The life cycle of preaspiration in the Gaelic languages

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This paper represents (yet another) contribution to the vexed issue of the role of Old Norse in the history of Scottish Gaelic. The historical, archaeological, and cultural evidence for the interaction between Norse and Gaelic speakers in the period between the start of the Viking Age in the North Atlantic and the (re-)Gaelicization of Scotland, is incontrovertible; and so is the presence of numerous traces of language contact, particularly in the lexicon and toponomasticon. As for structural influence, probably the most controversial has been the proposal that the preaspiration of medial stops in the ‘voiceless’ (/p t k/) series — a pervasive feature of Gaelic — shows a special connection to the very similar phenomenon in (especially Insular) North Germanic. Scholars have attributed the connection to a Norse substrate that influenced Gaelic in the later medieval period, to Gaelic influence on North Germanic in a contact situation, and to membership in a northern European ‘linguistic landscape’ — and some have denied that the connection actually exists.
In this paper I argue that we can approach a resolution of the conundrum if we take seri-ously the results achieved in theoretical historical phonology. In particular, the theory of the life cycle of phonological processes allows us to reconstruct a course for the development of Gaelic preaspiration that has important implications for the contact theory of preaspiration origins. This approach, which provides a conceptual foundation for the traditional dialecto-logical association of innovation with central areas and archaisms with peripheries, provides a remarkably good fit with what we know about the diatopic variability of Gaelic preaspir-ation. I argue that there is a strong case for the phonetic precursor of today’s preaspiration, which is primarily associated with Gaelic varieties in Scotland, to be interpreted as a pan-Gaelic feature. The distribution of this ‘proto-preaspiration’ is certainly not associated in any signi-ficant way with areas where Norse settlement was such that it would have provided the right sociolinguistic context for a ‘substrate’ influence of Norse on Gaelic.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationLanguage on the move across domains and communities
Subtitle of host publicationSelected papers from the 12th triennial Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster, Glasgow 2018
EditorsJoanna Kopaczyk, Robert McColl Millar
Place of PublicationAberdeen
PublisherUniversity of Aberdeen
ISBN (Electronic)9780956654953
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Publication series

Name Publications of the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster
PublisherUniversity of Aberdeen


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