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Why is the "close front rounded vowel" /y/ mainly used in Germanic, Altaic and far Asian languages but rare in Latin*, Indo-Iranian and Slavic languages?

Can we say that Germanic phonetics is less similar to the rest of Indo-European family?

*Only the French people, the descendants of Germanic Franks, use it a lot.

  • Check out Ian Maddieson's article in WALS. – jlawler May 11 '13 at 14:13
  • As much as I can understand, the article doesn't give an explicit answer. – user2045 May 11 '13 at 18:05
  • Then perhaps the question doesn't have an answer as posed. As to Germanic vs I-E phonetics, Grimm's Law is a much better example than front rounded vowels. – jlawler May 11 '13 at 18:15
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Within Germanic, it's only the North and West Germanic languages that have /y/ (and /œ æ/, which you didn't ask about, but which owe their existence to the same umlaut phenomenon); Gothic lacks these sounds and they're accordingly not reconstructed for Proto-Germanic. It's possible that Northwest Germanic languages got these sounds as a result of Uralic contact, since such contact certainly occurred; front rounded vowels pattern areally (see jlawler's WALS link above), so a diffusion scenario is not implausible. But I don't actually know of any evidence for it.

(By the way, Attic-Ionic Greek also had /y/, so Germanic languages aren't alone in IE in having this sound; and in Greek it seems to have been a language-internal development, without any contact source.)

As for whether "Germanic phonetics is less similar to the rest of IE", it's no more dissimilar than Irish with its velarized and palatalized consonants, or Indic with its voiced and voiceless aspirates. Lots of IE languages/branches have phonological peculiarities that set them apart from the rest of the family.

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Close front rounded /y/ also occurs in Romance Piemontese and Lombard in NC/NE Italy, These languages are sometimes called Gallo-Italian but their /y/ (in Lombard also /ø/) are probably not related to French. There are no fronted round vowels in neighboring Occitan.

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