Theoretical Treatments of Epenthesis

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Epenthesis in Scottish Gaelic primarily refers to vocalic epenthesis (also known as Svarabhakti), which is generally understood as the insertion of a vowel within a consonantal sequence. Vocalic epenthesis is closely related to syllabification and is subject to stringent phonological conditions on the part of the surrounding consonants. The locality, prosody and identity of epenthetic vowels are nevertheless predictable. Researchers however debate the phonological mechanisms that render those characteristics. Two such accounts are exposed below.

Theoretical Treatments

Autosegmental Phonology

Adopting an autosegmental framework for his analysis, Clements (1986) offers a formal treatment of syllabification and vowel epenthesis in the Barra dialect of Gaelic. His argument pertains to the non-distinctiveness of syllabification at the level of underlying representation. He argues that surface contrastive syllabification is ruled-governed and predictable, dismissing any claims of pre-syllabified underlying representations. Two main types of surface syllabification are delineated:

Type A/Hiatus

Type A (see the article Hiatus for more details) relates to the syllabification of vocalic sequences -- VV [duən] poem vs. V.V [] hook

Clements reports an observation first made by Borgstrøm (1937) that "the break in the tension [occurring at the location of the dot – GNC] is a phenomenon which occurs in positions where a consonant could be expected, a kind of ‘consonant without oral articulation’, comparable to h" (150). This remark leads Clements to assume that the underlying contrast of syllabification is really one of /VV/ vs. /VCV/ where C represents a silent consonant devoid of any segmental features except for syllabicity (i.e. [-syllabic]). Clements conjectures that such resulting hiatus might be the reflex of a historical loss of the intervocalic consonant. Illustrative examples are provided below (adopted from Clements 1986: 333):


Type B/Consonant syllabification

Type B relates to the syllabification of an intervocalic consonant -- VC.V [] bread vs. V.CV [a.ram] army

Clements identifies three phonological environments influencing the syllabification of this intervocalic consonant:

  1. V:.CV [mo:.ran] much -- C assumes the onset position of the second syllable when directly preceding a long vowel.
  2. V̆C.V [] bread -- C assumes the coda position of the first syllable when directly preceding a short vowel.
  3. ˈV̆.CˈV̆ [ma.rav] dead -- C assumes the onset position of the second syllable when directly preceding and following short, stressed vowels.

Borgstrøm (1940) reports that “[n]ative speakers are described as distinguishing between the two types of words [i.e. (2) and (3)] in deliberate speech, syllabifying faNak crow as [faN.ak], while declaring that in ʃaLak [ʃa.Lak] hunting the L and the k are inseparable” (153). Clements proposes that this difference of syllabification is the result of svarabhakti, which "occurs before the sequences [hp, çk', xk] only if preceded by a nonlenited plain consonant , i.e. /N, L, R/." (1986: 327).

Clements also predicts the nature of the epenthetic vowel from the surrounding phonological environment. Borgstrøm (1937) mentioned that out of the 78 occurrences of epenthetic vowels, 52 were identical to the preceding vowel, while 26 were not. Relying on an autosegmental analysis where nonlabial consonants are specified for the feature [back] and labial consonants are not, Clements shows that the featural composition of the epenthetic vowel is entirely supplied by the preceding CV sequence via a rightward spreading of features. Nonlabial consonants, specified for the [back] feature, are opaque to the featural spread, while labial consonants are transparent to the process - yielding surface vowel harmony. The following schematization illustrates the proposed mechanism (adopted from Clements 1986: 331).


While Clements' account manages to capture the locality and identity of epenthetic vowels, it nevertheless fails to take into account the prosodic properties of such vowels (i.e. stress and pitch level).

Ní Chiosain

Gestural Phonology (Bosch 1995)

Bosch (1995) adopts a gestural approach to the treatment of syllabification and vowel epenthesis in the Barra dialect. Her argument crucially rests on a gradient (rather than discreet) approach to syllable constituency, where the syllable formed by the epenthetic vowel is an extension of the original syllable.

Unlike previous accounts (Clements 1986, Ni Chiosáin 1994, Halle 1995), Bosch's analysis seeks to arrive at a justification for the particular prosodic characteristics of the epenthetic vowel, namely the fact that both the original and epenthetic vowels have (somewhat) equal stress and pitch level (Borgstrøm 1937, Bosch & De Jong 1997). Espousing the theoretical tools made available by articulatory phonology, she claims that "epenthesis can be viewed as the result of a premature articulation of the sonorant gesture, which is itself superimposed upon the preceding vocalic gesture" (10). The following gestural representation shows epenthesis as a readjustment in timing (adopted from Bosch 1995:11).


As a result, epenthesis is no longer thought of as the consequence of an additional tongue body (vocalic) gesture, nor as an additional vocalic slot on the timing tier, nor as an additional word-internal moraic position. The outcome is that there is only one long syllable carried out by the original tongue body gesture and bearing (somewhat) equal stress and pitch level. Such perspective has the benefit of accounting for the fact that putative disyllabic words composed of an epenthetic vowel are perceived to have a shorter initial vowel than ordinary (non-epenthetic) disyllables (Bosch 1995, 2003).

See Also

External Links


  • Borgstrøm C, Hj. (1937). The Dialect of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap 7, 71-242.
  • Borgstrøm C, Hj. (1940). The Dialects of the Outer Hebrides, NTS suppl. bind 1 Oslo: Aschehoug & Co.
  • Bosch, Anna (1995). A gestural analysis of epenthesis in Scottish Gaelic. Ms., University of Kentucky.
  • Bosch, Anna (2003). Borgstrøm's Dialect of Barra in the Outer Hebrides: The Uses and Misuses of Description in Theory, Scottish Gaelic Studies 21, 221-239.
  • Bosch, Anna & De Jong, Kenneth (1997). The Prosody of Barra Gaelic Epenthetic Vowels, Studies in the Linguistic Sciences 27, 1-16.
  • Clements, G.N. (1986). Syllabification and epenthesis in the Barra dialect of Gaelic. In K. Bogers, H. van der Hulst & M. Mous (eds.), The Phonological Representation of Suprasegmentals: Studies on African Languages Offered to John M. Steward on His 60th Birthday, 317-336. Dordrecht: Foris.
  • Halle, Morris (1995). Feature Geometry and Feature Spreading, Linguistic Inquiry 26, 1-46.
  • Ní Chiosáin, M. (1994). Barra Gaelic Vowel Copy and (Non)-Constituent Spreading, Proceedings of WCCFL XIII, 3-13.