MJ and OT

I had lunch with some non-linguists today, and the conversation turned to calling people by their initials. Some interesting intuitions show up which appear to be linguistic in nature, though somewhat gradient. Here’s the deal: we know we can assign initials-based referring expressions using the first letters of the referent’s first and middle or first and last name. But there appears to be some limits on what constitutes an allowable set of initials. The example at lunch was, MJ is an allowable form, but MN and ML are not. I have some ideas about why, but it’s not so simple.

For now, let’s put aside written usage, such as email sign-offs or psych journal citations, since presumably writing allows any combination of 2 letters. Speech is different, since we pronounce the letters by their names: [ei, bi:, si:, di:, i:, ɛf, dʒi:] and so on. For this discussion, I’m thinking of the kinds of initials you could use over the phone, as in “Is MJ there?”.

My first thought was that you want to avoid initials if the spoken form of any of the letters is VC, as in [ɛm], [ɛl], or [ar]. Obviously the acceptability of MJ thwarts this, so maybe it only applies to the second letter. But JR is out there, so the story needs to be more complicated.

The second hypothesis is that initials are forbidden if both letters’ names are VC. In other words, initials can have no more than one of the letters AEFILMNORSX (and I’m gonna go right out and say H and W just can’t be used at all – can you imagine saying “is HG there?” over the phone?). A discussion of the formal analysis is below, but first, I need to admit some additional considerations.

First, I invite comments about these intuitions. Basically, the prediction is that initials like FT, MT, ST, TF, TQ, TX, and so on are acceptable as over-the-phone usages. FL, MR, MF, and so on are not.

Second, it shouldn’t take long to find counterexamples in which two VC letters do sound alright next to each other. FM, XM, MS, and MX are some that do sound OK to me. I suspect this is the case because each is an abbreviation for some other non-onomastic use; FM and XM for radio, MS for citations and Microsoft, and MX for the legendary Reagan-era nuclear missile.

Let’s then agree that these exceptions are frequency-driven; they are common enough to drown any objections we have to them as novel initials. Now we can stick with the no-more-than-one-VC-component hypothesis.

OK, so to the analysis. In OT terms, this looks like a weird cumulative effect, where one instance of whatever’s wrong with [ɛm] or other VC letters (be it violations of NoCoda or Onset) is not enough to sink the form, but two instances are. In the case of two violations, the null parse is the output. But strict dominance isn’t supposed to let that happen: If Faithfulness outranks NoCoda and Onset for one VC, it does for the other too. So there is a problem somewhere in the analysis.

Possibility 1:
Strict dominance, an inherent aspect of constraint ranking and hence a lynchpin of OT, is too restrictive. We can follow this to its logical conclusion, that OT can’t handle this system.

Possibility 2:
I identified the wrong output constraints as players.

Possibility 1 might be tempting, but I think Possibility 2 is the story here. This was an easy trap to fall into, given the ease with which we can divide names of letters of the alphabet into VC and CV categories. Phonetically, ML would be something like [ɛmɛl], but the syllabification is relevant. Let’s allow either [ɛ.mɛl] or an ambisyllabic [ɛm.mɛl]. Next, let’s call each ‘letter’ a separate morpheme in the construction. Then the boundary between the two morphemes in ML is within a syllable: [ɛm.m+ɛl]. The new analytical hypothesis is that ML is a bad pair of initials because the letter-names and syllable boundaries are misaligned.

In contrast, MJ has a morpheme boundary occurring at a syllable boundary, as in [ɛm+.dʒei]; any other combo of VCCV should follow suit. Likewise, maybe JR also has its morpheme boundary aligned with the syllable boundary, as in [dzei+.ar]. Any other combo of CVVC should follow suit. Problem solved, strict ranking intact.

I’m going to call it the moral of the story that as a generality, Possibility 2 (you got the wrong constraints) should be pursued exhaustively before accepting Possibility 1 (the data confound the model), whether the model is OT or any framework. I’m also going to follow the moral from EB’s post and refrain from attempting to quantify how many people accept Possibility 1 without exploring Possibility 2.

16 thoughts on “MJ and OT

  1. Bridget Samuels

    Hey, that’s pretty cool! This is actually something I’ve thought about, though admittedly not in an incredibly sober state, because my friends almost exclusively use initials to refer to one another. The one we really find bad is MMM, who is now simply known as ‘Triple.’ There’s also the funny case of W, which always sounds awkward to me, but my darling ACW doesn’t mind.

  2. Daniel C. Hall

    I think the morpheme-boundary/syllable-boundary alignment story is on the right track, and the near-minimal pair AJ / *?HA seems to lend further support to it. And of course I agree that one must always reconsider the specific hypothesis before challenging the whole theoretical framework in which it is formulated.

    However, I’m skeptical about this part:

    Second, it shouldn’t take long to find counterexamples in which two VC letters do sound alright next to each other. FM, XM, MS, and MX are some that do sound OK to me. I suspect this is the case because each is an abbreviation for some other non-onomastic use; FM and XM for radio, MS for citations and Microsoft, and MX for the legendary Reagan-era nuclear missile.
    Let’s then agree that these exceptions are frequency-driven; they are common enough to drown any objections we have to them as novel initials.

    Are you assuming that there is a special grammar just for personal initials, which is subject to interference from elsewhere in the language? Or is there a more general grammar of initialisms, whose judgments may be overridden by sufficient repetition of an ill-formed sequence? The former possibility seems strangely specific, while the latter seems to beg the question, for if MS and FM and MX sound okay only because they’re so frequent, how did they get to be so frequent in the first place?

  3. Bob Kennedy

    Hm. Bridget, thanks for the input. Would you say “is ACW there” if you called him over the phone?

