LINGUIST List 14.1874

Mon Jul 7 2003

Review: Phonology/Phonetics: Shahin (2002)

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  1. Alexei Kochetov, Postvelar Harmony

Message 1: Postvelar Harmony

Date: Sat, 05 Jul 2003 16:12:35 +0000
From: Alexei Kochetov <>
Subject: Postvelar Harmony

Shahin, Kimary N. (2002) Postvelar Harmony, John Benjamins,
Publishing Company, Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 225.

Announced at

Alexei Kochetov, Simon Fraser University


Chapter 1. Introduction

'Postvelar Harmony' is a revised version of Kimary Shahin's
dissertation defended at the University of British Columbia in
1997. The goal of this book is to demonstrate that two unrelated
languages, Palestinian Arabic (PA) and St'at'imcets Salish (SS),
exhibit the same two types of phonological processes. These processes,
jointly referred to as 'postvelar harmony', are 'pharyngealization'
and 'uvularization'. While the first process is triggered by
'guttural' and 'emphatic' segments, the second process is triggered by
'emphatics' only. The book also aims to provide a formal Optimality
Theoretic account of these processes, and to demonstrate that the
similarities and differences between PA and SS with respect to
post-velar harmony are due to different rankings of the same general

Some clarifications of the author's terminology need to be made from
the outset. The term 'harmony' is not explicitly defined in the
book. Although Shahin states that '''harmony' refers to assimilation
and dissimilation'' (p. 40), the term is applied throughout the book
to cases of local or non-local assimilation (mainly V-to-C and
C-to-C). The 'guttural' segments include pharyngeal and uvular
approximants, as well as laryngeals (in PA only; cf. McCarthy 1994 for
Standard Arabic). The class of 'emphatics' consists of coronals and
labials with secondary uvular/pharyngeal articulation, as well as
uvular stops and fricatives. The classes of gutturals and emphatics
are jointly referred to as 'post-velars', that is segments fully or
partially articulated in the post-velar region of the vocal tract (see
Critical Evaluation).

Adopting Articulator Theory within Feature Geometry (Sagey 1986, among
others), Shahin views phonological representations as privative
distinctive features organized hierarchically and defined in
articulatory terms. The features deemed responsible for postvelar
harmony processes are the primary [Retracted Tongue Root] ([RTR])
feature of gutturals, as well as the secondary [RTR] and [Dorsal]
features of emphatics. Shahin adopts a standard version of Optimality
Theory (Prince & Smolensky 1993) and employs featural alignment and
featural correspondence constraints to capture harmony processes. In
addition, Shahin distinguishes between markedness constraints that
determine featural relations within a segment ('paradigmatic grounded
constraints') and between segments ('syntagmatic grounded
constraints'). Both types are assumed to be ''rooted'' in the physics
of speech production and the acoustic signal. Shahin advocates a
clear-cut distinction between phonetics and phonology and lists
criteria that, in her view, distinguish phonological and phonetic
phenomena. She acknowledges, however, that some phonetic properties
are language-specific, and thus must be considered ''cognitive'' (p.

This chapter also provides a detailed review of previous articulatory
X-ray studies of Arabic gutturals and emphatics; it also makes
predictions about acoustic effects of postvelar articulations.

Chapters 2 and 3

These two chapters constitute the core of the book, presenting
investigations of postvelar harmony in PA and SS. They are organized
very similarly: for each language, Shahin introduces segment
inventories, highlights relevant phonological issues, and presents a
phonological account of the phenomena. In addition, she provides
results of acoustic analyses and, in some cases, of perceptual
experiments; these are expected to provide additional support for the
phonological analysis.

Chapter 2. Postvelar harmony in Palestinian Arabic

The focus of this chapter is the Abu Shusha dialect of PA. Most
of the data were collected by Shahin from 26 speakers during her
fieldwork in Ramallah, West Bank. The acoustic analysis is based
on recordings from two speakers.

