LINGUIST List 14.2625

Tue Sep 30 2003

Review: Historical Ling/Phonology: Minkova (2002)

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  1. Stephen Laker, Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English

Message 1: Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English

Date: Mon, 29 Sep 2003 18:14:37 +0000
From: Stephen Laker <>
Subject: Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English

Minkova, Donka (2002) Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in Language 101.

Announced at

Stephen Laker, Leiden University


Despite an ever-increasing production of books and articles on the
metre of especially Old English alliterative verse, the study of the
alliterations themselves, their changing developments both within Old
English and, more prominently, into Middle English, has received
little attention. Largely, we are still reliant on Schumacher's Bonn
dissertation of 1914: a concise, but by modern standards,
linguistically unanalysed compendium of the many alliterative
possibilities found in the Middle English verse corpus. That after so
long a period of disregard the study of English historical phonology
as reflected in the changing nature of the verse alliterations is
being addressed, can only be welcomed.


Chapter 1 (pp. 1-21) begins with a useful introduction to the Germanic
background of the Old English alliterative tradition and its revival
in Middle English in the West (the question why it was revived only in
the West is not touched upon). Chapter 2 (pp. 22-70) then goes on to
outline Minkova's ideas as to the versification of Old English. The
approach follows that of Stockwell and Minkova (1997) which is
(p. 35): ''a new synthesis of Sievers' theory that incorporates
insights found in Bliss (1967) and Cable (1974), but it follows
neither of them in all details''. An interesting aspect of this theory
is the notion that resolution had become a poetic artifice very early
on (e.g. as compared to High German, cf. Vennemann 1995) and was not
understood by the linguistic intuitions of native Old English speakers
(p. 7, 19, 40). This is also interesting because throughout the book
the reader is constantly reminded (p. xv, 6, 7, 18 etc.) of how
alliterative compositions are otherwise a valuable resource for the
reconstruction of the phonological properties of contemporary
languages. The chapter concludes with a brief outline of Middle
English stress patterns and versification.

The analysis of alliterations begins in chapter 3 (pp. 71-
134). Generations of students of Old English have learnt of the
special poetic licence given to alliterations on the velars k- and
g-. The general view on the voiceless velar k- is that though it was
fronted and subsequently affricated before front vowels (not
mentioning other positions), it could still alliterate with
non-affricated k-. This essentially means that in verse Old English
_cynu_ 'kin' alliterates with _cinu_ 'chin', despite their assumed
onset variation as in Modern English. This standard handbook view is
rejected by Minkova who does not believe such an ''eye-alliteration''
was at play. Instead it is argued that k- was indeed palatalized to
kj-, but not affricated, thus retaining its velar properties in
alliteration. This resembles the reconstruction already assumed for
Early Old English. Due to i-umlaut, a further palatal environment in
English arose, however, which remained distinct from that of the
earlier palatalization environment, and only caused a phonetic
variation, e.g., as in the palatal and non-palatal variations of /k/
in the (Old) English words _cyning_ 'king' [k'] and _corn_ 'corn'
[k]. Phonetically this gives for Old English three distinct reflexes
of Germanic *k: [k], [kj], [k'], cf. (p. 106). An interpretation,
Minkova adds (p. 99), which is theoretically possible, drawing on
research carried out by Keating and Lahiri (1993).

But the situation is complicated somewhat by the assumption of yet
another reflex of Germanic *k in Old English: the presence of the
affricated pronunciation [ts^] (s^ stands for the voiced
palato-alveolar fricative as in English <sh->), namely word internally
and in final absolute position (p. 112) as in Old English _dic_
'ditch'. Minkova defends this proposal of positionally- governed
affrication (p. 110): ''An argument can be made that the palatalized
velars became affricated first word- internally, where they could
appear in coda position, a prototypical position of neutralization.''
Though not explicitly spelled out, the main need for the assumption of
positionally-governed affrication is to accommodate Old English
<-c(c)-> spellings, i.e. as in <fecc(e)an> 'to fetch' < *fetjan, where
an etymological dental stop undergoes affrication before a following
/j/, cf. p. 110. Hogg (1992) assumes such spellings, which are
abundant in Late West Saxon, to be in use by at the latest the
beginning of the ninth century. But we must logically assume that in
order for the spelling convention to be adopted <c> must already have
been able to express something equivalent to [ts^] in the Old English
orthographical system prior to its transferred use in the
-tj-forms. This is too early. The only way therefore of accommodating
the <-c(c)->-forms while assuming that Old English verse was still
alliterating on velars is then to posit affrication according to
position. One would have liked, however, to have seen some typological
evidence for this thesis with regard to palatalization and affrication
processes in other languages; more especially, similar contemporaneous
palatalizations in other Germanic languages. A closely related North
Sea Germanic language - Old Frisian - does in fact display such a
positionally- governed palatalization and affrication, but regrettably
for Minkova's thesis in precisely those positions she predicts are
less susceptible to it, namely before high vowels but not after them,
i.e. as a anticipatory assimilation process, cf. Nielsen (1985) -
Nielsen also gives some place-name evidence for the same positionally-
governed palatalization in dialects of Low German. These complications
in Old Frisian and Low German ought really to have been addressed.

