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date: 23 February 2018

Segmental Phonology, Phonotactics, and Syllable Structure in the Romance Languages

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

From a typological perspective, the phoneme inventories of Romance languages are of medium size: For instance, most consonant systems contain between 20 and 23 phonemes. An innovation with respect to Latin is the appearance of palatal and palato-alveolar consonants such as /ɲ ʎ/ (Italian, Spanish, Portuguese), /ʃ ʒ/ (French, Portuguese), and /tʃ dʒ/ (Italian, Romanian); a few varieties (e.g., Romansh and a number of Italian dialects) also show the palatal stops /c ɟ/. Besides palatalization, a number of lenition processes (both sonorization and spirantization) have characterized the diachronic development of plosives in Western Romance languages (cf. the French word chèvre “goat” < lat. CĀPRA(M)). Diachronically, both sonorization and spirantization occurred in postvocalic position, where the latter can still be observed as an allophonic rule in present-day Spanish and Sardinian. Sonorization, on the other hand, occurs synchronically after nasals in many southern Italian dialects.

The most fundamental change in the diachrony of the Romance vowel systems derives from the demise of contrastive Latin vowel quantity. However, some Raeto-Romance and northern Italo-Romance varieties have developed new quantity contrasts. Moreover, standard Italian displays allophonic vowel lengthening in open stressed syllables (e.g., /ˈka.ne/ “dog” → [ˈkaːne]. The stressed vowel systems of most Romance varieties contain either five phonemes (Spanish, Sardinian, Sicilian) or seven phonemes (Portuguese, Catalan, Italian, Romanian). Larger vowel inventories are typical of “northern Romance” and appear in dialects of Northern Italy as well as in Raeto- and Gallo-Romance languages. The most complex vowel system is found in standard French with its 16 vowel qualities, comprising the 3 rounded front vowels /y ø œ/ and the 4 nasal vowel phonemes /ɑ̃ ɔ̃ ɛ̃ œ̃/.

Romance languages differ in their treatment of unstressed vowels. Whereas Spanish displays the same five vowels /i e a o u/ in both stressed and unstressed syllables (except for unstressed /u/ in word-final position), many southern Italian dialects have a considerably smaller inventory of unstressed vowels as opposed to their stressed vowels.

The phonotactics of most Romance languages is strongly determined by their typological character as “syllable languages.” Indeed, the phonological word only plays a minor role as very few phonological rules or phonotactic constraints refer, for example, to the word-initial position (such as Italian consonant doubling or the distribution of rhotics in Ibero-Romance), or to the word-final position (such as obstruent devoicing in Raeto-Romance). Instead, a wide range of assimilation and lenition processes apply across word boundaries in French, Italian, and Spanish.

In line with their fundamental typological nature, Romance languages tend to allow syllable structures of only moderate complexity. Inventories of syllable types are smaller than, for example, those of Germanic languages, and the segmental makeup of syllable constituents mostly follows universal preferences of sonority sequencing. Moreover, many Romance languages display a strong preference for open syllables as reflected in the token frequency of syllable types. Nevertheless, antagonistic forces aiming at profiling the prominence of stressed syllables are visible in several Romance languages as well. Within the Ibero- Romance domain, more complex syllable structures and vowel reduction processes are found in the periphery, that is, in Catalan and Portuguese. Similarly, northern Italian and Raeto-Romance dialects have experienced apocope and/or syncope of unstressed vowels, yielding marked syllable structures in terms of both constituent complexity and sonority sequencing.