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LINGUIST List 16.2979

Fri Oct 14 2005

Disc: Final Posting Re: issue 16-2712, Mysterious /s/

Editor for this issue: Ann Sawyer <sawyerlinguistlist.org>

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        1.    Rostam Shirazi, Final Posting Re: issue 16-2712, Mysterious /s/

Message 1: Final Posting Re: issue 16-2712, Mysterious /s/
Date: 13-Oct-2005
From: Rostam Shirazi <daviddariusbijanyahoo.co.uk>
Subject: Final Posting Re: issue 16-2712, Mysterious /s/

Many thanks to everyone who responded to my posting about the properties of /s/
with references, data and ideas. They were:

Rosemary Beam de Azcona, Pier Marco Bertinetto, Ed Burstynsky, Fred Cummins,
Annette Fox, Dinha Gorgis, Claire Gurski, Damien Hall, Patrick Honeybone, Mark
Jones, Arsalan Kahnemuyipour, Susannah Levi, Kristie McCrary Kambourakis, Bruce
Moren, Faisal Al-Mohanna, Kathy Snow, Mark Southern, Nora Wiedenmann, Guido
Vanden Wyngaerd and Bettina Zeisler.

I apologise that I have not had the chance to reply to all of you personally.

My original post can be found as item 16.2712 in the 2005 'DISC' section of

Respondents focussed on possible explanations of the unusual distribution of
/s/, which in some languages occupies a position at the begining of word
initial consonant clusters denied to other C segments. I had offered, roughly,
three alternatives based around articulatory constraints, universal grammar and
language history.

Though most agreed that a simple explanation of the observed phenomena would
continue to be elusive, the balance of opinion was tipped towards an
auditory-perceptual account.

Mark Jones and Kristie McCrary Kambourakis pointed out that /s/ is extremely
salient in acoustic terms. Jones noted that, in terms of its intensity, /s/ has
a 'stand alone' status. Susannah Levi pointed out that ''fricatives have
internal cues (to place and manner) that allow them to be perceived before a
stop (whereas stop-stop clusters are more difficult to perceive since cues to
their place and manner are largely found in their transitions with neighbouring

Mark Jones noted that the /s/ in Spanish, in which word initial s+C is
prohibited, may be less intense than realisations of this segment in other
languages, and a possible effect of this may be the need to 'prop it up' with a
prothetic vowel.

Patrick Honeybone recalled the tradition of treating s+C as single segments, in
the same way as affricates. This view was echoed by Claire Gurski.

Several respondents pointed out that evidence from many languages (such as
definite article alternation in Italian) suggests that /s/ should be
syllabified in the coda. In this case the preceding nucleus is either realised
or unrealised, resulting in the dichotomy between initial s+C and V+s+C
languages. This is essentially the approached outlined by Jonathan Kaye in his
1992 paper 'Do you believe in Magic - the story of s+CC clusters' (SOAS Working
Papers in Linguistics and Phonetics) and taken up by others working in the
Government Phonology framework. It does not offer an explanation of a) why it is
/s/ that behaves in this way and b) why the nucleus is realised or unrealised in
various langauges. It makes an appeal to parameter settings which, as one
respondent commented, is ''non-explanatory and hence a complete non-runner''.

Fred Cummins felt the it is the sonority-sequencing hypothesis as traditionally
construed, which apears to be violated in these cases, that may be in need of

Kathy Snow explained the variation between s+C and V+s+C in French (espace v.
spacieux) in terms of language history and the relative age of these loans.

Bettina Zeisler gave examples of word intial s+C in Sino-Tibetan and

Damien Hall and Mark Jones noted the interesting questions posed by the
alternation /s/ > [h] > zero in Spanish.

A number of respondents gave useful references which are listed (in the form
they were given) at the end of this email.

In general it was interesting to see the all-too-familiar difference in approach
of phoneticians and phonologists raise its head. Most of the former, as one
would expect, saw the problem in terms of the physical properties of the segment
/s/ rather than any language internal (phonological) constraints.

Having had time to think a little more about this problem, and in view of the
discussion, I would attribute the seemingly anomalous /s/ to its unique
acoustic properties. I think, though, that the essential problem of why some
languages consistently have a prothetic vowel whereas others don't need one
remains (though perhaps it will be cleared up when I get round to reading some
of the references below!). I don't think it's just down to the phonetic
properties of the segment /s/ in the language in question - there are many
examples of languages that need an prothetic vowel other than Spanish, which may
well have a phonetically 'weak' /s/. And positing a different ranking of
constraints within Optimality theory doesn't really get any further than
positing parameter settings: it's a way of formalising the facts, but it's not
really explanatory.

References from respondents:

Pier Marco Bertinetto, 2004 ''On the undecidable syllabification of /sC/
clusters in Italian: Converging experimental evidence'' Italian Journal of
Linguistics/Rivista di Linguistica 16.2

Harris, 1994, ''English Sound Structure''.

Iverson and Salmons, 1999 ''Glottal spreading bias in Germanic''. Linguistische

Kristie McCrary Kambourakis, 2004, ''Reassessing the role of the syllable in
Italian Phonology'', UCLA dissertation:


Frida Morelli, 1999 ''The phonotactics and Phonology of Obstruent Clusters in
Optimality Theory'', University of Maryland at College Park dissertation.

Mark Southern, 1999 ''Subgrammatical Survival: S-mobile in Indo-European and
Germanic'', Journal of IE Studies Monograph Series.

Richard Wright, UCLA dissertation on clusters in Tso

Richard Wright, ''Perceptual Cue Robustness and Phonotactic Constraints:
Rethinking Sonority'' in ''Phonetically Based Phonology'' Steriade, Kirchner,
Hayes (eds)

Wenckje Yongstra, University of Toronto (Department of Linguistics) dissertation
on acquisition of s+C clusters.

Linguistic Field(s): Genetic Classification
Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories

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