Article

Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 25, Issue 1, pp 157-193

First online:

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

  • Scott MyersAffiliated withDepartment of Linguistics, University of Texas Email author 
  • , Benjamin B. HansenAffiliated withDepartment of Linguistics, University of Texas

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Abstract

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.