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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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14 Epilogue: The recent developments and their external causes


With this rather lengthy treatise on a phonological subcomponent of English, German, and Dutch I’ve endeavored to meet three objectives when I presented a comparative study of standard vowel systems, placed the crosslinguistic accounts in a larger typological context, and along the way argued that each of the four standard varieties of modern AmE, BrE, German, and Dutch exhibits a conserva­ tive and a progressive vowel system. The account establishing this claim may be summarized as follows: the two competing vowel systems in AmE and German involve radical phonological changes such as phoneme mergers, resulting in the loss of /ɔ(ː )/ in AmE and /ɛː/ in German; moreover, the two vowel systems of German mark the shift from a triangular to a quadrangular form and simultane­ ously the transition from a phonology with a primary vowel length parameter to one in which vowel length is a secondary parameter; otherwise the vocalic developments encompassed by the competing systems of each language and their associated accents are – apart from minor differences in the lexical incidence of specific vowels – essentially subphonemic, i.e. non-distinctive, phonetic changes and furthermore trends in the application of rules that affect or generate vocalic sounds. Most remarkable here are the phonetic lowering of the phoneme /æ/ in BrE, the lowering of the systemic diphthongs /æɪ, œʏ, ʌʊ/ in Dutch, and in German the qualitative differentiation of the low vowels /a/ and /aː/ into /a/ and /ɑ(ː )/, plus the expanding formation of r­diphthongs and the extension...

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