University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics


This paper presents research into the relative frequencies of phonemes in Romanian, focusing on the high central vowel /ɨ/ to demonstrate how type frequency reflects its former allophonic status as an allophone of /a/ and later /ə/; and that the low type frequency of /ɨ/ correlates with the vowel’s minimal expansion beyond its original allophonic environments.

The historical facts show that [ɨ] was allophonic in native words of Latin origin, emerging mainly through pre-nasal raising. Borrowings from Slavic, however, cannot be explained through allophony alone, and later borrowings from Turkish show a correspondence between Turkish [ɨ] and Romanian /ɨ/, indicating the vowel was on the verge of phonemic status. Although /ɨ/ is synchronically contrastive in Romanian, its contrastiveness is marginal; few minimal pairs separate the once-allophonic /ɨ/ and /ə/.

A type-frequency analysis allows us to examine the functional load of phonemes in modern Romanian, for comparison with the historical picture. Among the vowels of Romanian, type frequency varies widely; the least-frequent vowels are /ɨ/ and /ə/. The low type frequency of /ɨ/ in particular follows from its origins as an allophone, and from the circumstances of its phonemicization: /ɨ/ was originally conditioned in stressed syllables preceding a nasal, and also by a preceding /r/ or following /rC/. This is precisely the variety of phonological conditioning that can be shown through this type-frequency analysis.

With regard to /ɨ/, I argue that in the vowel’s type frequency, we see little more than the phonological footprint of the processes that brought /ɨ/ into Romanian: the role of /ɨ/ has not expanded much beyond its original allophonic role.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.