Laryngeal contrasts in Norwegian

I remember that, when I had just started learning Norwegian, tones were a phenomenon that frustrated me to no end. As you can read in this post, I eventually did figure out the reason why it took me so long and how tones actually worked in Norwegian. Anyway, when I had just started on Norwegian, I learned that tones were not used in all dialects. I considered limiting my learning to dialects which lacked tones to make it easier for myself. Now, I am glad I never really supported that idea. With that mindset, everything that is different from Dutch could be avoided and then there would not be any Norwegian left to learn at all. You see: Norwegian dialects vary in many more ways. While writing my thesis on the development of aspiration in the Germanic languages, for example, I discovered that some Norwegian dialects use aspition whereas others do not.

What? Aspiration?
Aspiration is when a vowel following certain plosives (/p, t, k/) start out voiceless: when the articulators are already in the position for that vowel, but the vocal chords are closed. No air escapes, which results in a period of voicelessness before the vowel is heard – aspiration. Phonetically, aspiration is transcribed as [ʰ], so the aspirated plosives can be written down as [pʰ, tʰ, kʰ].

Two types of languages
Typically, languages which have aspiration do not have fully voiced plosives (/b, d, g/), but the aspirated set is only contrasted with voiceless plosives. In other words, such languages have the following sets of plosives:

  1. pʰ, tʰ, kʰ
  2. p, t, k

Examples of such languages are English and German (and basically Germanic languages in general).

Typically, languages which lack aspiration do have voiced plosives, so that the following sets of plosives are distinguished from one another:

  1. p, t, k
  2. b, d, g

Examples of such languages are Italian and Polish (and basically Romance and Slavic languages in general).

In short, based on the configuration of the vocal chords, we can distinguish between two language types:

  1. aspiration languages: aspirated versus voiceless
  2. voice languages: voiceless versus voiced

Note: from most voiceless to most voiced, the order of plosives is aspirated > voiceless > voiced

So Norwegian is an aspiration language!
According to this observation Norwegian should be an aspiration language, as it belongs to the Germanic language family. However, the situation is not that straightforward: Some dialects, most notably  Trøndelag Norwegian (spoken in central Norway) have both aspiration and voice, which means that they distinguish between /pʰ, tʰ, kʰ/ and /b, d, g/.

Huh?
Yes, weird. There are multiple theories on how the aspiration contrast developed. What is important for now is that Northwest Germanic, an ancestor of, among other languages, Norwegian, most likely had the aspiration contrast (or glottalic plosives which became aspirated, but I will not go there for now). This would mean that the presence of /b, d, g/ instead of /p, t, k/  is the result of later changes. Many studies hypothesise that the laryngeal changes in may have had a phonetic cause: either misperception or mispronunciation of voicing or aspiration. I believe that there must have been contact between languages which were different in terms of their laryngeal specifications. Contact with speakers which already used voiced plosives could logically result in borrowing (Norwegian borrows voiced plosives from the other language) or misperception (of Norwegian by the other language, which misinterprets /p, t, k/  as voiced because that is what the most voiceless plosives contrast with in their language). The situation depends on which tribe was dominant – which language speakers from different tribes used to communicate. If Norwegian, the second scenario is most like, whereas the first scenario is probable if speakers of Norwegian acquired the others’ language to communicate with them. Alas, there is no solid proof for either.

So… what now?
Don’t worry, this was just an elaboration for those who like background information! Of course, knowing the answer is not necessary to become a fluent speaker of Norwegian. However, awareness of laryngeal contrasts is useful. My advice is this: when learning Norwegian in general, using the aspiration contrast is the wisest choice, since most dialects have this distinction. When aiming for a specific variety, however, do your research. I am not saying that nobody will understand you if you speak Trøndelag Norwegian without using voiced plosives. But for those of you who are not content with any level apart from perfect, keep this in mind.

References

  • Hopper, P.J. (1973). Glottalized and murmured occlusives in Indoeuropean. Glossa 7(2), 141–166.
  • Iverson, G.K. & J.C. Salmons (1995). Aspiration and laryngeal representation in Germanic. Phonology 12(3), 369–396.
  • Iverson, G.K. & J.C. Salmons (2003). Laryngeal enhancement in early Germanic. Phonology 20(1), 43–74.
  • Iverson, G.K. & J.C. Salmons (2008). Germanic Aspiration: Phonetic enhancement and language contact. Sprachwissenschaft 33(3): 257–278.
    Kortlandt, F. (2000). Preaspiration or preglottalisation? Amsterdamer Beiträge zur älteren Germanistik 53, 7–10.
  • Ohala, J.J. (1989). Sound change is drawn from a pool of synchronic variation. Language change: contributions to the study of its causes. Ed. L.E. Breivik & E.H. Jahr. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 173–198.
  • Ohala, J.J. (1993). The phonetics of sound change. Historical linguistics: problems and perspectives. Ed. C. Jones. London: Longman, 237–278.
  • Schrijver, P. (2013). Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages. Routledge.
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