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date: 25 May 2020

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter recognizes the impossibility of unambiguous reconstruction of contrastiveness from written sources, focusing on the interpretation of scribal evidence in Old English (as an example of a text language from the past). The data from written evidence are considered with reference to two cognitive domains: ‘direct’ orthographic encoding of speech sounds, and the ‘indirect’ testimony of the alliterative poets regarding segmental identity. A discussion of the ‘short’ OE digraphs <ea>, <eo>, <ie> reveals how an inevitably biased encoding of speech leads to an improbable reconstruction of contrastive short diphthongs /eă/, eŏ/, /iĕ/. Jakobson’s (1966) dictum that rhyme and alliteration must be based on phonemic identity is tested in the context of <c-> and <g-> alliteration in Old English verse, confirming that the perception of identity is gradient depending the segments involved and the shape of the system. The proposed alternatives highlight the problematic nature of positing finite and invariable phonemic inventories based on written sources at any historical stage.

Keywords: Old English, contrastiveness, gradience, short diphthongs, alliteration

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