LINGUIST List 2.165

Thursday, 25 Apr 1991

Disc: Phonology

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  1. , Re: i/y controversy
  2. Frank McLellan, Re: Morphophonology (Part 1
  3. Vicki Fromkin, Re: Morphophonology (Part 2)

Message 1: Re: i/y controversy

Date: Wed, 24 Apr 91 11:10:54 PDT
From: <>
Subject: Re: i/y controversy
I hope people don't mind these lengthy comments on Russian i/y. Alexis
believes strongly that the perceptual autonomy of these sounds is *not* caused 
by spelling, but I don't recall him offering an explanation as to what might 
have caused the perceived autonomy of these sounds, which were at least for a 
time allophones. Right now, I think that spelling is the only thing on the 
table. Pure phonetic distance would be a tough case to make (because 
phonological history is rife with counterexamples), but I don't reject it out 
of hand. I just think it of lesser importance. My claim is that Slavs 
originally used distinct vowel letters as an orthographic device to mark a 
phonemic distinction on the preceding consonants (and still do) but that the 
use of these different vowel symbols raised their consciousness of the 
allophones to virtually phonemic status.

AMR points out that there are different vowel symbol pairs--e.g. "a"/"ja"
(backwards R). We also have "o"/"jo" (e+diaresis), "e"/"je", and "u"/"ju".
Russians don't get the same perceptual jolt that they do with "y"/"i", however.
True, but there "y"/"i" are not quite parallel. Note that the letters "ja",
"ju", and "je" all correspond to two-phoneme (glide+vowel) sequences in 
isolation. Psychologically, I would argue, they retain the glide in those
letters--which is the conditioning factor for fronting. (Russians often
mispronounce English consonants before the letter "e" as palatalized--e.g.
"kyept" for "kept"--because of the cyrillic-latin ambiguity.) Russian "i"
never corresponds to a two-phoneme sequence. Moreover, "ja" and "je" are
often pronounced [i] (indeed, may represent /i/ psychologically in non-alter-
nating cases) because of vowel reduction. The "i" letter is quite constant
in phonetic interpretation (save after "zh", "sh", and "ts", which blow its
phonetic grounding slightly). So I think that the facts are not so simple
that we can ignore the role of spelling. (It would be nice to see what 
illiterates and Russian children do with spontaneous spellings. I would 
predict that they don't get as much of a jolt as their literate counterparts.)

The n-o-zh-i [nazhy] example supports neither AMR's case nor mine, since we
both agree about the perceptual autonomy of [y]. I am saying that the
spelling convention of "i" after "zh", "ts", "sh" violates the intuition that
the preceding sound is "hard". AMR says the convention violates their vocalic
sensibilities. Perhaps we are both right. BTW, it is worth noting that
"zh", "sh", and "ts" forbid the use of "ja" and "ju" after them. You would
expect the opposite if they were being consistent with the "i" convention.
I feel that this lends some credulity to my position that the "y" spelling 
error responds more to the hardness of the preceding consonant than vowel
quality per se. But who can say for sure?

The "minimal pair" of "i" and "y" as letter names is not quite good enough to
establish phonemic status. (Don't Russians use "yerih" anymore for the name
of the "y" letter? This is news to me.) You need to show it for running
speech, since languages permit phonologically crazy expressions--cf. English
um-hum, uh-uh, tsk-tsk, etc. While I think AMR has failed to knock down my
spelling-based hypothesis for Russian, I would like to decouple it from other
Slavic languages, which I am not as familiar with. And I remind everyone that
I am just speculating about spelling here. I think that the idea could be
falsified through comparison testing of literates vs. nonliterates. The 
question of how orthography affects phonology is a very interesting one, but
we need a sound phonemic theory before we can study it seriously.

 -Rick Wojcik (
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Message 2: Re: Morphophonology (Part 1

Date: Wed, 24 Apr 91 15:15:56 EDT
From: Frank McLellan <>
Subject: Re: Morphophonology (Part 1
On Tuesday, 23 April, 1991, Alexis Manaster Ramer wrote:-----------------
>(2) Everything you say about Cyrillic Slavic spelling is correct,
>it is indeed true that consonantal palatalization is expressed by
>having two series of vowel signs, those that indicate that the
>preceding consonant is palatalized and those that indicate that
>it is not palatalized. However,
I'm sure you know this, but it might be worth pointing out that the
use of one or the other vowel letter is not always an indication of
the peresence or absence of palatalization. Specifically in cases of
consonants which do not have palatalized/non-palatalized variants, the
choice of vowel grapheme following them is fixed by orthographical
convention. Hence, after the always-palatalized 'ch' Russians write the
'back' a letter, yet after the always-hard 'zh' or 'sh' they write only
the front [i].

