RuCCS Colloquia

Allophony: Phonology or Phonetics? (talk recording available)

Dr. Mark Liberman

Tuesday, September 13, 2016, 01:00pm - 02:00pm

University of Pennsylvania, Departments of Linguistics and Computer and Information Science

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The traditional organization of phonological theories involves a crucial redundancy, and serious consideration of this redundancy suggests a radical simplification of the theory. In technical terms, allophonic variation can be treated in at least two different ways: first, as a mapping from symbols to symbols, via phonological rules or constraints; or second, as a mapping from symbols to signals, via principles of phonetic realization. Careful examination of specific cases of allophonic variation generally suggests (and never seems to refute) a mode of description of the second type, in which structured phonological representations are mapped onto classes of phonetic trajectories. We should therefore consider the null hypothesis: a theory that entirely eliminates the symbolic treatment of allophonic variation, and makes post-lexical representations subject to direct phonetic interpretation, without any intervening symbol-manipulation, whether by rules or by constraints.

This leaves us with four well-motivated and indeed unavoidable tools for dealing with sound-structure patterns:

  1. Phonological inventory: The set of available phonological elements and structures.
  2. Lexical entries: The phonological spelling of whatever entities are listed in the lexicon: roots, affixes, morphological templates, words, phrases.
  3. Allomorphy: Alternative lexical pronunciations, whether conditioned by morphological features and morphological or phonological context, or in (linguistically) free variation.
  4. Phonetic interpretation: the mapping between symbols (from 1-3 above) and signals.

Given those resources, the phenomena generally described under the heading of allophonic variation do not require the addition of a fifth tool, in the form of manipulation of symbolic phonological representations via rules or constraints. Occam’s Razor therefore suggests a null hypothesis that some may find surprising, since it is inconsistent with many aspects of the past century of phonological practice: Phonological rules or constraints of the traditional symbol-manipulating sort do not exist.

Dr. Mark Liberman

The RuCCS Colloquia Series is organized by Dr. Julien Musolino and Dr. Sara Pixley. The talks are held on Tuesdays in the Psychology Building, Room 101 on the Busch Campus from 1:00-2:30pm.

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