Hapax phonotactica

In addition to phonemes that only occur in one or a few words, there are can be unusual exceptions to a language’s usual phonotactics: consonants that only occur in a certain position in one word, clusters that only occur in one word, and so on.

Latin /p/ only occurs finally in volup, a shortened form of volupis.

German -nf only occurs in Hanf ‘hemp’ (a pre-PGmc. loan of Latin cannabis), Senf ‘mustard’ (< Latin sināpi), Genf ‘Geneva’ (< Latin Genava), Sernf (a river; < *Sarnivos), and fünf ‘five’ (< *pempe, a variant of PIE *penkʷe).

English oi only precedes a word-final velar in oikyoik (a loan from Finnic), and the onomatapoeia oinkboink, and boing. English can only appear in initial clusters in loans and recent coinages: VladimirvlogVlachvlei.

But these are less interesting: it’s well-known that loanwords and onomatapoeia can fill in phonotactic gaps in a language.

Sometimes these clusters can change in unusual ways: Old English fn- (in fnēosan ‘sneeze’) becomes sn-, possibly aided by the visual similarity of and long s.

7 responses to “Hapax phonotactica

  1. Erik June 12, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    Idly, fneosan looks related to Norwegian fnise, ‘chortle’. Any idea if it is? I tried a Norwegian etymology reference, but it lacked fnise entirely. (‘Sneeze’ itself in Norwegian has become nyse.)

    • nydwracu June 12, 2016 at 7:45 pm

      It looks like the outcomes of PGmc *eu in Norwegian are y and jo. If y unrounded to i in a dialect (as it did in Icelandic), it could be related.

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  3. thehousecarpenter June 13, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    The cluster /gj/ doesn’t appear word-initially, but every other consonant + /j/ cluster does (or did, historically). This is probably partly due to the fact that OE palatalised g before front vowels, although that wouldn’t have stopped /gj/ coming in via loanwords (and it didn’t stop /kj/ entering the language via loanwords even though OE k was palatalised in word-initial position before front vowels as well).

    I can’t think of any words with /spj/, /skj/, /smj/ other than spew, skew, skewer and smew, but it doesn’t seem that surprising that such complex clusters are rare.

    It’s weird that there are plenty of native words with /spl/ (“split”, “splinter”, “splay”, “spleen”…) but none with /skl/ apart from, as far as I know, one Greek loanword (“sclerosis”). I don’t know of any sound change that can explain this. Well, PGmc *sk(r) apparently always became OE sċ(r) word-initially, even before back vowels (cf. shroud < PGmc *skrūdą), so any /skl/ would have become /Sl/—but we don’t even have /Sl/ outside of Yiddish loanwords.

    • nydwracu June 13, 2016 at 11:52 pm

      *skl- > *sl-? PIE *(s)klewd- > PGmc *sleutanan. Scots ‘sclate’ < OF; cf. English 'slate', so the prohibition probably lasted until educated Greek loans started coming in.

  4. twabs June 24, 2016 at 11:52 pm

    Ancient Greek disallows all finals but /s/, /n/, /r/, /ks/, /ps/. The exceptions are ἐκ /ek/ ‘out of’, οὐκ /ouk/ ‘not’, ἅλς /háls/ ‘salt’ or ‘sea’, ἕλμινς /hélmins/ ‘worm’.

    LSJ lists πείρινς ‘wicker basket’, but lists no citations of the nominative. μάκαρς /mákars/ ‘blessed’ is a dialectal (Doric) form of μάκαρ. μαίτυρς ‘witness’ is a dialectal (Cretan) form of μάρτυς. χέρς is a dialectal form of χείρ ‘hand’, provided it is not a false reading. Some dialects also have final /ns/, in a wide variety of words.

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