Romance Languages - Linguistic Features - Phonology - Vowels

Vowels

Every language has a different set of vowels from every other. Common characteristics are as follows:

  • Most languages have at least five monophthongs /a e i o u/. The parent language of most of the Italo-Western Romance languages (which includes the vast majority) actually had a seven-vowel system /a ɛ e i ɔ o u/, which is kept in most Italo-Western languages. In some languages, like Spanish and Romanian, the phonemic status and difference between open-mid and close-mid vowels was lost. French has probably the largest inventory of monophthongs, with conservative varieties having 12 oral vowels /a ɑ ɛ e i ɔ o u œ ø y ə/ and 4 nasal vowels /ɑ̃ ɛ̃ ɔ̃ œ̃/. European Portuguese also has a large inventory, with 9 oral monophthongs /a ɐ ɛ e i ɔ o u ɨ/, 5 nasal monophthongs /ɐ̃ ẽ ĩ õ ũ/, and a large number of oral and nasal diphthongs (see below). (The phonemic status of /ɐ ɨ/ is somewhat doubtful, however, and neither phoneme exists in Brazilian Portuguese).
  • Some languages have a large inventory of falling diphthongs. These may or may not be considered as phonemic units (rather than sequences of vowel+glide), depending on their behavior. As an example, French, Spanish and Italian have occasional instances of putative falling diphthongs formed from a vowel plus a non syllabic /i/ or /u/ (e.g. Spanish veinte /ˈbeinte/ "twenty", deuda /ˈdeuda/ "debt"; French paille /paj/ "straw", caoutchouc /kawˈtʃu/ "rubber"; Italian lui /ˈlui/ "he", potei /poˈtei/ "I could"), but these are normally analyzed as sequences of vowel and glide. The diphthongs in Romanian, Portuguese, Catalan and Occitan, however, have various properties suggesting that they are better analyzed as unit phonemes. Portuguese, for example, has the diphthongs /aj ɐj ɛj ej ɔj oj uj aw ɛw ew iw (ow)/, where /ow/ (and to a lesser extent /ej/) appear only in some dialects. All except /aw ɛw/ appear frequently in verb and/or noun inflections. (Portuguese also has nasal diphthongs; see below.)
  • Among the major Romance languages, Portuguese and French have nasal vowel phonemes, stemming from nasalization before a nasal consonant followed by loss of the consonant (this occurred especially when the nasal consonant was not directly followed by a vowel). Originally, vowels in both languages were nasalized before all nasal consonants, but have subsequently become denasalized before nasal consonants that still remain (except in Brazilian Portuguese, where the pre-nasal vowels in words such as cama "bed", menos "less" remain highly nasalized). In Portuguese, nasal vowels are sometimes analyzed as phonemic sequences of oral vowels plus an underlying nasal consonant, but such an analysis is difficult in French because of the existence of minimal pairs such as bon /bɔ̃/ "good (masc.)", bonne /bɔn/ "good (fem.)". In both languages, there are fewer nasal than oral vowels. Nasalization triggered vowel lowering in French, producing the 4 nasal vowels /ɑ̃ ɛ̃ ɔ̃ œ̃/ (although most speakers nowadays pronounce /œ̃/ as /ɛ̃/). Vowel raising was triggered in Portuguese, however, producing the 5 nasal vowels /ɐ̃ ẽ ĩ õ ũ/. Vowel contraction and other changes also resulted in the Portuguese nasal diphthongs /ɐ̃w̃ õw̃ ɐ̃j̃ ẽj̃ õj̃ ũj̃/ (of which /ũj̃/ occurs in only one word, muito /mũj̃tu/ "much, many, very", and /ẽj̃ õw̃/ are actually final-syllable allophones of /ẽ õ/).
  • Most languages have fewer vowels in unstressed syllables than stressed syllables. This again reflects the Italo-Western Romance parent language, which had a seven-vowel system in stressed syllables (as described above) but only /a e i o u/ (with no low-mid vowels) in unstressed syllables. Some languages have seen further reductions: e.g. Standard Catalan has only in unstressed syllables. French, on the other hand, now allows all 12 of its phonemic vowels to occur either stressed or unstressed.
  • Most languages have even fewer vowels in final unstressed syllables than elsewhere. For example, the early stages of most Western Romance languages allowed only /a e o/. Some of these languages now allow more: Spanish, for example, now allows all five of its vowels to occur in final unstressed syllables, but /i u/ only occur in a few borrowed words, e.g. tribu "tribe", taxi "taxi". The Gallo-Romance languages went even farther, merging final /e o/, and French has carried things to the logical extreme by deleting all post-stressed vowels and uniformly placing the stress on the final syllable (except for a more-or-less non-phonemic final unstressed that occasionally appears).
  • Phonemic vowel length is uncommon. Vulgar Latin lost the phonemic vowel length of Classical Latin and replaced it with a non-phonemic length system where stressed vowels in open syllables were long, and all other vowels were short. Standard Italian still maintains this system, and it was rephonemicized in the Gallo-Romance languages (including the Rhaeto-Romance languages) as a result of the deletion of many final vowels. Some northern Italian languages (e.g. Friulan) still maintain this secondary phonemic length, but in most languages the new long vowels were either diphthongized or shortened again, in the process eliminating phonemic length. French is again the odd man out: Although it followed a normal Gallo-Romance path by diphthongizing five of the seven long vowels and shortening the remaining two, it phonemicized a third vowel length system around 1300 AD in syllables formerly closed with an /s/ (still marked with a circumflex accent), and now is in the process of phonemicizing a fourth system as a result of lengthening before final voiced fricatives.

Read more about this topic:  Romance Languages, Linguistic Features, Phonology

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