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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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13 Universal and typological aspects


13.1 Phoneme inventories and numerical differences The table which follows gives an overview of the vocalic phoneme inventories as they have been established for all the standard varieties of the three modern West Germanic languages under study. For each system it lists the total number of distinctive vocalic segments, the number of monophthongs, and the number of different (monophthongal) vowel qualities. Total number of number of number of different distinctive segments monophthongs vowel qualities AmE c. 14 (16) 11 (13) 11 (13) AmE p. 13 (15) 10 (12) 10 (12) BrE c. 15 (17) 12 (14) 12 (14) BrE p. 15 (17) 12 (14) 12 (14) G c. 19 16 14 G p. 18 15 15 D c. 16 13 13 D p. 16 13 13 Table 14: Vocalic phoneme inventories and different vowel qualities 13.1.1 Traditional vs. minimalist analysis of English vowel systems It has become evident in the present study that the act of establishing phoneme inventories and describing vowel systems is critically dependent upon and in some cases considerably determined by the way the analyst defines or interprets linguistic primes and concepts and what principles and procedures he or she fol­ lows in the analysis. Theoretical considerations and decisions made on issues of this kind frequently lead to different results in the overall description. Crucial aspects of such dependencies have come to the fore particularly in the chapters dealing with the English systems. 170 In the table above, the first numbers listed for the systems of English...

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