On the origins of /ɨ/ in Romanian

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The source of Romanian /ɨ/ is debated: did it come from a native vowel split, or was it imported through borrowings? I argue that Romanian /ɨ/ split from /6/ in native words under a definable set of phonological conditions, but that the influence of borrowings from other languages encouraged its eventual phonemicization. In native words, instances of /ɨ/ are predictable based on the surrounding phonological environment, indicating its original allophonic status. Borrowings from Slavic, however, show expansion of the phonological environments permitting /ɨ/; and in Turkish loanwords /ɨ/ appears in contexts lacking any phonological conditioning, indicating that at the time of borrowing, [ɨ] was on the verge of phonemic contrast. Despite the combination of forces that conspired to phonemicize /ɨ/ in Romanian, the result is a marginally-contrastive vowel with very low type frequency, which appears almost exclusively in predictable environments that reflect its phonologically-conditioned history as an allophone.


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