Forthcoming: Velar fronting in German dialects: A study in synchronic and diachronic phonology

Tracy Alan Hall  


Velar Fronting is the cover term referring to any phonological process shifting the primary place of articulation of a velar sound to the palatal region of the vocal tract. The most well-known case of velar fronting in the German language is the rule specifying that the fricative [x] assimilates to the corresponding palatal [ç] in the context after front segments. Velar fronting also refers to the process whereby [x] is pronounced as the alveolopalatal (sibilant) fricative [ɕ], as well as the change from velar sounds like [ɣ k g ŋ] to the corresponding palatals ([ʝ c ɟ ɲ]). Velar fronting can involve either the diachronic fronting of a historical velar or the synchronic realization of an underlying velar as fronted (palatal). The book offers an in-depth investigation of velar fronting in German dialects. Data are drawn from over 300 original sources for regional varieties of German spanning the last 160 years. The dialects are (or were) spoken in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as well as neighboring countries.

It is demonstrated that velar fronting differs geographically along three parameters: (A) triggers, (B) targets, and (C) outputs. Velar fronting triggers (=A) are defined according to the height dimension: In some systems the sounds inducing velar fronting comprise only high front vowels, in others the triggers consist of high and mid front vowels but not the low front vowels, and in yet others it is all front vowels that trigger fronting. In a similar fashion, some varieties treat coronal sonorant consonants ([r l n]) as velar fronting triggers, while others do not. A surprising finding is that velar fronting can also be nonassimilatory; hence, some areas illustrate the change of original velars to palatals in the context of front and back segments. In many varieties of German, the set of target sounds for velar fronting (=B) consists of all and only velar fricatives ([x] and [ɣ]), but in other dialects those targets consist solely of [x] but not [ɣ]. In some places, velar fronting affects not only [x] and [ɣ], but also velar stops and the velar nasal. The output of velar fronting (=C) in most varieties of German is palatal [ç] (given the input [x]), but in many other places it is the alveolopalatal (sibilant) [ɕ].

A major theme of the book is the way in which velar fronting interacts with synchronic and diachronic changes creating or eliminating structures which can potentially undergo it or trigger it. In many dialects the relationship between velars ([x]) and palatals ([ҫ]) is transparent in the sense that velars only occur in the back vowel context and palatals only when adjacent to front sounds. In that type of system, independent processes can either feed velar fronting (by creating additional structures which the latter can undergo), or they can bleed it (by eliminating potential structures to which velar fronting could apply).

In other dialects, velar fronting can be opaque. Two types of opacity are documented. In the first type, velars ([x]) and palatals ([ҫ]) both occur in the context of front segments. Thus, in addition to expected front vowel plus palatal sequences ([…iç…]), there are also unexpected ones consisting of front vowel plus velar ([…ix…]). In the second type, velars and palatals both occur in the context of back segments; hence, expected sequences such as […iç…] occur in addition to unexpected ones like […ɑç…]. In the first type of system, sequences like […ix…] illustrate the underapplication of velar fronting, and in the second system sequences like […ɑç,,,] document the overapplication of that process.

Author Biography

Tracy Alan Hall, Indiana University

Tracy Alan Hall received his Ph.D. in Linguistics in 1990 from the University of Washington and is currently Professor of Germanic Linguistics at Indiana University and Editor of the Journal of Germanic Linguistics. His research interests are phonology, language change, Germanic linguistics, and dialectology.

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September 8, 2021
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Hall, Tracy Alan. Forthcoming. Forthcoming: Velar fronting in German dialects: A study in synchronic and diachronic phonology. (Open Germanic Linguistics). Berlin: Language Science Press.


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