Vowel prosthesis in Romance

Vowel prosthesis in Romance: A diachronic study. By Rodney Sampson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xii, 290. ISBN 9780199541157. $125 (Hb).

Reviewed by Douglas C. Walker, University of Calgary

Rodney Sampson, already well known for his work in comparative Romance linguistics (see his 1999 book Nasal vowel evolution in romance), here turns his attention to one of the less studied, but nonetheless fascinating, areas in the phonological history of the Romance family.

Prosthesis (or prothesis), the insertion of a non-etymological word-initial vowel, occurs sporadically in Romance, but, as a result of S’s extensive compilation of data, less sporadically than one might have thought. Nor is the process without considerable theoretical interest, especially in the area of syllable structure.

The book is organized as follows. The introduction (1–35) provides background, including a definition of prosthesis, a dissection of the problems of identification, and a review of synchronic and diachronic developments as well as of the various vowels involved. This is followed by an exploration of the potential phonological, morphophonological, lexical, morpholexical, and sociolinguistic causes of prosthesis. The chapter closes with two short sections: a survey of previous studies, which notes that the fullest discussion, by Hugo Schuchardt, surprisingly dates from the middle of the nineteenth century; and a review of data sources.

This introductory material is followed by two brief chapters, ‘Categories of prosthesis in the History of Romance’ (36–40) and ‘The Latin background’ (41–52). In the former, we meet the three main prosthetic vowels: I-, A- and U-, with initial I- (ultimately surfacing most commonly as /e/) constituting the most frequent and widespread variant.  Concerning the Latin background, we learn that little prosthesis occurred prior to the breakup of the Republic, but that massive simplifications of complex syllable onsets during the later stages, with the exception of word-initial /s/ + consonant clusters, provided the initial impetus for its development.

The core of the book lies in the next three long chapters, ‘I-prosthesis’ (53–145), ‘A-prosthesis’ (146–93), and U-prosthesis (194–232). In each, we find, in varying degrees, a number of common themes of both descriptive and analytical import. S appropriately raises the issue of the identification of a vowel as prosthetic or not, before describing the geographical distribution of the three types (in most detail for the widespread I-prosthesis) and the chronology of their appearance. More theoretical discussions deal with the causation of the phenomenon, the structural conditions necessary (or at least favorable) for its occurrence, the trajectory followed, and the ultimate outcomes of the vowels—persistence, integration, or disappearance. Unsurprisingly, syllable structure, both at the beginning of words and at the junction between words, is seen as the key factor in the development of prosthetic vowels.

The concluding chapter outlines S’s arguments for considering prosthesis as a regular rather than sporadic sound change and is followed by a useful set of maps showing the distribution of the various types of prosthesis (239–50), a detailed bibliography (251–80), and a subject index (281–90).

In this book, S again demonstrates his interest in and mastery of a complex and fascinating Romance domain, a comparative purview rare, at least in English, within scholarship that concentrates on the specifics of individual languages. This work should serve to reinvigorate study of an often misunderstood and theoretically relevant domain at a time when the role of syllable structure and prosody is increasingly important for our understanding of phonological phenomena.