Next the problem of voiced velar g-alliterations is tackled
(pp. 113-121). In contrast to later verse it has been observed that
Old English reflexes of the Germanic voiced velar fricative *g^ (g^
represents the IPA gamma sign) as in Old English _gold_ 'gold'
alliterate with reflexes of the Germanic approximant *j (e.g. _geong_
'young') despite a breaching of phonemic boundaries. Minkova makes a
plausible argument that the crossing of phonemic boundaries in early
verse may be explained when the voiced velar fricative articulation
/g^/ is assumed for Early Old English. This would have had both
palatal and non-palatal allophones. A valid argument is made that the
palatal-fricative allophone [g^'] (curly-tail j in IPA) would have
been so phonetically similar to the palatal approximant /j/ for such a
breach of phonemic boundaries to be tolerated. However, it would also
have represented an allophonic bridge through which the non- palatal
voiced velar fricative [g^] could alliterate too. That such
alliterations are no longer observed in later verse would indicate a
change in this practice, however. The change would result from the
occlusion of the non- palatal voiced velar fricative [g^] to [g]. By
this interpretation, dating of the manuscript evidence could provide
an approximate terminus post quem (c. 950) for the occlusion in Old
English (pp. 118-9). - This chapter closes, as is typical throughout
the book, with a formalization of the proposed analyses within
Optimality Theory.

Chapter 4 (pp. 135-191) defends the already widely accepted view that
Old English vowel alliteration was based on glottal stop
epenthesis. Convincingly, Minkova shows that Old English required a
filled stress syllable onset. This assumption is nicely argued through
elision in Old English verse (pp. 145-150), the clear observance of
morphological boundaries (pp. 150-160), and, though less convincingly,
through irregular spellings (pp. 160-5). In the last mentioned case,
the use of occasional inorganic <h> in prevocalic positions is
interpreted as representing examples of glottal stop epenthesis
(p. 163). No evidence for such spelling conventions in other older
Germanic languages, e.g. High and Low German, is shown though. For the
thesis to be believable similar non-etymological spellings would be
desirable. Nevertheless, enough other compelling reasons are given
which make glottal stop epenthesis the most likely option for Old
English. However, in contrast to, for example, glottal stop
epenthesis in Standard German, it is assumed that the Anglo-Saxons
were aware of this feature, and with it created alliterative
euphony. Minkova goes on to make a convincing argument that such
epenthesis had become optional by Middle English. It is shown how the
reduction of glottal stop epenthesis led to a blurring of
morphological boundaries; also the new tendency to alliterate on like
vowels might point towards loss of glottal stop as the main feature
behind such vowel alliterations. Finally, it is suggested that loss of
glottal stop epentheses in Middle English may be due to Anglo-Norman
influence (pp. 166-167). But as the bulk of the population remained
English speaking in the centuries following the conquest, it seems far
from certain whether borrowing of Romance words and
English-Anglo-Norman bilingualism among socially prestigious speakers
could have ousted this subphonemic feature.