    Dan, I think the frequency effect is real, but formalizing it is tough. I’m going to lean towards a general grammar of initialisms, but claim that the morphological structure of address initialisms is different from the morphological structure of other initialisms like FM.

    The result is that MJ is subject to the morpheme boundary/syllable boundary effect, but FM, with a different degree of internal morphological juncture, is not. I hope that doesn’t sound too much like cheating; I see it as a structural workaround that avoids the initial-specific grammar and also allows MS and FM to occur.

    Fortuitously, I will make a similar argument at the upcoming LSA – if you can’t make it, I’ll send you a handout when it’s ready.

  4. Daniel C. Hall

    Sounds okay to me, as long as there’s an independent reason for the structural difference. I look forward to seeing the LSA version.

    By the way, it’s Daniel (or D.C., I guess), not Dan.

  5. J.R.

    I went to school with a G.W. and a J.T. — both were easy to use over the phone. Perhaps it helped that it was never “jee dubble-yew” but always “jeedubya”. He was known as G.W., never George, and I was known as J.R., never James. I submit that W is usable, as long as the letter that precedes it is CV. Instead of pronouncing it as two letters, let it slip into your common usage and notice as it morphs into an almost Arabic name: Ji’duhbia (PBUH). This is really the same as Katherine T. or even Kelly T. becoming “K.T.” or “Katie” (over the phone, little difference).

    Engineers speak rapidly about two- and three- (and four-, and n-) letter initialisms all the time. At my current workplace, the IDPS and the ATMS are both spelled out, whereas anything remotely pronounceable gets acronymmed: VIIRS rhymes with “beers”, NPOESS rhymes with “tent post”, and so on. Similarly, even though I go by “J.R.”, my last initial, P, spawned my high-school nickname: Jurph.

  6. Bob Kennedy

    Daniel – sorry about the Dan (I think I saw someone else write “Dan Hall” once, but that’s no excuse).

    J.R., I’ve seen lots of n-letter initialisms in military jargon too. I may also have made too strong a claim about H and W not being usable in 2-letter initialisms.

    At this point I’m remembering a poster Heidi Harley once prepared about spelled-out abbreviations vs. acronyms, but that was local in Arizona. Maybe she’ll weigh in here. I’m projecting a big H in the clouds…

  7. Eric Bakovic

    Interesting. If I’m understanding this correctly, Bob, your theory predicts that all letter names that consist of only (tense/long) vowels should be OK as the first of the two initials, no matter whether the second one is VC or CV. So, AR should be as good as JR, and AJ as good as MJ. But for me, AJ is fine but AR is not so fine.

    I’d propose revisiting your first hypothesis, but instead of focusing on the coda-ful nature of VC, focus on its onsetlessness: one onsetless syllable is OK, but not two. Your conclusion was that “this looks like a weird cumulative effect, where one instance […] is not enough to sink the form, but two instances are” and that this is a problem for strict domination, but that’s precisely the sort of thing that motivates local conjunction within OT. So, to the extent that you think local self-conjunction of a constraint is kosher, then the analysis would be something like Onset-2 >> Faith >> Onset-1, where Onset-2 is a constraint violated only when there are 2 (or more, adjacent?) onsetless syllables, and Onset-1 is the regular Onset constraint violated by every instance of an onsetless syllable.

  8. Bob Kennedy

    I’d thought about mentioning a conjunction analysis too but left it aside because the alignment analysis seemed to work. Onset-2 captures the initialism generalization pretty handily, but then the frequency issues that Daniel mention re-emerge. The morpho-structural distinction between *MS as a form of address and MS as an abbreviation for something other than a given name made it possible to rule out only the former. But Onset-2 rules them both out.

  9. Eric Bakovic

    I guess I was willing to just limit the conjunction to forms of address. You have to stipulate some difference between the two, after all, and at this point it seems like six of one and half a dozen of the other to say that the difference is in the constraints (or their ranking) vs. in their morpho-structural representation. Besides, what would the alignment analysis have to say about AJ vs. *AR as forms of address, assuming my judgments on these are right?

  10. Bob Kennedy

    Yeah, the alignment can’t distinguish AJ and *AR. There’s more work to do though – I’m also noticing that any __J form has initial stress, but all other forms have final. This might require a longer writeup.

  11. Daniel C. Hall

    FWIW, I knew an AR in high school; everyone called him that, and I don’t think I even knew his full first name (Arthur) until I saw it in the yearbook.

    There’s still a contrast between AJ and AR for me, though, but it’s one of stress, not well-formedness: AJ has primary stress on the A, and AR on the R.

  12. Geoffrey S. Nathan

    It’s a few days later, but I haven’t been here in a while. But I wanted to add an empirical challenge to the initial (ahem) assumptions. My wife’s graduate school buddy Sister Mary-Louise Gude was (and still is) known as ML Gude, and I’ve never noticed anything weird about it. It is, incidentally, pronounced [ɛˈmɛl]. Everyone calls her that.

  13. Bob Kennedy

    I think local counterexamples will continue to come up, making it difficult to build a coherent analysis. Eric says AR is awkward, but Daniel says it sounds fine. Geoffrey says ML sounds fine, but it was one of my original awkward examples. Either there are several different systems of limitations on allowable initialisms, or the effects are gradient, or there are additional factors that are harder to uncover.

  14. Pingback: Shadow » Blog Archive » OT on Initialism: the role of letter names

  15. Kai von Fintel

    ML also seems fine to me, but I might be biased by the local fact that ML Carr played and later coached the Celtics (the other famous Celtic known by his initials is of course KC Jones).

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