Re: [tied] Re: Retroflexes in Sanskrit

From: Piotr Gasiorowski
Message: 14247
Date: 2002-08-06

Phonemicity (inasmuch as any sort of reality can be ascribed to it) is a mental phenomenon, and the evidence for phonemic status is always indirect, since native speakers have no conscious access to their "analytic engine". A phoneme is a member an abstract system, contrasting with any other member at least potentially, but not necessarily. The minimal-pair test may fail occasionally, as in the case of English /h/, /Z/ = "zh" and /N/ = "ng": as far as I can see, none of them contrasts with either of the others, but no-one in his right mind would argue that they are allophones of the same phoneme. The existence of some phonemes is more secure than that of some others, which is why we use terms like "marginal phonemes", "quasi-allophonic distribution" or "emerging/disappearing contrasts". In other words, there is a scale of robustness for putative phonemes, rather than an infallible "yes or no" algorithm. The analysis of some items may vary from linguist to linguist (and presumably from one speaker's unconscious mind to another). I don't know how to answer a question like "is English /OI/ one phoneme or a tautosyllabic vowel cluster?" so as to satisfy all my colleagues -- opinions vary and will probably vary for ever, since competing analyses are possible, each with its own merits.
In Old English front [æ], back [a] and the short diphthong [æa] were in complementary distribution in strong masculines and neuter nouns, but the allophony rules that govern their occurrence could be violated (or rather replaced with a different pattern) in feminine nouns, adjectives and verbs, and there were quite a few potential minimal pairs or even trios like earn [æarn] 'eagle' : ærn [ærn] 'house' : arn [arn] 'ran'. It seems they were "in the process of" being phonemicised in the language, but the process was aborted in its mid course, and they fell together again in Middle English.
If there is a choice, I tend to side with the splitters rather than the lumpers as a matter of methodological preference, since a "splitting" phonemic representation contains more explicit information. It's easier to lump than to tell apart what has been lumped (especially if the proposed allophony rules are not very natural or straightforward), which is why lumping can always wait, as far as I'm concerned. I also prefer an analysis that is less abstract and more surface-true to one that uses primarily theoretical arguments and aims at maximum parsimony in terms of phoneme-counting but has to complicate the formal machinery in order to derive the right surface forms. For these reasons I prefer to regard Sanskrit /t./, /t.H/, /d./, /d.H/ and /n./ as phonemes, while admitting that their status is far less secure than that of their dental counterparts and alternative analyses are possible for some of them, at least in theory.
----- Original Message -----
From: richardwordingham
Sent: Tuesday, August 06, 2002 12:00 PM
Subject: [tied] Re: Retroflexes in Sanskrit


My suggestion was that Vedic did not have retroflex _phonemes_, from
which I would have excluded /s./, but allophones which could be
identified when they became phonemic in later speech.  The clearest
example of this phenomenon is the palatal nasal /n~/, which does not
contrast with the guttural nasal /N/.  The latter phonemic, but
barely so, rather as in English dialects (idiolects?) that
rhyme 'finger' and 'singer'.

However, I see from that list that the suggestion is wrong.  The past
participle from the root {vah}, < PIE weg^H 'convey', has past
participle u:d.Ha (and infinitive vod.Hum), courtesy of Bartholomae's
Law and the loss of voiced sibilant allophones before voiced
plosives.  I should have remembered this form!  This loss also yields
ni:d.a.  Minimal pairs are few and far between, but one has been dug
up on the Indology list, using an inflected form, for /d.H/.  There
may not be one for /d./, but given the environment in which it
occurs, it is hard to see why it should not be phonemic.  (I refuse
to believe that the English word <hang> is anything like /hah/.)

[t.] is more problematic.  One might dismiss it as the allophone
of /t/ after /s./ and the pre-juncture allophone of /s'/, /s./
or /d./, though it is not nice to allocate a phone to different
phonemes depending on the environment.  What's the current view on
such hocus pocus?  Neater hocus pocus would be to declare a /d./
phoneme with phonetically conditioned voicing to account for [t.] and
[d.], voiced between vowels and voiceless after sibilants, otherwise
following the normal plosive voicing rules.

[t.H] is like [t.], but simpler, as it does not occur
prejuncturally.  I trust it's not too unnatural to declare it an
allophone of /d.H/.

However, I think the distribution of [t.] invites the establishment
of /t./ and /t.H/ as separate phonemes, available for use in new
words, so my suggestion that Vedic did not have a retroflex order has
little merit.

The phonemicisation of the contrast of [n] and [n.] could have been
much later.  On the other hand, it could be simple hole-filling once
the contrast in the plosives had been established.  (I presume that
would be firmly established by -nn- v. -rn.- becoming -nn- v -n.n.-
in Prakrit.)  It was interesting to see Dravidian blamed for the
later *loss* of the contrast!  (The reason given is that Dravidian
has a dental v. alveolar v. retroflex contrast.  Indic dentals sound
alveolar to Dravidian speakers; Dravidian alveolars sound retroflex
to Indic speakers.  There are complications to this picture.)

The other source of Prakrit retroflexes was as I suspected - /rt/
> /t.t./, along with /r.t/ > /at./.  However, /s.t./ will also have
been a rich source.


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