Shahin analyzes the consonant inventory of PA as having 6 gutturals
and 8 emphatics. Pharyngealized vowels are assumed to be derived
rather than part of the underlying vowel inventory. According to
Shahin, 'pharyngealization harmony' in PA involves two processes:
Short vowels have lowered and backed allophones under adjacency to a
postvelar consonant (including laryngeals). In addition, short vowels
can be pharyngealized in closed syllables; these vowels are assumed to
trigger 'non-local harmony' within a phonological word. Shahin's OT
account of this phenomenon makes use of alignment constraints
spreading [RTR] to an adjacent nucleus and non-locally within a
phonological word. The opacity of long and stem-final vowels is
captured by highly ranked markedness constraints ensuring the
incompatibility of [RTR] with bimoraic and stem-final nuclei. The
second process, 'uvularization harmony', is a long distance
bi-directional assimilation triggered by emphatic consonants (known as
'emphasis spread'). Shahin analyzes the process as being triggered by
a constraint aligning both secondary [Dorsal] and secondary [RTR] with
the left and right edges of a prosodic word. Post-alveolar obstruents
are opaque to the process, while non-low vowels are phonologically
transparent but show some gradient phonetic effects. These opacity and
transparency effects are analyzed as consequences of the high ranking
of 'grounded' constraints rooted in the articulatory incompatibility
of the fronting and raising of the tongue with its retraction.

Chapter 3. Postvelar harmony in St'at'imcets Salish

Chapter 3 focuses on SS, an Interior Salish language spoken in
British Columbia, Canada. The word corpus was collected by the
author from 6 speakers during her fieldwork in Vancouver. The
acoustic analysis was based on the speech of 2 speakers.

The consonant inventory of SS is analyzed by Shahin as having 4
gutturals (uvular approximants) and 12 emphatics ('retracted' coronals
and uvular obstruents). Shahin's analysis differs from some previous
work (van Eijk 1997) in assuming no underlying pharyngealized vowels
and attributing unconditioned pharyngealization of vowels in some
stems to a ''floating emphasis feature'' (p. 199). Shahin describes
'pharyngealization harmony' in SS as a local assimilation of vowels to
the following postvelar consonant, resulting in pharyngealized
allophones. In the context of emphatics, the comparable effect appears
to hold for high vowels only. The phonological analysis of the
pharyngealization harmony involves a quite simple interaction between
the alignment constraint spreading [RTR] to the leftward nucleus, and
featural correspondence constraints. Unlike the previous process,
'uvularization harmony' in SS apparently involves backing of an
epenthetic vowel or an underlying low vowel before an adjacent
emphatic consonant. The process is analyzed as applying to consonants
as well, however the examples given by SS are limited to the
post-alveolar affricate in two lexical items. Shahin analyzes
uvularization harmony in SS as being driven by an alignment constraint
spreading secondary [Dorsal] and [RTR] to the leftward segment. The
neutral status of high vowels is accounted for by reference to highly
ranked 'grounded' constraints against this featural combination.

Chapter 4. Conclusion

Chapter 4 provides a summary of all constraints used in the analysis,
together with their grounding. It also presents the relevant fragments
of OT grammars of PA and SS. In this chapter Shahin outlines a new and
exciting direction for further research: a comparison of
pharyngealization harmonies with consonantal and vocalic sources.

Appendices and Index

The book contains a number of appendices: abbreviations used in the
book, PA and SS forms used in the acoustic analysis, Salish language
classification, and a SS word list. The book also includes a name
index, subject index, and a language index.


General remarks

Shahin's 'Postvelar Harmony' is a solid work, impressive both in its
breadth and in its attention to detail. It is one of only a very few
recently published dissertations on theoretical phonology based on the
author's original fieldwork data. Moreover, these data come from two
unrelated languages, uncovering fascinating phonological and phonetic
similarities between the languages and leading to some interesting
typological generalizations. Further, the author goes beyond the
traditional format of phonological analysis by seeking support for her
claims in acoustics and perception. The general organization of the
book is clear and straightforward. The presentation of the data and
analysis for the two languages follows the same format and is easy to
compare. The book benefits from well-organized language data
appendices and multiple figures illustrating findings of previous
articulatory studies, the current acoustic results, and the summary of
the phonological analyses. The language index contains more than fifty

I have to admit, however, that as a phonologist lacking intimate
familiarity with issues of Arabic and Salish linguistics I
didn't find 'Postvelar Harmony' an easy read. At times language
data and language-specific theoretical assumptions were
presented somewhat abruptly, without sufficient introduction,
prompting me to consult additional sources on the languages. The
language-particular interpretation of the terms 'guttural' and
'emphatic' was confusing, though perhaps inevitable given
phonological and phonetic differences between the two languages.
Specifically, Shahin's class of PA gutturals includes uvular and
pharyngeal approximants and laryngeals /? h/, while gutturals in
SS include only uvular approximants. The 'dorsal emphatics' in
SS are uvular stops and fricatives, while in PA this class is
limited to the velar stop (which is still ambiguously referred
to as 'post-velar') or to a uvularized/pharyngealized glottal
stop (for one of the PA speakers).

