What's a theory to do?

I don’t read Mr. Verb regularly, but I really should. On occasion, he’ll slip into a “moment of theoretical linguistic seriousness” of the kind that we (well, I) attempt to maintain consistently here at phonoloblog (ahem). Case in point: a post from a couple months ago on phonological opacity, following up on a reader’s questions about something mentioned in passing in this post. (Hat-tip to Ed.) The post on opacity concludes:

In any monostratal theory (one without stages of derivation), getting these interactions is a huge problem. This isn’t the place to run through them, but some readers will be familiar with sympathy theory, comparative markedness, and so on. I heard one person sum it up this way a few years ago:

Opacity is ubiquitous in human language, and earlier theories of phonology could deal with it easily. It’s hard to see why those advantages have been abandoned for an approach that can’t handle opacity without lots of gymnastics, if at all, for benefits that don’t look all that great.

(I’m pretty sure that it’s safe to assume that “earlier theories of phonology” refers to serial, rule-based generative phonology in the SPE-and-subsequent-developments sense, and that “any monostratal theory (one without stages of derivation)” and “an approach that can’t handle opacity without lots of gymnastics, if at all” refers to Optimality Theory. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

I’m not going to contest the ubiquitousness of opacity in human language claim, having recently written an article assuming this to be true (appeared in Phonology 24.2, 217-259). I’ll also assume that we can all agree on the legitimacy of at least some examples of opacity, in the sense that we agree that such cases involve the interaction of synchronic phonological processes (pace Sanders on ‘synchronic’ and Green on ‘phonological’). But I would like to challenge Mr. Verb (and the quoted summer-upper) to defend (some of) the remaining claims, explicit and implicit, made in what I’ve quoted above. Here is a list of what I take those claims to be.

  1. OT is by definition monostratal.
  2. OT requires “lots of gymnastics” to account for opacity, while SPE doesn’t.
  3. SPE(-and-subsequent-developments) “could deal with [opacity] easily”.
  4. The benefits of OT over SPE “don’t look all that great”.

More commentary on each of these below the fold.

  1. OT is by definition monostratal.

    In both published papers and (perpetually) forthcoming books, Paul Kiparsky and Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero — and many others, certainly — have developed and argued for a marriage between the basic assumption of Lexical Phonology and Morphology (that a grammar is multistratal) and the basic assumption of Optimality Theory (that an input-output mapping is defined by applying a ranked constraint hierarchy to a set of candidate outputs derived from the input). (The possibility of such a marriage was suggested, but not followed up on, in McCarthy & Prince (1993).) Both Kiparsky and Bermúdez-Otero have advanced the claim (and have argued for it on the basis of particular, familiar examples) that all legitimate cases of opacity are reducible to cross-stratal interactions — both the Canadian raising and Icelandic umlaut cases that Mr. Verb mentions can, I believe, be so reduced.

  1. OT requires “lots of gymnastics” to account for opacity, while SPE doesn’t.

    But — I hear you object to what I just wrote above — by “monostratal” Mr. Verb must mean “non-serial within a lexical-phonological stratum”, and in that sense he’s basically right. John McCarthy is without a doubt the most visible proponent of OT who accepts that at least some legitimate cases of opacity are not reducible to cross-stratal interactions, and is also the one who has developed most of the proposals to amend ‘classic’ OT to accomodate such cases of opacity, in particular those that Mr. Verb specifically mentioned (sympathy theory and comparative markedness). McCarthy’s most recent proposal, OT-CC (see his book and some of his more recent papers on ROA), is likely to be viewed by critics as just so many more gymnastics (as opposed to a proposal that makes predictions that may be right or wrong).

    But is SPE really any different in this regard? What about the transformational cycle, the Elsewhere Condition, structure preservation, the alternation condition, the strict cycle condition, and so on? Each of these developments within SPE was at some point or other brought to bear on opacity, whether to help account for cases of it or to constrain the power of ordered rules to generate particularly outlandish kinds of opacity (‘Duke of York’ derivations and absolute neutralization being particularly well-beaten horses). I’d like to see someone explain how any these developments within SPE are not “lots of gymnastics” while some developments within OT are. (And I’m not brushing aside the interesting work done in the 80s that attempted to reduce some of the developments within SPE to others, though I don’t believe many of these attempts were particularly successful.)

  1. SPE(-and-subsequent-developments) “could deal with [opacity] easily”.

    Although it is conveniently hardly ever talked about in this way, ‘derived environment effects’ are precisely cases of opacity that cannot be “dealt with easily” in SPE, by which I mean that rule ordering on its own won’t do the trick. Consider the classic Finnish assibilation case (whether or not you believe it): ts / __i, but “only in derived environments”. Let’s stick to phonologically-derived environments here: assibilation does not apply to underlying /ti…/, because no part of the structural description of assibilation is derived; assibilation does apply to /…te/, because there is another rule raising word-final /e/ to [i], which means that this part of the structural description of assibilation is derived by raising. (So: /ti…/ → [ti…], but /…te/ → |…ti| → […si].)

    Several things to note here. First, this is a case of opacity of Kiparsky’s (1973) “Type (i)”: assibilation is not surface-true, because there are surface strings of the kind that match the structural description of assibilation (to wit, [ti…]). Second, although many examples of non-surface-truth can be accounted for with counterfeeding rule ordering, this kind of case cannot, which is why some separate principle(s) responsible for derived environment effects are necessary — hence my conclusion that SPE does not, in fact, “deal with [opacity] easily” in the way Mr. Verb’s summer-upper and many others claim. Third, how does the distinction between ‘derived’ and ‘non-derived’ require any less “gymnastics” than the one between ‘new’ and ‘old’ markedness constraint violations, the basic idea behind comparative markedness? I’d really like to know.

  1. The benefits of OT over SPE “don’t look all that great”.

    Frankly, this one’s a real puzzler to me. In my view, it requires a lot of (willful) ignorance of a huge amount of important work in the 70s and 80s to think that OT doesn’t make significant progress in many areas (duplication, conspiracies, top-down and bottom-up effects, the emergence of the unmarked, …) where SPE essentially foundered. Yes, one significant consequence of all this progress was at the very least a re-evaluation of the ubiquity, diversity, and explanatory analysis of opacity — and this re-evaluation has led to a lot of interesting work and new developments. Some of it may involve what some consider to be “lots of gymnastics”, but as I’ve noted above, similar (and well-accepted) developments in SPE are arguably no different in this regard.

7 thoughts on “What's a theory to do?

  1. Ed Keer

    Now Eric, we all know that you can do anything in OT–just add another constraint.

    The thing that bugged me most about Mr. Verb’s post was the contention that OT was the lingusitic equivalent of String Theory. I wish! If that were true I’d have a job…

  2. Eric Bakovic

    Part 1 of Mr. Verb’s reply can be found here. (I suspect that we’re each contributing to the confusion betwen multi-stratalism and within-stratum serialism, but maybe that’ll come out in Part 2.)

  3. Eric Bakovic

    “Part deux” of Mr. Verb’s reply is here. I have to say that I’m extremely disappointed in Mr. Verb’s commitment to the issue thus far, but I’ll refrain from posting more about it until I see the rest of the reply.

  4. Ed Keer

    That Cassaday dude is a riot, “You young whippersnappers with your constraints and surface-true generalizations! In my day there were rules. And those rules could be ordered … and … and … and lexical phonology. LEXICAL PHONOLOGY!!!(*^&#$^&)#%)*!@#*)!!!”

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