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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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9 Summary of the German vowel systems and mixed systems


Two competing vowel systems have been posited for modern German, both involving five phonologically relevant vowel heights. The conservative system includes a phoneme /ɛː/, which quantitatively contrasts with the short phoneme /ɛ/. It also includes two a-phonemes of identical quality, namely /aː/ and /a/. The qual­ itative identity of these two low segments imparts a triangular shape to the overall inventory of the system, and along with that of the phonemes /ɛː/ and /ɛ/ implies that quantity is a primary phonological parameter in this accent. The presence of the long phoneme /ɛː/ in the vowel space detracts from the structural symmetry of the system in that this isolated sound has no rounded long front counterpart, no corresponding long back vowel of equal height, and in that it shares its short congener with that of the phoneme /eː/. Furthermore, the conservative vowel system appears to be associated with con­ straints placed on two rule applications that involve the short vowels [ə] and [ɐ]. Speakers whose pronunciation is based on this system tend to show a restricted range of pre­sonorant schwa deletion, and – more crucially – they generally show a restricted scope of r­vocalization in syllable rhymes, with both kinds of con­ straints being governed by phonological regularities, but also by stylistic condi­ tions. Due to the constraints on r-vocalization, their accent qualifies as a partially rhotic accent: its speakers clearly favor the realization [ɐ̯ ] of the phoneme /ʁ/ after long vowels (e.g. in the words...

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