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Dispersion Theory and Phonology  

Edward Flemming

Dispersion Theory concerns the constraints that govern contrasts, the phonetic differences that can distinguish words in a language. Specifically it posits that there are distinctiveness constraints that favor contrasts that are more perceptually distinct over less distinct contrasts. The preference for distinct contrasts is hypothesized to follow from a preference to minimize perceptual confusion: In order to recover what a speaker is saying, a listener must identify the words in the utterance. The more confusable words are, the more likely a listener is to make errors. Because contrasts are the minimal permissible differences between words in a language, banning indistinct contrasts reduces the likelihood of misperception. The term ‘dispersion’ refers to the separation of sounds in perceptual space that results from maximizing the perceptual distinctiveness of the contrasts between those sounds, and is adopted from Lindblom’s Theory of Adaptive Dispersion, a theory of phoneme inventories according to which inventories are selected so as to maximize the perceptual differences between phonemes. These proposals follow a long tradition of explaining cross-linguistic tendencies in the phonetic and phonological form of languages in terms of a preference for perceptually distinct contrasts. Flemming proposes that distinctiveness constraints constitute one class of constraints in an Optimality Theoretic model of phonology. In this context, distinctiveness constraints predict several basic phenomena, the first of which is the preference for maximal dispersion in inventories of contrasting sounds that first motivated the development of the Theory of Adaptive Dispersion. But distinctiveness constraints are formulated as constraints on the surface forms of possible words that interact with other phonological constraints, so they evaluate the distinctiveness of contrasts in context. As a result, Dispersion Theory predicts that contrasts can be neutralized or enhanced in particular phonological contexts. This prediction arises because the phonetic realization of sounds depends on their context, so the perceptual differences between contrasting sounds also depend on context. If the realization of a contrast in a particular context would be insufficiently distinct (i.e., it would violate a high-ranked distinctiveness constraint), there are two options: the offending contrast can be neutralized, or it can be modified (‘enhanced’) to make it more distinct. A basic open question regarding Dispersion Theory concerns the proper formulation of distinctiveness constraints and the extent of variation in their rankings across languages, issues that are tied up with the questions about the nature of perceptual distinctiveness. Another concerns the size and nature of the comparison set of contrasting word-forms required to be able to evaluate whether a candidate output satisfies distinctiveness constraints.

Article

Phonetic Detail and Phonetic Gradience in Morphological Processes  

Patrycja Strycharczuk

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.

Article

Segmental Phenomena in Germanic: Consonants  

Samantha Litty and Joseph Salmons

Speech sounds are divided into vowels and consonants, the latter being the focus here. Germanic includes ancient and modern “named languages”—traditionally divided into North Germanic (e.g., Swedish, Danish, Faroese), West Germanic (e.g., German, English, Yiddish), and East Germanic languages not spoken for centuries (notably Gothic). The family also includes countless “dialects,” which are often not mutually intelligible and so could be understood as distinct languages. Languages of the world vary in how many consonants distinguish differences in meaning (create phonological contrasts), like bear versus pear, from 6 to over 100. Most have about 20 and Germanic languages are near that number. Beyond abstract phonological contrasts, each consonant varies phonetically, in actual pronunciation, from varying degrees of aspiration on p, t, k and voicing on b, d, g to fundamental variation in the realizations of /r/, /l/, and /h/. Key consonantal phenomena are presented in historical context and for contemporary languages, with an emphasis on distinguishing abstract, phonological patterns from concrete, phonetic ones. Despite the long research tradition, many issues proffer opportunities to advance the field and are discussed to encourage readers to engage with them.

Article

Korean Phonetics and Phonology  

Young-mee Yu Cho

Due to a number of unusual and interesting properties, Korean phonetics and phonology have been generating productive discussion within modern linguistic theories, starting from structuralism, moving to classical generative grammar, and more recently to post-generative frameworks of Autosegmental Theory, Government Phonology, Optimality Theory, and others. In addition, it has been discovered that a description of important issues of phonology cannot be properly made without referring to the interface between phonetics and phonology on the one hand, and phonology and morpho-syntax on the other. Some phonological issues from Standard Korean are still under debate and will likely be of value in helping to elucidate universal phonological properties with regard to phonation contrast, vowel and consonant inventories, consonantal markedness, and the motivation for prosodic organization in the lexicon.

Article

Vowel Harmony  

Harry van der Hulst

The subject of this article is vowel harmony. In its prototypical form, this phenomenon involves agreement between all vowels in a word for some phonological property (such as palatality, labiality, height or tongue root position). This agreement is then evidenced by agreement patterns within morphemes and by alternations in vowels when morphemes are combined into complex words, thus creating allomorphic alternations. Agreement involves one or more harmonic features for which vowels form harmonic pairs, such that each vowel has a harmonic counterpart in the other set. I will focus on vowels that fail to alternate, that are thus neutral (either inherently or in a specific context), and that will be either opaque or transparent to the process. We will compare approaches that use underspecification of binary features and approaches that use unary features. For vowel harmony, vowels are either triggers or targets, and for each, specific conditions may apply. Vowel harmony can be bidirectional or unidirectional and can display either a root control pattern or a dominant/recessive pattern.