Romance languages, Loss of vowel length, reorientation

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The Romance languages—occasionally called the Latin languages or, less often, the Romanic or Neo-Latin languages—are a group of languages descended from Vulgar Latin. They form a branch of the Italic languages within the Indo-European language family.


One profound change that affected Vulgar Latin was the reorganisation of its vowel system. Classical Latin had five short vowels, ă, ĕ, ĭ, ŏ, ŭ, and five long vowels, ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, each of which was an individual phoneme (see the table in the right, for their likely pronunciation in IPA), and four diphthongs, ae, oe, au and eu (five according to some authors, including ui). There were also long and short versions of y, representing the rounded vowel in Greek borrowings, which however probably came to be pronounced even before Romance vowel changes started.

There is evidence that in the imperial period all the short vowels except a differed by quality as well as by length from their long counterparts. So, for example ē was pronounced close-mid while ĕ was pronounced open-mid , and ī was pronounced close while ĭ was pronounced near-close .

During the Proto-Romance period, phonemic length distinctions were lost. Vowels came to be automatically pronounced long in stressed, open syllables (i.e. when followed by only one consonant), and pronounced short everywhere else. This situation is still maintained in modern Italian: cade "he falls" vs. cadde "he fell".

The Proto-Romance loss of phonemic length originally produced a system with nine different quality distinctions in monophthongs, where only original had merged. Soon, however, many of these vowels coalesced:

  • The simplest outcome was in Sardinian, where the former long and short vowels in Latin simply coalesced, e.g. > , > : This produced a simple five-vowel system .
  • In most areas, however (technically, the Italo-Western languages), the near-close vowels lowered and merged into the high-mid vowels . As a result, Latin pira "pear" and vēra "true", came to rhyme (e.g. Italian and Spanish pera, vera, and Old French poire, voire). Similarly, Latin nucem (from nux "nut") and vōcem (from vōx "voice") become Italian noce, voce, Portuguese noz, voz, and French noix, voix. This produced a seven-vowel system , still maintained in conservative languages such as Italian and Portuguese, and lightly transformed in Spanish (where ).
  • In the Eastern Romance languages (particularly, Romanian), the front vowels evolved as in the majority of languages, but the back vowels evolved as in Sardinian. This produced an unbalanced six-vowel system: . In modern Romanian, this system has been significantly transformed, with and with new vowels evolving, leading to a balanced seven-vowel system with central as well as front and back vowels: .
  • Sicilian is sometimes described as having its own distinct vowel system. In fact, Sicilian passed through the same developments as the main bulk of Italo-Western languages. Subsequently, however, high-mid vowels (but not low-mid vowels) were raised in all syllables, stressed and unstressed; i.e. . The result is a five-vowel .

The Proto-Romance allophonic vowel-length system was rephonemicized in the Gallo-Romance languages as a result of the loss of many final vowels. Some northern Italian languages (e.g. Friulan) still maintain this secondary phonemic length, but most languages dropped it by either diphthongizing or shortening the new long vowels.

French phonemicized a third vowel length system around AD 1300 as a result of the sound change /VsC/ > /VhC/ > (where V is any vowel and C any consonant). This vowel length was eventually lost by around AD 1700, but the former long vowels are still marked with a circumflex. A fourth vowel length system, still non-phonemic, has now arisen: All nasal vowels as well as the oral vowels (which mostly derive from former long vowels) are pronounced long in all stressed closed syllables, and all vowels are pronounced long in syllables closed by the voiced fricatives . This system in turn has been phonemicized in some non-standard dialects (e.g. Haitian Creole), as a result of the loss of final .

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External Links

  • WikipediaMichael de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic Languages, Brill, 2008, 826pp. (part available freely online)Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik (LRL), edd. Holtus / Metzeltin / Schmitt

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