Chapter 5 (pp. 192-237) deals with cluster alliteration in Old
English. It is asked why only /sp-, st-, sk-/ clusters were treated as
units in alliteration by the scops. An approach based on cluster
cohesiveness is put forward. It is pointed out that the special nature
of these clusters can also be observed in modern languages as seen,
for instance, in currently attested metatheses, speech errors, and
spoonerisms (p. 208). However, Minkova has also been able to draw on
perceptually-based research into consonant clusters currently being
carried out at UCLA (cf. in particular Fleischhacker 2001). It has
been noted, for example, that s + stop clusters are particularly
resistant to separation (p. 226), containing no so-called
'perceptual-breaks' as found in C + resonant clusters, e.g. /pl-, tr-,
br-/, which are sometimes liable to separation in Middle English
verse. This thesis of cluster cohesion is actively pursued in chapters
6 and 7 and appears to represent a promising line of research. It was
a disappointment, however, not to find some brief references to
earlier studies into cohesion, e.g. Bell (1979). Indeed quite a few
insights found in chapter 5 and subsequent chapters of the book were
already brought forward in one form or another in Vennemann
(1988). For instance, the advantages of a cohesion-based approach to s
+ stop clusters as opposed to treating 's' as an extrametrical
prependix, see Vennemann (1988).

A further important discussion point of chapter 3 involves the
question of when and how the Old English cluster sk- <sc> was
palatalized and assibilated in Old English. Using alliterative
evidence, e.g. usage in Aelfric's alliterative prose (p. 200), Minkova
concludes (p. 201) that the loss of the bisegmental status of sk-
cannot be established with certainty for all dialects until after c.

Chapter 6 (pp. 238-310) looks at the distribution of cluster
alliterations in Middle English. For this the Middle English
compositions Lagamon's Brut, Wynnere and Wastoure, The Wars of
Alexander, and Piers Plowman are analysed. It is demonstrated how
Middle English poets ignored the special status of /sp-, st-, sk-/
cluster alliteration. Minkova observes that poets of fourteenth-
century verse could treat all consonant clusters (e.g. /br-, tr-,
kl-/) as units (p. 308): ''all clusters were judged to be cohesive,
but not equally so.'' To this end Minkova proposes a hierarchy of
cohesiveness for English cluster onsets based on her preliminary
statistical findings of Middle English alliterations. Clusters /st-,
sp-, sk-/ are found most cohesive, followed by the clusters s +
sonorant /sn-, sl-, sl-, sw-/, stop + sonorant /pr-, br-, pl-, kw-/
etc., and, lastly, fricative + sonorant /fr-, fl-/ etc. (p. 305). In
Minkova's view, the distribution of alliterative matching in verse (p.
308) ''supports the idea of a universal phonological hierarchy of
perceptual cohesiveness in onset clusters.''

Finally, in chapter 7 (pp. 311-370) the developments of historically
unstable clusters /kn-, gn-, hn-, hr-, hl-, hw-, wl-, wr-/ are
treated. The four texts studied in chapter 6 again provide the main
basis for investigation, but are backed up with reference to the
Middle English Dictionary and unpublished Linguistic Atlas of Early
Medieval English material. It is argued using verse and scribal
evidence that there is no compelling evidence to suggest that
gn-clusters were simplified prior to kn- clusters, similarly that
wl-clusters were simplified before wr-clusters (note modern spelling,
however), or that hn-, hl-, and hr-clusters were simplified before hw-
clusters (p. 369). As Minkova notes (p. 369), this stands in contrast
to accounts based on consonantal strength relations, in particular
Lutz (1991).

Special attention is drawn to the developments of the cluster hw- in
the various dialects (pp. 349-365). Minkova argues that the
alliterative evidence (e.g. in Lagamon's Brut, Caligula MS) suggests
its simplification to w- in certain southern dialects as early as the
12th century (pp. 313-316, 369). Its survival, especially in the North
of England - as exemplified, for instance, in The Wars of Alexander
(here alliteration on hw:hw or hw:qu is the rule rather than hw:w) -
is accounted for by a differing development of the cluster, most
importantly a frication of hw- to xw- (with phonetic variations) in
especially Northumbrian dialects. This idea is an old one; long
assumed, for example, on account of scribal forms such as <qu(h)> in
Late Middle English and by the longer preservation of hw- in
traditional northern English dialects. In a nutshell, Minkova proposes
that there were several allophonic variations of <hw-> in Early Old
English, and that by Late Old English a fricative pronunciation became
most common in the North and a pre- aspirated variant in the South
(pp. 355-357). This would explain the Middle and Modern English
reflexes, but does not really explain why the regional variance
occurred. One problem with this account is that it leaves out of
picture the interrelated development of English kw- which,
surprisingly, is not also classed as an unstable cluster.

