The magic of /i/

Jul 1, 2010 by

At the end of the last posting, I mentioned that both the -o- spelling of /i/ in women and the -ti- spelling of /sh/ in revolution are a result of the special magic of /i/. It is time to look at those sound changes that can be produced by this sound.

One type of sound change that /i/ can cause is called umlaut. We see the results of this process in the Modern English pairs of related words like tooth-teeth and food-feed. In prehistoric stages of English (actually before the language became Old English in the 6th century CE), this process of umlaut was productive (i.e., it applied to all words that fit the description) and its effect was the changing of certain vowels in stems when a suffix containing /i/ was added. There were several such suffixes in prehistoric English, but what they all had in common is that they were monosyllabic (i.e., had one syllable) and contained an /i/. These suffixes had different meanings and cound attach to nouns (to form plurals), adjectives (to form comparatives) and to verbs (to form 3rd person present tense verbs).

The specific effect of the umlaut rule was that the vowel of stem changed from a back vowel to a front vowel (rounded back vowels were also unrounded in the process). For example, the mid, back, rounded vowel /o:/ changed into the mid, front, unrounded vowel /e:/, as in /fo:t/ ‘foot’ becoming /fe:ti/ ‘feet’. (In later stages of English, /o:/ became /u/ and /e:/ became /i:/ — this process is known as the Great Vowel Shift, and it will be the subject of another posting some day.) Another example of the umlaut involves changing the high, back, unrounded vowel /u/ in the stem into the high, front, unrounded /i/; this is what happened for example in /mus/ ‘mouse’ which became /misi/ in the plural (once again, the /u/ to /aw/ and /i/ to /aj/ changes are a result of the Great Vowel Shift). The third type of change that falls under the umlaut category is the change from the low, back, unrounded /a:/ into the low, front, unrounded /æ:/, as in /kna:w/ ‘know’ – /knæ:wi/ ‘knew’.

The case of man-men is a bit more complicated. This pair also resulted from an application of the earlier umlaut rule, but here the vowel was not only fronted but also raised: the low, back, unrounded /a/ of the stem changed into the mid, front, unrounded /e/: /mann/ ‘man’ – /menni/ ‘men’.

But the sound /i/ may affect not only a neighboring vowel, but also an adjacent consonant (a similar effect is created by /i/’s consonantal counterpart, the glide /j/). If caused by /i/, this rule is called palatalization; if caused by /j/, it is known as iotation. Since /i/ is a high, front vowel (which means that to pronounce it we must move the body of the tongue as far up and front as it would go without sticking out between one’s teeth), it has the force to affect an adjacent consonant so that it too is pronounced with the body of the tongue as far up and front as possible. This results in a “softer”, palatalized pronunciation of the consonant. English does not use the distinction between palatalized and non-palatalized consonants to encode meaning, but other languages, such Spanish, Italian, Russian and Hungarian do. For example, Spanish distinguishes a regular /n/ from a palatalized version (spelled as an n with a tilde), and Italian distinguishes also a regular /l/ in li from a palatalized version in gli. Russian and Hungarian have an even richer inventory of palatalized-non-palatalized pairs of consonants.

Among the consonants that typically arise as a result of palatalization or iotation are /tsh/ (as in church), /sh/ and their voiced counterparts /dzh/ (as in jazz) and /zh/ (as in measure). Hence, the English revolu/sh/on or the Russian ru/tch/en’ka ‘little hand’ from ru/k/a ‘hand’.

To sum up, the high front vowel /i/ (and its consonantal counterpart /j/) has the power to affect neighboring consonants and vowels. The historical (and synchronic) rules of umlaut, palatalization and iotation are all example of the magic of /i/ (and /j/).

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