, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 157-193
Date: 08 Nov 2006

The Origin of Vowel Length Neutralization in Final Position: Evidence from Finnish Speakers

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In a broad variety of languages with contrastive vowel length, long vowels are systematically excluded from a domain-final position, and are replaced with short vowels there. This is despite the fact that vowels at the end of a domain (utterance, phrase, word) are generally longer in duration than corresponding nonfinal vowels. We propose that the phonological pattern of final shortening arises diachronically from the effects of final devoicing – the breakdown in voicing at the end of an utterance. Partial devoicing of the final vowel makes it difficult to hear the end of the vowel and so favors identification of final vowels as short. If language learners generalize such an identification pattern, they have adopted a final shortening pattern. The claim that partially voiceless final vowels tend to be identified as short is supported by a series of experiments with Finnish speakers. The first two experiments establish that there is both final lengthening and final devoicing in the language. Three further experiments show that Finnish speakers identify the length category of partially voiceless final vowels on the basis of the duration of its voiced portion, so that partial devoicing of a vowel increases the probability of its being identified as short.

We would like to thank the many people who helped us learn about Finnish: Arto Anttila, Juha Poutiainen, Satu Ollikainen, Benita Heiskanen, Suvi Simila, Kristiina Rosser, Jenny Söderman, Helena Tiainen, Asta and Kari Leppänen, and the wonderful people of the Finnish Language School of North Texas. Thanks also to Melissa Redford, Megan Crowhurst, Mark Myers, Randy Diehl, Nancy Heger, Michael Kenstowicz, and two anonymous NLLT reviewers. This work has been funded by grant BCS-0345649 from the National Science Foundation.