Further, some general theoretical assumptions introduced in
Chapter 1 could have benefited from more discussion. For
instance, Shahin mentions at the beginning of the book that the
typology of harmony systems is ''essential for a clear
understanding of ... postvelar harmony'' (p. 3). Yet, this
typology is outlined in only two short paragraphs in section
1.5, leaving the reader wondering whether it is relevant for the
analysis at all. The term 'phonological visibility' is used a
number of times throughout the book, yet it is not defined or
illustrated. Similarly, discussions of the acoustic results and
of the results of the phonological analyses are often overly
brief and sketchy. The last chapter (Conclusion), intended to
provide a summary of the cross-linguistic analysis of postvelar
harmony, is only four pages long.

Acoustic and perceptual evidence

Reference to the results of the author's acoustic analysis plays a
major role in the proposed phonological account. Thus, acoustic
measurements of formant frequencies of vowel tokens in the environment
of postvelars are compared to predicted ranges of values and taken as
acoustic support for the assumed articulation of these
consonants. This is then interpreted as support for their phonological
feature specification and for the distinction between the two types of
postvelar harmony.

This approach, in my view, is potentially problematic. Formant values
at the midpoint of a given vowel (the main focus of Shahin's acoustic
analysis) indicate whether the vowel is articulated with or without
tongue body/tongue root retraction, in other words, whether it belongs
to one of the two presumably distinct allophonic categories. However,
these values do not necessarily indicate whether an adjacent consonant
is articulated with or without retraction. It is even less clear how
the formant values for the vowel can constitute evidence for the
PHONOLOGICAL FEATURE [RTR] of the following consonant and for the
SPREADING of this feature to the vowel. This interpretation of
acoustic values appears to be forced by a rather literal phonetic
interpretation of phonological representations, as well as by a view
of harmony as a dynamic process of concrete feature spreading.

Further, the claimed acoustic support for tongue-root retracted
articulation of PA laryngeals (p. 96) does not seem to be conclusive,
since the analysis of these segments is based on midpoint values of
adjacent pharyngealized vowels (apparently in three lexical items). No
formant measurements in phonologically or lexically neutral
environments are reported (e.g., VC/CV transitions at word boundaries
or in nonsense words; see Yeou 1997). This weakens Shahin's argument
against a more abstract feature [Pharyngeal] (McCarthy 1994). In
addition, the proposed distinction between 'pharyngealization' and
'uvularization' harmonies in SS hinges crucially on the apparently
different realizations of vowels in two contexts. The number of tokens
for the 'uvularized' allophones, however, is rather small and these do
not seem to differ substantially from the tokens of the
'pharyngealized' allophones (see, e.g., F1-F2 plots on p. 257; two
tokens per category). No statistical results are provided to support
the distinction between the two categories, and the evidence for two
distinct postvelar harmonies in SS is thus not entirely convincing.

Although Shahin mentions that ''gradient phonetic properties cannot be
ignored unless ruled out as speech-phonetic'' (p. 48), the acoustic
analysis is limited to the phenomena that are somehow pre-determined
to be 'phonological'. Yet, the many gradient effects of Arabic
'emphasis spread' (Zawaydeh 1999, Watson 2002: 268-86) are just as
intriguing as its categorical effects, and also require an
explanation. Moreover, the border between the phonetic and the
phonological aspects of this process appears to be rather fuzzy. For
example, while lip rounding can be considered as a phonetic effect
accompanying emphatic articulation in Cairene Arabic, it acts like a
full- fledged phonological feature in San'ani Arabic (Watson 2002).
The same criticism applies to the analysis of SS. The process of
lowering and diphthongization of high vowels after uvulars is
dismissed in the book as a phonetic ''effect from the adjacent
postvelar'' (p. 209-211); however, no acoustic evidence is provided
for this conclusion. In any case, the phenomenon hardly meets Shahin's
definition of 'speech-phonetic' effects as being ''purely physical''.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Shahin introduces three small-scale perceptual
experiments. The rather brief presentation leaves some questions about
the methodology used in these experiments and the direct relevance of
their results to the general analysis. For instance, the finding that
three Arabic listeners labeled a few tokens of SS retracted consonants
as emphatic is interpreted as support for the emphatic status of these
segments (pp. 188-90). The results, however, can be more plausibly
interpreted as arising from the Arabic listeners' selection of the
closest native categories -- the view rejected by Shahin. In the same
way for example, for a Russian listener (the author of this review),
Arabic non-emphatic and emphatic consonants in some vowel contexts
sound quite similar to Russian palatalized and plain (velarized)
categories; however, this cannot be reasonably considered evidence for
a palatalized-plain distinction in Arabic.

