Orginal Paper

Journal of East Asian Linguistics

, 16:61

First online:

The role of phonemic contrast in the formation of Sino-Japanese

  • Kevin HeffernanAffiliated withDepartment of Linguistics, University of Toronto Email author 

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When a language adapts words from another language, the adapting language (L1) naturally tries to retain the phonemic contrasts of the source language (L2). However, if the L2 has a greater degree of contrast than the L1 then either the extra degree(s) of contrast will be lost, or the L1 must introduce markedness into its phonological system. The objective of this article is twofold

First, I argue that the introduction of markedness into the L1’s phonology when adapting words from another language correlates with the social relationship between the languages. I demonstrate this by examining the retention of phonemic contrast in the various stages of the adaptation of Chinese words into Japanese

Second, I argue for a phonological constraint that enforces the retention of L2’s phonemic contrast, DISTINCT. An Optimality Theoretic analysis of the adaptation of Sino-Japanese produces the expected results for all of stages of adaptation except one—the stage when contact between the two languages is at its peak. For this stage, the analysis requires the addition of the DISTINCT constraint


Sino-Japanese Loanword adaptation Phonological contrast Japanese Chinese