13 Dec 2009

Concern trolls and the Etruscan bilabial 'f'

Predictably anonymous "concern trolls" are sending me more stupid comments about their fake disdain for p weakening to a bilabial fricative when next to u, as I mentioned in a long-ago post. The first fact below shows that the only people posting angry nonsense about my personal character because of this non-issue are angry bloggers and likely failed authors. The rest of the facts I've compiled will be informative for serious linguistic students and history buffs too.

1. Etruscan specialist Larissa Bonfante confirms Etruscan f is a bilabial.
2. Etruscan pairs like pulumχva/fulumχva prove allophony.
3. In allophonic variation, a shared articulation feature (ie. bilabiality) is most economic. An alternation between a bilabial and labiodental sound is comparatively less economic.
4. Instances of Etr f not from allophony are demonstrably recent loans
(cf. Etr fanu vs. Lat fānum, Osc físnam & Umb fesnafe).
5. Bilabial fricative sounds are in no way 'rare'.
6. Several varieties of Spanish use a same bilabial fricative phoneme.
7. Like Etruscan, Yimas shows increased sonority of /p/ before /u/ & /w/.
8. It's not absolutely certain that the /f/ of neighbouring Latin was strictly labiodental.


  1. I'm kind of surprised this could be considered surprising. In eastern Bantu languages, it is commonplace for proto-Bantu bilabial stops (voiced and voiceless) to change into labiodental fricatives before close high u and/or i, and I do believe – though this needs to be checked – that in some of these languages, these fricatives are in fact bilabials themselves. If I'm mistaken about the POA facts, then I'm mistaken; however the fricativisation before (and in some cases following) close high vowels is quite well established.

  2. Yes, bilabial fricatives should be unsurprising, but Etruscan u-triggered lenition is however not common knowledge, so even if you personally don't find that interesting, others certainly will.

    It's also constructive to test out views on historical phonology against real, modern examples. My proposed Etruscan sound change tests out just fine with the Yimas example.

  3. Oops, one added point. On a phonemic level, the only intermediary available between bilabial stop /p/ and labiodental fricative /f/ is bilabial fricative /ɸ/ since an intermediary labiodental plosive /p̪/ is rarely if ever used as a phoneme.

    This is another cool fact not commonly known and therefore constructively surprising for many people.

  4. The Japanese phoneme /t/ is realized as [ts] when next to /u/. More than likely, this has to do with the fact that Japanese /u/ was originally rounded. It seems possible (plausible?) that the lip-rounding with /u/, perhaps combined with the vowel height, weakened the articulation of an adjacent onset /t/.

    If anything, the case for lip-rounding causing lenition of /p/ is even stronger given the co-articulation. Perhaps the lenition of /p/ in Old Japanese first happened only before /u/ and spread "analogically" from there.

  5. Rob: "The Japanese phoneme /t/ is realized as [ts] when next to /u/. More than likely, this has to do with the fact that Japanese /u/ was originally rounded."

    No, rounding can't explain this. Remember the sonority hierarchy: fricative > approximant > vowel. For example, we can think of /w/ as a "more closed" version of /u/ and in turn, a bilabial fricative /β/ is a "more closed" version of /w/. Just as /β/ > /w/ > /u/, so too /ʝ/ > /j/ > /i/. Fricativization before another vowel can be thought of as an erosion of a clear line between the plosive and the following vowel which is facilitated by the closedness inherent in any high vowel, not just /u/.

    This would explain why Yimas specifically shows fricativization of /p/ before /w/ and not the relatively more open /u/. The more closed the vowel, it seems, the greater the chance of a blur between the phonemic boundaries of plosive and adjacent vowel.

    In the case of Japanese, note the irregular t-series of their syllabary: ta, chi, tsu, te, to. Here, fricativization is triggered by both high vowels, i and u. Rather it's the "closedness" of the vowels that's provoked a fricative release of the original plosive.

  6. If it were vowel height/closedness that caused the affrication, then the affricates would be the same. But this is not what we see at all, is it? What we see is an alveo-palatal affricate before /i/ and an alveolar affricate before /u/. So it seems clear to me that the former is the result of palatalization before /i/, an extremely common phenomenon among languages. This leaves the affrication of Japanese alveo-dental stops before /u/ to be explained by some other phenomenon.

  7. For what it's worth, in Canadian French (apart from Acadian varieties), /t/ and /d/ are realised without exception as [ʦ] and [ʣ] before the high front vowels /i/ and /y/ (including their lax counterparts). The Japanese facts could just as well be explained as a similar case of affrication before high vowels with a secondary process of palatalisation before /i/.

  8. Rob,

    I detect dogmatic skepticism (ie. denial based on nothing and in favour of nothing) coupled with a misunderstanding of my position.

    Rob: "So it seems clear to me that the former is the result of palatalization before /i/, an extremely common phenomenon among languages."

    I never once contested this and that Japanese chi is the result of palatalization is of course an inarguable fact. I'm merely exploring a more general phenomenon here, one in which stops neighbouring closed vowels or semivowels are universally more prone to affrication.

    It's precisely this phenomenon that would explain at once:

    1. Japanese tu > tsu.
    2. Etruscan p > f next to u (eg. *Pupluna > Fufluna, cf. Latin Populōnia).
    3. Lenition of p before w in Yimas.
    4. Affrication in the Japanese Hirara dialect due to syncope (eg. [pɨtu] > [pˢtu] 'people').
    5. Affrication within PIE *-TT- due to Pre-IE syncope.
    6. Canadian French examples like dix [d͡zɪs] 'ten', as Kiwehtin commented on just above, where 'palatalization' fails to describe what's really happening.

    Speaking on similar quirks of Bamileke on page 37 of Phonology: Critical concepts in Linguistics, vol.4 (2001), Kreidler's explanation is brilliantly brief and clear: "The aspiration which occurs in Bamileke can thus be viewed as a phonologization of the intrinsic noise factor associated with high vowels."