It should be added that these shortcomings in the phonetic analyses of
'Postvelar Harmony' are likely inevitable consequences of the thematic
breadth of the book and of limitations imposed by the available corpus
data. This book still remains an appealing example of how phonetic
predictions and results based on original data can be tightly
incorporated into a theoretical phonological account.

Phonological representations, constraints, and opacity

Shahin's theoretical account of the facts of postvelar harmony
combines the Feature Geometry (FG) representational assumptions
with the constraint-based architecture of Optimality Theoretic
(OT) grammar. Most of the criticism presented below applies not
so much to Shahin's analysis per se but to the general
theoretical assumptions underlying FG and to the traditional
view of lexical representations.

The consonant and vowel representations Shahin employs are well-
equipped to account for postvelar harmony in both PA and SS, and
the details of the analysis are worked out in remarkable detail.
However, as in many FG accounts, representations posited to deal
with a subset of language data cannot necessarily be extended to
a wider range of phonological phenomena. Thus, Shahin does not
address the question of feature class co-occurrence restrictions
in PA and SS roots ('OCP effects'). These effects, however,
present a serious problem for the proposed FG representations.
Formulating OCP restrictions as constraints on combinations of
the features posited for postevlars either under-predicts or
over-predicts the effects observed for Arabic (see McCarthy
1994). And, as with any set of FG categorical representations,
Shahin's representations are ill-suited to deal with gradient
OCP effects (see Frisch, Broe, & Pierrehumbert 1997). Like
Arabic, SS has been described as showing consonant co-occurrence
restrictions in roots (van Eijk 1997: 8-9). Yet, these do not
refer to the classes of gutturals and emphatics as such; in
fact, all uvulars pattern as a natural class distinct from
'retracted' coronals and all other consonants. In sum, we are
left with having to either posit a number of process-specific FG
representations or give up the idea of rigid feature
constituency in favor of violable feature classes (see Padgett
2001). In addition, it is not clear what exactly FG
representations add to the OT analysis of postvelar harmony,
since all relevant aspects of the processes seem to be
successfully captured by interacting constraints referring
directly to features.

The problem with FG representations (as they are traditionally
conceived) is not only their lack of flexibility and
insufficient 'abstractness' in dealing with higher-level
phonological phenomena, but also their arbitrariness and
insufficient 'concreteness' in dealing with the lower-level of
speech production. Despite substantial attention to the
distinction between phonology and phonetics, the book remains
silent on how symbolic FG representations are 'implemented'
phonetically. It is not clear, for instance, how otherwise
identical features [RTR] of pharyngeals and emphatics are mapped
onto two different articulatory gestures (see Ladefoged &
Maddieson 1996: 365-66). Moreover, it has been noted that the
degree of uvularization in Arabic differs between different
consonants in a given dialect as well as between different
dialects -- it is often accompanied by varying degrees of
labialization, among other effects (see Watson 2002: 279-80 and
references therein). Yet, in Shahin's FG account all this
variation corresponds to as a symbolic constituent 'secondary
[Dorsal] and secondary [RTR]'. In sum, the facts of speech
production suggest that speakers' low-level phonetic knowledge
is quite detailed and variable; this knowledge must be part of
any model of the language faculty, regardless of our assumptions
about higher-level phonological constructs. FG representations
neither encode this low-level knowledge, nor provide a feasible
mapping procedure. A possible alternative is to adopt low-level
gestural representations that encode both categorical and
gradient knowledge (Browman & Goldstein 1989).

