A couple months ago on her blog Ilani Ilani, Harvard linguistics student Bridget Samuels quoted the following from “Andrea Calabrese’s new manuscript, Markedness & Economy in a Derivational Model of Phonology, which you can download here.” (That’s a link to an index of “pubblications [sic] and work in progress” at the “Interdipartimental [sic] Center of Cognitive Studies on Language” at the Università di Siena; here‘s the direct link to the zipped .pdf file of Calabrese’s book manuscript.)
[A]n idiosyncratic and contradictory core, the product of history and its inescapable whims, will always remain. Linguists who deny this core and attempt to provide a synchronic explanation to all aspects of the phonology of a language– a common attitude, especially in OT– behave a little bit like individuals who, when faced with the painful contradictions of reality, retreat into magical thinking and try to give sense, through mysterious correspondences, to what is otherwise a broken, shattered and meaningless existence.
Let me start out by saying that, after downloading this manuscript and taking a look at some of what it covers, I have every reason to be interested in reading it. I’ve always liked Calabrese’s work; his dissertation influenced some of my thinking as I wrote my own dissertation. But there’s something truly shameful in tossing off a claim like the one quoted above.
There can be no doubt that Calabrese has done no sort of quantitative analysis to back up the claim that this “attitude [is] especially [common] in OT”. Aside from the fact that there’s no evidence provided to back it up, the same attitude was and is common enough in derivational phonology to take notice. There’s no denying that there was a whole lot of “magical thinking” going on in SPE, for instance, and in Ted Lightner’s work, and I’m sure Morris Halle still believes that the Great Vowel Shift is to be accounted for synchronically, and that (quoting Chomsky) “the rules deriving the alternants decide-decisive-decision […] are straightforward and natural at each step.” Highly abstract analyses like these all have their roots in (the beliefs of practitioners of) rule-based SPE, not in (the beliefs of practitioners of) OT.
As I commented on Bridget’s post, I can’t think of any particular piece of (influential) work in OT that uniquely or originally attempts to capture a synchronically spurious regularity like this that has a better diachronic explanation. I wonder whether Calabrese can actually cite one.
[ Update: Bridget has responded to my comment on her post, citing “a lot of OT attempts” to make sense of “epenthesis of synchronically arbitrary consonants”. ]
Even if a reliable quantitative analysis could be done that would tell you where the relevant attitude is more prevalent, in OT or in derivational phonology, what would the results tell us? Something about OT, something about derivational phonology, or something about (some subset of) the practitioners of these theories? Perhaps a little of all of these, but the results would certainly tell you nothing about OT as opposed to other phonological theories.