[tied] Re: Retroflexes in Sanskrit

From: richardwordingham
Message: 14251
Date: 2002-08-06

--- In cybalist@..., Piotr Gasiorowski <piotr.gasiorowski@...>
> 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.

Ha, ha, Zsa Zsa!

Despite the Hungarian origin, Zsa Zsa (variously spelt) is well
naturalised, e.g. http://www.jlmatrix.co.uk/joanna/hectorshouse.htm
and many other web hits on "Zsazsa".

The curious feature is that it seems impossible even to compose
native-looking nonsense words to contrast these three English sounds

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.

Is this a general problem with diphthongs, or an issue with this
particular one?

A feature of my idiolect may be relevant. I pronounce 'Boyne' /boin/
(one syllable) but 'coin' /koiin/ (two syllables).

If /OI/ is two vowels, I don't know which vowel the first one is!

> 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.

The fact that a new rune (æsc, ash) was created for /æ/ is evidence
that /æ/ v. /a/ was phonemic. /æa/ is more of an issue, as it is
associated with the representation of the West Country burr.

> 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.

I don't think there should be any doubt about their being phonemic in
Classical Sanskrit. The issue was the analysis of an unwritten
language, Vedic Sanskrit, which was later written in an alphabet
developed for early Prakrit.

One thing I had never really appreciated was that the Sanskrit
retroflexes were the ghosts of the plosiveness of the softenable
velars (k^ etc.) of PIE.