It is uncontroversial that morphological processes can change phonological surface representations. However, some empirical evidence also suggests that morphological processes may trigger phonetically gradient processes, that is, processes that involve fine phonetic differences, but involve no change in phonological categories. Such findings challenge modular or discrete feedforward theories of grammatical architecture, which counterpredict direct interactions between morphology and phonetics. This article reviews some of the findings in this area, pointing to two types of difficulty in interpreting evidence of morphologically-conditioned phonetic gradience. The first one involves significance and replicability in experimental sciences, which become especially problematic when fine phonetic detail is examined and the magnitude of differences involved is very small. The second one concerns identifying what is causing the phonetic effects among a wealth of possibilities, including paradigmatic relationships, morphological structure, prosody, and informativity.
Acceptability judgments are reports of a speaker’s or signer’s subjective sense of the well-formedness, nativeness, or naturalness of (novel) linguistic forms. Their value comes in providing data about the nature of the human capacity to generalize beyond linguistic forms previously encountered in language comprehension. For this reason, acceptability judgments are often also called grammaticality judgments (particularly in syntax), although unlike the theory-dependent notion of grammaticality, acceptability is accessible to consciousness. While acceptability judgments have been used to test grammatical claims since ancient times, they became particularly prominent with the birth of generative syntax. Today they are also widely used in other linguistic schools (e.g., cognitive linguistics) and other linguistic domains (pragmatics, semantics, morphology, and phonology), and have been applied in a typologically diverse range of languages. As psychological responses to linguistic stimuli, acceptability judgments are experimental data. Their value thus depends on the validity of the experimental procedures, which, in their traditional version (where theoreticians elicit judgments from themselves or a few colleagues), have been criticized as overly informal and biased. Traditional responses to such criticisms have been supplemented in recent years by laboratory experiments that use formal psycholinguistic methods to collect and quantify judgments from nonlinguists under controlled conditions. Such formal experiments have played an increasingly influential role in theoretical linguistics, being used to justify subtle judgment claims or new grammatical models that incorporate gradience or lexical influences. They have also been used to probe the cognitive processes giving rise to the sense of acceptability itself, the central finding being that acceptability reflects processing ease. Exploring what this finding means will require not only further empirical work on the acceptability judgment process, but also theoretical work on the nature of grammar.
The term consonant harmony refers to a class of systematic sound patterns, in which consonants interact in some assimilatory way even though they are not adjacent to each other in the word. Such long-distance assimilation can sometimes hold across a significant stretch of intervening vowels and consonants, such as in Samala (Ineseño Chumash) /s-am-net-in-waʃ/ → [ʃamnetiniwaʃ] “they did it to you”, where the alveolar sibilant /s‑/ of the 3.sbj prefix assimilates to the postalveolar sibilant /ʃ/ of the past suffix /‑waʃ/ across several intervening syllables that contain a variety of non-sibilant consonants. While consonant harmony most frequently involves coronal-specific contrasts, like in the Samala case, there are numerous cases of assimilation in other phonological properties, such as laryngeal features, nasality, secondary articulation, and even constriction degree. Not all cases of consonant harmony result in overt alternations, like the [s] ∼ [ʃ] alternation in the Samala 3.sbj prefix. Sometimes the harmony is merely a phonotactic restriction on the shape of morphemes (roots) within the lexicon. Consonant harmony tends to implicate only some group (natural class) of consonants that already share a number of features, and are hence relatively similar, while ignoring less similar consonants. The distance between the potentially interacting consonants can also play a role. For example, in many cases assimilation is limited to relatively short-distance ‘transvocalic’ contexts (. . . CVC. . . ), though the interpretation of such locality restrictions remains a matter of debate. Consonants that do not directly participate in the harmony (as triggers or undergoers of assimilation) are typically neutral and transparent, allowing the assimilating property to be propagated across them. However, this is not universally true; in recent years several cases have come to light in which certain segments can act as blockers when they intervene between a potential trigger-target pair. The main significance of consonant harmony for linguistic theory lies in its apparently non-local character and the challenges that this poses for theories of phonological representations and processes, as well as for formal models of phonological learning. Along with other types of long-distance dependencies in segmental phonology (e.g., long-distance dissimilation, and vowel harmony systems with one or more transparent vowels), sound patterns of consonant harmony have contributed to the development of many theoretical constructs, such as autosegmental (nonlinear) representations, feature geometry, underspecification, feature spreading, strict locality (vs. ‘gapped’ representations), parametrized visibility, agreement constraints, and surface correspondence relations. The formal analysis of long-distance assimilation (and dissimilation) remains a rich and vibrant area of theoretical research. The empirical base for such theoretical inquiry also continues to be expanded. On the one hand, previously undocumented cases (or new, surprising details of known cases) continue to be added to the corpus of attested consonant harmony patterns. On the other hand, artificial phonology learning experiments allow the properties of typologically rare or unattested patterns to be explored in a controlled laboratory setting.
Language is a system that maps meanings to forms, but the mapping is not always one-to-one. Variation means that one meaning corresponds to multiple forms, for example faster ~ more fast. The choice is not uniquely determined by the rules of the language, but is made by the individual at the time of performance (speaking, writing). Such choices abound in human language. They are usually not just a matter of free will, but involve preferences that depend on the context, including the phonological context. Phonological variation is a situation where the choice among expressions is phonologically conditioned, sometimes statistically, sometimes categorically. In this overview, we take a look at three studies of variable vowel harmony in three languages (Finnish, Hungarian, and Tommo So) formulated in three frameworks (Partial Order Optimality Theory, Stochastic Optimality Theory, and Maximum Entropy Grammar). For example, both Finnish and Hungarian have Backness Harmony: vowels must be all [+back] or all [−back] within a single word, with the exception of neutral vowels that are compatible with either. Surprisingly, some stems allow both [+back] and [−back] suffixes in free variation, for example, analyysi-na ~ analyysi-nä ‘analysis-ess’ (Finnish) and arzén-nak ~ arzén-nek ‘arsenic-dat’ (Hungarian). Several questions arise. Is the variation random or in some way systematic? Where is the variation possible? Is it limited to specific lexical items? Is the choice predictable to some extent? Are the observed statistical patterns dictated by universal constraints or learned from the ambient data? The analyses illustrate the usefulness of recent advances in the technological infrastructure of linguistics, in particular the constantly improving computational tools.