Sievers' law as prosodic optimization

1. Germanic prosody. The early Germanic languages are characterized by fixed initial stress, free quantity, and a preference for moraic trochees, left-headed bimoraic feet consisting either of two light syllables (LL) or of one heavy syllable (H).1 The two-mora foot template places indirect constraints on syllable structure, by making it hard to accommodate three-mora syllables, as well as one-mora syllables in contexts where they cannot join another one-mora syllable to form a two-mora trochee. Syllable structure is also constrained more directly by a preference for simple onsets, which entails an avoidance both of hiatus and of syllable-initial consonant clusters. Processes of syllabification, deletion, shortening and lengthening in the Germanic languages favor those quantitative and syllabic patterns that fit these prosodic conditions, and repair those that do not.2 It is not always possible to satisfy all of the preferences at the same time, however, and so the morphophonology must adjudicate between their conflicting demands. While the preferences themselves are invariant, the languages diverge in how they resolve contradictions between them. Some stretch the prosodic limits by allowing excess segments to be accommodated by overlength or resolution, others delete segments (e.g. glide deletion, high vowel deletion), adjust vowel length to fit the template, or tolerate hiatus. For example, a long ja-stem such as /herdi-/ with a vocalic ending, say /herdi-a/,3 presents a prosodic quandary to which the languages respond with three different compromises: (1) a. Proto-Germanic: *hir. i.a (hiatus) b. Gothic: herd.ja (a three-mora syllable) c. Old Icelandic: hir. a (deletion of j).
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