Related to this question is the issue of the 'directionality' and
'strength' of harmony processes in different dialects of Arabic. While
OT alignment constraints are well-suited to handle the details of
leftward and rightward local and long-distance assimilation, they (as
well as FG representations) have little or nothing to say about why
leftward spread is more common and why some consonants are better
triggers of the process than others (Zawaydeh 1999). These facts,
however, are explained, at least in part, by the details of the
gestural organization of secondary uvular articulation, namely its
substantial extent in time and its phasing at the onset rather than at
offset of the primary gesture (see Watson 2002: 284). Interestingly,
the common gestural phasing patterns of secondary articulations
provide insight into their preferred direction of V-to-C assimilation:
while uvularization tends to be leftward, labialization and
palatalization are commonly rightward (see Ladefoged & Maddieson 1996:
357, Watson 2002: 281-84 on labialization; see Kochetov 2002 on

Finally, the issue of lexical representations and opacity deserves
special attention. Shahin takes the traditional view that the unit of
lexical storage is the 'underlying representation' stripped of all
predictable information. This creates certain problems for her
analysis. For example, she posits /tibn/ as the underlying form for
the PA word {tIbIn} 'straw' based on the following analysis: (1) the
second vowel of the word is analyzed as predictably epenthetic; (2)
its 'color' is spread from the preceding vowel and (3) its
pharyngealized quality is due to 'closed-syllable pharyngealization';
(4) the pharyngealized quality of the first vowel is due to the
spreading of [RTR] from the second vowel. This approach obviously
favors the expression of underlying-to-surface mapping in derivational
terms with reference to intermediate representations. This mapping,
however, does not fit well with the surface-oriented nature of
standard OT and its reliance on 'lexicon optimization' (not to mention
learnability and processing considerations). The constraint
Align([RTR], Left, Word, Left), which is assumed to spread the feature
leftward within a word, has to refer to the intermediate
representation {tibIn} (not indicated in Tableau 86), rather than to
the non- RTR underlying form /tibn/. Shahin's analysis, however, does
not seem to assume intermediate phonological representations. Another
potentially problematic issue for the proposed analysis is
morphologically- or lexically-conditioned blocking of postvelar
harmony, in particular, the variable behavior of /jj/ in PA (p. 153),
opaque affixes in Arabic (Watson 2002: 273-82), and variable
'retracted' suffixes in SS (van Eijk 1997: 29-30).

All these facts, however, can be straightforwardly incorporated into
the account if we assume an alternative view in which a unit of
lexical storage is a 'surface' form specified for both unpredictable
and predictable information (see Bybee 2001, Pierrehumbert 2001 on
usage-based models of the lexicon). In this view, for instance,
relations between alternants or 'root- and-pattern morphology' forms
can be expressed as a learner's 'bottom-up' generalizations over the
networks of stored surface forms. This view is also compatible with
some recent work in OT that reanalyzes cases of phonological opacity
as transparent allomorphy relations (e.g., Rubach & Booij 2001, among
others). By dispensing with the 'top-down' derivational assumptions,
this alternative also calls into question the plausibility of
conceptualizing harmony as a 'dynamic' feature-spreading process;
instead it views harmony as 'static' feature co- occurrence and
allomorphy -- emergent properties of the ever- evolving lexicon.

In conclusion, the few inconsistencies I identified in the
analysis of 'Postvelar Harmony' are by no means flaws in the
particular book or in the author's theoretical approach per se.
Rather, they seem to reflect the general state of flux in
current phonological theory, with new ideas and concepts still
largely co-existing with decades-old misconceptions and
assumptions that have now been challenged. This work highlights
a range of crucial issues in current phonological theory; it
also provides us with exciting new language data and fresh
insights into the mechanism of postvelar harmony and the
typology of assimilation in general. I would recommend this book
to general phonologists and phoneticians, as well as to anyone
interested in Arabic and Salish linguistics.


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Alexei Kochetov is Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Simon Fraser
University. He received his Ph.D. in 2001 from the University of
Toronto. Later he was a postdoctoral fellow at Haskins
Laboratories. His research interests include phonological theory,
phonetics-phonology interactions, markedness, and learnability. He is
also interested in agent- based modeling of emergent phonological
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