety, Norn, did contain preaspiration, an analysis of phonetic transcriptions from Jakob Jakobsen’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Norn Language in Shetland, collected in the 1890s, shows a more complicated picture: preaspiration occurs in only 11% of relevant vowel-stop sequences, but in 92% of relevant sonorant-stop and sonorant-fricative sequences. This article provides a contact-based explanation of the gradual disappearance of preaspiration from Shetland. The proposed trajectory of change is made up of a series of language and dialect contact-induced sub-changes and reflects the influence of Norn as well as of successive waves of immigration from the Scottish mainland. In the first stage, during language shift, preaspiration in vowel-stop sequences disappeared as it (co-)signaled a phonemic contrast in Norn not necessary for Scots, but (non-phonemic) preaspiration in sonorant-stop/fricative sequences was retained. In a later stage, dialect contact after renewed immigration from the Scottish mainland caused voiceless stops to be unaspirated, removing the phonetic basis for preaspiration also in the remaining contexts. The study highlights the different susceptibility of phonetic and phonemic features in contact-induced change and calls for further integration of second-language acquisition study and variationist sociolinguistics into historical linguistics.

Affiliations: 1: Rijksuniversiteit Groningen,


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