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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton November 14, 2019

Nonesuch phonemes in loanwords

Holly J. Kennard and Aditi Lahiri
From the journal Linguistics


Loanwords may or may not affect the phonological system of a language. Much of the loanword literature has focused on the adaptation of “foreign” contrasts to native systems; however, there are certain cases where languages appear to have borrowed new phonemes. We argue that loanwords alone cannot introduce a new phoneme into a language unless there are special circumstances. We examine three case studies of apparently borrowed “unusual” phonemic contrasts: Swiss German initial geminates, Bengali retroflex stops, and English voiced fricatives. In each case, we find that rather than the loanwords introducing brand-new phonemes, an existing allophonic alternation has become phonemic due to a large influx of loanwords. Thus, the phonology rather than the phonetics alone – marked or otherwise – dominates the absorption of loans.


We would like to thank two anonymous Linguistics reviewers for their detailed and invaluable comments on previous versions of this article. Earlier analyses and discussion of the material were presented at the Second Edinburgh Symposium on Historical Phonology (Edinburgh, 2015) and the International Conference of Historical Linguistics (Naples, 2015), and we are very grateful to the participants for their feedback. This work was supported by the European Research Council (WORDS Grant FP7-IST-269670, PI Lahiri; MORPHON Grant 695481, PI Lahiri). We would also like to thank the British Academy for the Postdoctoral Fellowship held by Holly Kennard.


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Published Online: 2019-11-14
Published in Print: 2020-02-25

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