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Is this a phenomenon in many languages? If so, what is its reason?

For example, in French:

  • /ø/: bleu, feu, jeu, peu, queue, etc.
  • /œ/: neuf, peur, auteur, vainqueur, etc.
  • /e/: -ai (first person future), -é (past participle)
  • /ɛ/: -ais (first person conditional)
6

There is a tendency in some of Romance and Germanic for historical vowel length to be associated with open-mid / close-mid or tense / lax distinctions, and vowel length is cross-linguistically correlated with syllable structure (short if closed). (This paper addresses "loi de position" and assembles a possibly complete list of cases of such a correlation in allophony). Even in French, it is not limited to the open-close distinction, since Laurentian French has also developed [i/ɪ; u/ʊ] correlated with syllable structure.

Looking across language in general, there does not seem to be any documented tendency in that direction. Usually, the distinction between e/ɛ, o/ɔ or i/ɪ, u/ʊ is attributed to a feature ATR, except in Romance and Germanic. In the many languages with an ATR distinction, there is no tendency for ATR contrasts to be dependent on syllable closure. However, languages with reported e/ɛ, o/ɔ, i/ɪ, u/ʊ contrasts are not all that common outside the ATR set (diagnosed by vowel harmony), so it is hard to tell if there is a significant trend within that set of languages.

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  • Middle English had e/ε distinction. Do you know about the trend in ME?
    – Kenny Lau
    May 19 '17 at 14:12
  • @KennyLau why do you say Middle English had distinct e/ε? My impression was that Middle English had a single short vowel (usually transcribed /e/), and a length distinction only between the long vowels /eː/ and /εː/. Any of them could occur in either open or closed syllables; /εː/ was the result of lengthening of former /e/ in penult open syllables. May 19 '17 at 15:44
  • @sumelic sorry, long vowels is what I meant. So it seems that, as you describe, this law is also productive in ME.
    – Kenny Lau
    May 19 '17 at 15:58
  • @KennyLau: I don't actually see a productive law relating vowel height to syllable structure in ME. Either mid-high or mid-low long vowels could be in closed or open syllables, as far as I know. May 19 '17 at 16:04
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This seems to be a trait common for most living Germanic languages (e.g. Swedish and Dutch) and those that had been in contact with them.

However, in Finnish this doesn't work (because it has vowel harmony system and other overtones in quality of vowels):

maa | maan | maahan

All the three forms of 'earth' have more or less same sound quantity and quality in openness/closeness as represented by the orthography. The nasalisation
before N is usually perceived as an allophone.

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Closed vowels are typically more tense and require higher articulatory effort, and as such there should be correlation between these tense vowels and long vowels (not necessarily speaking phonologically here) because it takes more time for the articulatory muscles to execute the proper gesture.

Considering that many languages have somewhat isosyllabic timing (meaning that all syllables have very roughly the same duration), phonemes in more complex (e.g. closed) syllables are bound to have shorter duration than phonemes in less complex (e.g. open) syllables. For example /y/ in French "lu" will be longer than /y/ in French "illustre".

As such, it would make sense if there were a global tendency towards closed vowels in open syllables and vice versa, albeit I cannot imagine it being very strong as there would be many overriding factors.

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