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Review of  Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English

Reviewer: Stephen Laker
Book Title: Alliteration and Sound Change in Early English
Book Author: Donka Minkova
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 14.2625

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Date: Sat, 27 Sep 2003 15:29:51 +0200
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.

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 ), 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 '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 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

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
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-
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
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 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 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, 11-20.

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
Konsonantenveränderungen in der Geschichte des Englischen,
Tübingen: Niemeyer.

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

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

Schuhmacher, Karl. 1914. Studien über 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 Quantität im
Spätmittelalter und sein Einfluss auf die Metrik. In Hans
Fix (ed.) Quantitätsproblematik und Metrik: Greifswalder
Symposion zur germanischen Grammatik (= Amsterdamer
Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik, 42), Amsterdam: Rodopi,

ABOUT THE REVIEWER 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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