Are we flat?

The University of Maryland’s Linguistics Department continues its strange love-hate relationship with phonology with this year’s announcement for what has come to be known simply as “MayFest“. In case you’ve never heard of this (almost-)annual workshop, the first sentence of the announcement clarifies:

Every year the graduate students of the Linguistics Department of the University of Maryland organize a linguistics workshop focusing on a different aspect of language.

The rest of the first paragraph explains the title of this year’s workshop: “Where, When and Why is Hierarchy Needed?”

The goal of this year’s MayFest is to bring together researchers from various disciplines to discuss the use of hierarchy and flat structures in language.

Where do phonologists these days stand on this issue? Are debates about the internal structure of the syllable actually resolved? What about Liberman & Prince’s original hierarchical foot structure proposal — was that abandoned for good reasons? It’s true that discussions in phonology don’t (or no longer) focus on these issues, but I don’t think they’re any less important than they are in syntax and semantics. And yet (emphasis added):

It is perhaps the most central contention in generative theorizing that linguistic expressions are structured hierarchically. Yet there seem to be aspects in all areas which do not immediately call for hierarchy. In syntax, for example, phenomena such as coordination, iterative constructions and adjuncts have been analyzed in terms of flat structures. For semantics, one might ask whether all semantic composition is achieved by function application or whether some composition is achieved by conjunction?

No mention of phonology (or morphology, for that matter — but I’ll leave that to a future morpholoblog). Either we’re just being ignored by the Marylanders, or we’re falling down on the job. (Neither is obviously unlikely, so it’s probably a bit of both. Whatever.) The only scheduled speaker with some phonolocred is Jason Eisner, but I’m thinking he’s most likely to represent this side of the story:

Computational linguistics has explored the computational properties of both classes of structure and has shown that while manipulation of hierarchical structure is computationally tractable, linear models offer surprisingly effective approximations of hierarchical phenomena.

Fair enough. Anyway, I hope that at least Bill Idsardi will be there to represent for phonology.

Interesting final connection to make: hierarchy is critical to recursion, and recursion is the topic of this conference in Illinois in late April (mentioned here, for those who missed it the first time). Bob Ladd is slated to represent for phonology there, with the provocative-ish title “What would ‘recursion’ mean in phonology?”

By the way: the recursion conference is organized by Dan Everett, whose recent claims about Pirahã language and culture have occasioned a media frenzy and strong reactions from the academic community. Search for “everett” or “piraha” over on Language Log (may I recommend this post or this post?), or join the over 600 folks who have shot this Nevins, Pesetsky, and Rodrigues commentary on Everett and his recent work to #2 on the LingBuzz top downloads chart (with a bullet).

(And in case you’re into recursion humor …)

4 thoughts on “Are we flat?

  1. Eric Bakovic

    Thanks for the reference, Bridget. The full citation is:

    Neeleman, Ad, & J. van de Koot. 2006. On syntactic and phonological representations. Lingua 116.10, pp. 1524-1552. (Language in Mind: A Tribute to Neil Smith on the Occasion of his Retirement.)

    And the abstract:

    This paper argues that phonological representations are not trees, but strings structured through boundary symbols. Because trees are richer in information than strings, our main argument rests on a demonstration that tree-based phonology is too strong, in that it allows rules for which there is no empirical basis. We discuss three contrasts between syntax and phonology that can be understood if phonology lacks trees. The first is that syntax has recursive structures, whereas phonology does not. The second is that syntax allows nonterminal nodes with feature content (as a result of percolation), but that no convincing case can be made for the feature content of putative nonterminal nodes in phonology. Finally, syntactic dependencies are conditioned by c-command, while phonological dependencies are, by and large, conditioned by adjacency. The second and third difference between syntax and phonology can also be used to demonstrate that a tree-based phonology is too weak, in that independently motivated conditions on trees do not allow existing phonological rules.

  2. Colin Phillips

    I have it on good authority that the organizers of the Mayfest very much wanted to include more phonology in the workshop, but that this fell through due to scheduling conflicts for additional invited speakers. Fear not, phonology has not been forgotten inside the Beltway.

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