More distributional arguments

I’m back to teaching undergraduate phonology after an inexcusably long four year hiatus (having to do with departmental staffing priorities, certainly not my personal preferences). I have almost 50 students this quarter, almost twice as many as I had when I last taught the course in 2001; I’ve had to modify my approach accordingly, but I’m still enjoying it — especially since I get to re-read parts of my favorite textbook, K&K’s Generative Phonology: Description and Theory (Academic Press, 1979), which I essentially use as a teacher’s guide.

There’s an excellent problem set from Russian discussed at the beginning of Chapter 3 (titled simply “Alternations”). This problem set packs a lot of punch for the beginning phonology student: the final devoicing rule that demonstrates that the basic alternant is not necessarily the unsuffixed one, a crucial feeding order between l-drop and final devoicing, and an equally crucial bleeding order between l-drop and dental stop deletion (also a crucial counterbleeding order). And, as usual, K&K’79 proceed through the problem set with some of the most thorough argumentation that you’re likely to see anywhere.

In their discussion of the dental stop deletion rule, K&K’79 present an argument for deletion as opposed to epenthesis that is highly reminiscent of the distributional arguments I commented on last month.

Here is the relevant paragraph (from p. 58) in its entirety; I think that no further background is necessary to understand it (assuming you’re a phonologist, anyway). The most relevant part is in boldface:

There is another reason for rejecting the insertion analysis. If stems of such shapes as me- and kra- were set up as basic, we would be creating an odd gap in the inventory of basic stem shapes. There would be stems ending in labial consonants (greb-, skreb-), in velars (mog-, pek-), and dental fricatives (nes-, lez-), but none in dental stops, despite the fact that dental stops are basic sounds in Russian and occur in other positions (for example, stem initially). Furthermore, it would just happen to be the case that the consonants that get inserted before the -u suffix are dental stops, precisely the sounds that would be absent from stem-final position in the proposed URs. The point here is that typically the distribution of sounds is fairly symmetrical in underlying representations, and a skewed distribution in phonetic representations is characteristically the result of the application of some rule (e.g., in Russian there are no voiced obstruents at the end of a word in phonetic representation because of the rule of final devoicing).

Let me clarify that I have no dispute whatsoever with the basic argument here; the deletion analysis is clearly more plausible than the insertion alternative (even without the other argument that K&K’79 present first, that the voicing of the hypothetically inserted dental stop would be unpredictable). The bolded “point here”, however, is a lot more than just a restatement of the basic argument. K&K’79 could have written the following instead:

The point here is that the rule we propose to account for the alternation between dental stops and Ø should ideally provide a full account of the distribution of dental stops. A hypothetical insertion rule requires that there be an accidental gap in the lexicon such that there are no stems ending in dental stops. The distribution of dental stops would thus not be fully accounted for.

Or something like that, anyway. Instead, K&K’79 talk about the “typically symmetrical” distribution of sounds in underlying representations. This does not strike me as something we would want to elevate to the status of a result; it’s more like a low-level problem-solving heuristic in generative phonology, and moreover it’s one that has plenty of apparent counterexamples (think of the evidence we have for the underlying distributions of /ŋ/ and /h/ in English, for example).

It’s true that we often derive satisfaction from an analysis that achieves underlying symmetry when none is found on the surface. The most extreme example of this that I’ve found is the literature on Nez Perce vowel harmony immediately surrounding its mention in SPE (e.g. Aoki 1966, 1968, 1970, Jacobsen 1968, Kiparsky 1968, Rigsby & Silverstein 1969, Zwicky 1971 — see the bibliography in my dissertation for full references). Nez Perce has a small and relatively skewed surface vowel inventory, but the form of the vowel harmony process suggests a more symmetrical underlying inventory. I recall that underlying symmetry is specifically noted to be an analytical desideratum by some of the authors cited above; I also recall feeling a little uneasy about that at the time I was reading it 6-7 years ago, and now I feel like rereading it. Maybe tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “More distributional arguments

  1. Pingback: phonoloblog » Still more distributional arguments

  2. Brett

    Hi Eric,

    I’m now writing up the coursenotes for my first phonology course (in advance, this is a university with 90% external student enrolment), and I had previously picked Gussenhoven and Jacobs as the prescribed textbook, mainly on the advice of other phonologists in Australia. However, now that I’ve actually had a chance to read it, I feel afraid, very afraid. Despite what the back cover blurb says, this does not strike me as ‘an introduction to the basics’ ‘assuming little or no background knowledge’, indeed, some of the discussion even I found difficult to follow. I too have fond memories of K&K’79, I actually used this text twice, with two different teachers (don’t ask), but got even more out of the experience the second time. I’m now beginning to wish I’d prescribed that instead…. I’ve been webtrawling trying to find other phonologists out there who’ve used it, just to see how much they’ve used. According to Elan Dresher’s site, not much, apparently. Anyone else out there had teaching experience with this text? I can see myself doing lots of what John McCarthy said he preferred not to do: explain the text, rather than phonology. Brett.

  3. Pingback: phonoloblog»Blog Archive » Distributional arguments noch einmal

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