In Northumbrian dialects it was unstable as Middle English verse
evidence as well as Early Modern English and even contemporary
evidence shows (see Laker 2002 with references). The frication of hw-
and the spirantization of kw- resulted in the merger of the two forms
(kw-, hw- > xw-) and ought to be seen as a single unitary development
in Northumbrian England, cf. Ekwall (1922), Orton (1933), Kristensson
(1967). Any explanation for the development of Old English <hw-> must
therefore look at all interrelated developments. A new proposal along
these lines with reference to Brittonic language contact is suggested
in Laker (2002).


Using alliterative verse, Minkova provides many interesting new
analyses of the actuation and chronology of Early English sound
changes. Some proposals seem more convincing than others, and some may
be in need of further refinement. Nevertheless, by the end of the book
Minkova succeeds in demonstrating why verse evidence should be
figuring more prominently in discussions on English historical
phonology. Apart from phonology, however, the book also provides a
mine of insight and information on the English and Germanic poetic
tradition in general. It therefore makes essential reading for anyone
interested in these fields of study.


Bell, Alan. 1979. The syllable as constituent versus organizational
unit. In Paul R. Clyne et al. (eds.) The elements: a parassession on
linguistic units and levels, Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society,

Bliss, Alastair J. 1967. The metre of ''Beowulf.'' Revised
edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cable, Thomas. 1974. The meter and melody of Beowulf, Urbana:
University of Illinois Press.

Ekwall, Eilert. 1922. The place-names of Lancashire, Manchester:
Manchester University Press.

Fleischhacker, Heidi. 2001. Onset cluster behavior in alliteration and
reduplication. Phonology Seminar Handout, February 6, 2001, University
of California, Los Angeles.

Hogg, Richard. 1992. A grammar of Old English, vol. 1 Phonology,
Oxford: Blackwell.

Keating, Patricia and Aditi Lahiri. 1993. Fronted velars, palatalized
velars, and palatals. Phonetica 50, 73-101.

Kristensson, Gillis. 1967. A survey of Middle English dialects
1290-1350: the six northern counties and Lincolnshire, Lund: Gleerup.

Laker, Stephen. 2002. An explanation for the changes kw-, hw- > xw- in
the English dialects. In Markku Filppula et al. (eds.) The Celtic
roots of English, (= Studies in languages 37), Joensuu: Joensuu
University Press, 183-198.

Lutz, Angelika. 1991. Phonotaktisch gesteuerte
Konsonantenver�nderungen in der Geschichte des Englischen, T�bingen:

Nielsen, Hans F. 1985. Old English and the continental Germanic
languages: a survey of morphological and phonological interrelations,
2nd ed., Innsbrucker Beitr�ge zur Sprachwissenschaft, Bd. 33.

Orton, Harold. 1933. The phonology of a south Durham dialect:
descriptive, historical, and comparative, London: Tr�bner.

Schuhmacher, Karl. 1914. Studien �ber den Stabreim in der
mittelenglischen Alliterationsdichtung (= Bonner Studien zur
englischen Philologie 11), Bonn: Hannstein.

Stockwell, Robert and Donka Minkova. 1997. Prosody. In Robert E. Bjork
et al. (eds.) A Beowulf Handbook, Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 55-85.

Vennemann, Theo. 1988. The rule dependence of syllable structure. In
Caroline Duncan-Rose et al. (eds.) On language: rhetorica, phonlogica,
syntactica: a festschrift for Robert P. Stockwell from his friends and
colleagues, London and New York: Routledge, 257-283.

Vennemann, Theo. 1995. Der Zusamenbruch der Quantit�t im
Sp�tmittelalter und sein Einfluss auf die Metrik. In Hans Fix (ed.)
Quantit�tsproblematik und Metrik: Greifswalder Symposion zur
germanischen Grammatik (= Amsterdamer Beitr�ge zur �lteren
Germanistik, 42), Amsterdam: Rodopi, 185-223.


Stephen Laker is a PhD candidate at the University of Leiden Centre
for Linguistics, currently researching language variation and change
in Modern and Medieval English.
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