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The trace of Ado Grenzstein in the theory of ternary quantity oppositions of Estonian sounds



It is common knowledge that the theory of ternary quantity degrees of Estonian sounds was created by Mihkel Veske (1843–1890) and first published in his book about Estonian phonetics in 1879. However, Ado Grenzstein (1849–1916), an outstanding man of letters of the late 19th century, had published an article with a number of linguistic suggestions, including an idea of three contrasting lengths of Estonian sounds, both vowels and consonants, in the newspaper Postimees at the end of 1876. The argumentation and even the examples presented by Grenzstein are astonishingly similar to those of Veske published a few years later without any mention of Grenzstein’s publication. 

 The theory of ternary quantities is not compatible with any theory of phonology and is nowadays abandoned in scientific descriptions of Estonian phonology. Modern views of the Estonian sound system also depart in one way or another from Ferdinand Johann Wiedemann’s (1805–1887) explanation of different accents (or stress) of short and long syllables. However, the theory of ternary quantity contrasts has played an important role in teaching Estonian, and factually this theory belongs to the most popular myths about the Estonian language. 

 In modern times many outstanding scholars, Paul Ariste (1905–1990) and Ilse Lehiste (1922–2010), among others, have done a lot of work in order to translate the theory of ternary quantity oppositions into modern phonological terminology. A comparison of the ternary quantity rules defined by Ariste in 1963 and those by Lehiste in 1977/2000 reveals that there has been practically no progress in the reconciliation of this theory with theories of phonology. 

Nevertheless, Grenzstein is worthy of mentioning.