Friday, August 3, 2007

A phonological mystery — solved?

Fatto per dissimilazione? I'm not so sure!Well, we’ve just polished off another July, folks, and it got me to thinking. Why is the Italian word for that month luglio, and not *iuglio, or even better *giuglio (which would match giugnio “June”)? I’m pretty familiar with sound change as a process driving language development, but this one has puzzled me for a while now.

As we all know, the month of July is an eponym honoring Julius Caesar, just as August is named after Augustus Caesar. And as in English, the other Romance languages all preserve the j, or else use an i if the j isn’t a natural part of their alphabets (as is the case with Italian). For instance: French juillet*, Jèrriais (a Norman dialect of French) juilet, Spanish julio, Portuguese julho, Provençal juls, Catalan juliol (originally julh), Romanian iulie, Sardinian arjolas, Walloon djulete, Neapolitan julo. And even outside the Romance language family, the word has been loaned out into other languages as far and wide as Estonian, Indonesian, Faroese, Hungarian, Dutch, Danish, Bulgarian, and dozens of others — even Hawaiian!

Well, let me back up a moment. I say that it’s pretty much universally j or i, but there are two exceptions I know of: the Friulian lui and Ligurian lûggiu — but both these languages are spoken in the north of Italy where they must have experienced considerable influence and competition from Italian. It wouldn’t surprise me if both had earlier forms with the vowel or semivowel rather than the voiced alveolar lateral approximant of modern Italian. (Yeah, the chicks dig me. ;)

Looking further back toward the source, I should note Occitan julhet, Greek ιούλιος, and Latin (the horse’s mouth!) jūlius, iūlius. So how did we end up with luglio?! The substitution of j for l (at least, medially) in the Romance languages is fairly common, especially in Spanish (e.g., Latin filius > Spanish hijo, Latin folium > Spanish hoja) — but the reverse? Even the 18th Century Italian linguist Giovanni Veneroni suspected this was an error and corrected luglio to *juglio in his celebtrated Italian Grammar, adding “sic corrige meo pericolo” as a CYA.

According to an online etymological dictionary of Italian, the substitution is explained by dissimilation. This is a linguistic process whereby two similar sounds in a word become less alike over time in order to make pronunciation easier (e.g., Old French marbre > English marble). But that doesn’t sound right, does it? To me, it sounds like *giuglio, *iuglio > luglio is the reverse of dissimilation, increasing the burden on pronunciation!

But wait a minute! In pondering this over time, another thought occurred to me. Setting aside *giuglio, despite its attractive harmony with giugnio, let’s assume for a moment that the original form was *iuglio. It’s actually extremely common in Italian to substitute i for l. There are hundreds of examples of this. A few common ones: Latin flos (genitive flōris) > Italian fiore, cf. French fleur; Latin plătĕa “a broad street or court” > Italian piazza, cf. French place; Latin flŭvius > Italian fiume, cf. French fleuve. I’m not sure if this process is observed initially. In all the examples of which I’m aware, it occurs after an initial consonant; most of the time this is a labial (f, p, b), but not always (e.g., Latin claudo > Italian chiudo). I also don’t know whether the process was bidirectional (i > l as well as l > i), but if so, then perhaps this is the answer after all. What do y’all think? Plausible? Any opinions or information to add?

* In Old French, July was originall called juinet “little June”, but it became juillet through the continued influence of Latin through the Middle Ages. In an apparently similar process, we see Sicilian giugne “June”, giugnietto “July”. “Little June” — isn’t that cute? :)


  1. "Look at the big brain on Brett!"

  2. I’ll see your Pulp Fiction and raise you a line from Stripes: “Chicks dig me, because I seldom wear underwear, and when I do, it’s usually something exotic.” So, the underwear thing and the voiced alveolar lateral approximant — that’s an irresistable recipe for lovin’ ...

  3. JRRT would be proud of your linguistical logic, Jase. The pop culture reference in the comments and computers in general would be a mystery to him, I'm sure. :)

  4. Thanks, Cat Bastet! I’m sure Tolkien would have been able to cite at least a dozen other dialectal cognates, and he would probably have made a point of discussion out the Old English names for the months (very different from those in the Romance tradition). The Anglo-Saxons usually called July mædmónaþ (“meadow-month”) ... But that’s a post for another day. :)


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