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Standard Vowel Systems of English, German, and Dutch

Variation in Norm

Ernst-August Müller

This is the first book-length study that, from a typological perspective, deals with the latest phonological changes which have affected the spoken standards of the three major West Germanic languages and offers a uniform theoretical analysis of the phenomena. It is primarily intended for professional linguists, but is also geared toward language instructors and students who want to acquaint themselves with these mainly vocalic developments in the pronunciation norms. The study is empirically grounded in personal auditory observations, which in many instances, however, have been verified elsewhere by instrumental acoustic evidence. For each of the three languages, including the American and British English standards, two vowel systems are described and explained: a conventional and slightly dated system, certain features of which younger speakers are inclined to consider somewhat stilted or outmoded, and a more modern and progressive system that incorporates substantive changes and seems to be favored by younger speakers. While a hypothesis is briefly put forward on the common sociopolitical causes of the recent changes, the main phonological finding relates to the role of vowel quantity. In the progressive systems of the three languages, segmental vowel length proves to be a secondary phonological parameter correlating with a specific phonotactic property of the sound.

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1 Introduction

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The sounds of the major modern West Germanic languages have been the subject of extensive and insightful contrastive studies, see, for instance, Moulton (1962a) for English and German, Collins and Mees (52003) for English and Dutch, and Morcin­ iec (1994) for German and Dutch. In accord with objectives of applied linguistics their authors (rightly) concentrate on the sounds that are missing from the “source language” and particularly on the phonetic differences holding between near­iden­ tical sounds of the languages to be compared, since these are the most persistent sources of difficulty and error in foreign language learning. In the process, the authors, however, often reveal a tendency to overlook or discount interesting more abstract structural properties shared by the languages or absent from them. Also they tend to overemphasize the unity of each particular language and presuppose uniqueness and constancy of its pronunciation, when they select just one standard variety as a fixed and putatively unalterable norm for the comparison. This proce­ dure is of course especially problematic in the case of English, which has (at least) two national standards of pronunciation that are strikingly different in sound. Pronunciation norms constitute a bulwark against variation and change, yet they are not immune to these universal linguistic phenomena. It can be observed that at least since the middle of the twentieth century there have occurred structural changes in the standard vowel systems of American English (AmE) and German, as well as remarkable changes in the realization of certain phonemes of...

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