>(3) If orthography is what explains the perceptual judgements and
>such, then on your account the i : y pair should behave the same
>as, say, the a : ja pair. Yet Russian speakers absolutely DENY
>that the vowel sound in, say, the word spelled r-ja-d, phonetically
>something like [r'aet], where ' indicates palatalization and ae
>a front low vowel is at all different from that of a word like
>ad [at], where the vowel is noticeably backer. Also, while
>as you say (and as I said all along) the cases where orthographic
>i is used in place of y, e.g., n-o-zh-i [nazhy], are purely
>orthographic and children and such often write y in these cases,
>that, of course, argues for MY position. That is, far from being
>misled by the spelling, they ARE responding to the sound and
>correctly identifying the cases where i occurs as different from
>those where y occurs. Which, on standard theories of phonemic
>perception, they should be unable to do!!!!
(deletions follow)

>(5) I have already indicated some reasons why your analysis of i/y
>in Russian as being due to the spelling is unreasonable. Hus, as
>far as I can remember, explicitly called attention to the special
>quality of the y sound, as well. Indeed, in order to use two
>series of vowel signs to distinguish palatalized from plain consonants,
>you do not need to believe that the two series correspond to different
>sounds. Indeed, as noted, Russians not only do not do this, they find
>it difficult to hear the REAL allophonic differences between the vowels
>that occur next to palatalized consonants and those that occur next
>to plain ones, EXCEPT in the case of i and y.
>Also, it is NOT true TODAY that [i] and [y] are in complementary
>distribution in Russian. The letter names i and y are a well-known
>minimal pair. In Polish, there are more numerous contrasts. However,
>in Baudouin's time, there apparently WAS compl. dist. in both languages.
>In any event, what is crucial is that both then and now, speakers
>hear the sounds as different, that even students of linguistics and
>many trained linguists find the phonemicization of [i] and [y] as the
>same phoneme intuitively no less bizarre than English speakers would
>the identification of [h] and [ng], and that at the same time the
>two continue to rhyme without any difficulty.

I have to take a bit of exception to designating the names of the two vowel
letters a minimal pair. Metalinguistic phenomena and foreign words which
do not conform to the same rules as non-foreign words really do not belong
in the analysis of a language's structure. I will not accept the notion of
phonemic nasal vowels in English based on some speakers' pronunciation of
French words while speaking English. Likewise I discount the evidence for
the phonemic status of [y] offered by a phonetics teachre in Leningrad who
insisted that the name of the state museum housed in the Winter Palace was
called the [yrmit'ash]. That word is a French borrowing which still has not
been assimilated into the phonology of the language. As for the vowel names,
to call them linguistic evidence of anything is akin to saying that the
English sentence "The 'the' that you wrote was incorrect." proves that it is
permissible to string two articles in a row in an English sentence. Language
_about_ language always changes the picture somewhat and yields results that
would be unacceptable if anything but language were being discussed..

These are not serious complaints, and I should say I am in agreement with
your conclusions on the whole.
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Message 3: Re: Morphophonology (Part 2)

Date: Wed, 24 Apr 91 17:47 PDT
From: Vicki Fromkin <>
Subject: Re: Morphophonology (Part 2)
To GEOFF NATHAN re TOT phenomena etc.........

Many TOT's show that the stress 'recalled' is the wrong stress. Sometimes
it is correct but now always -- similar to the fact that often in TOT
the first initial is recalled correctly but .lots of errors occur, e.g.
"I can't get the word but I know it begins with an M' which turns out
to begin with a K or L or.... Also interesting that very often in
TOT it is the orthography remembered rather than the phonology e.g."I
think it begins with a C -- oh yes CHRISANTHEMUM" -- this is an attested
case, as is 'remembering it begins with a C for CHESAPEAKE"--

Also whether or not stress is lexical,speakers are still able to
apply stress rules and do -- as shown by pronunciation of new words
(read) or neologisms in normal and jargon aphasia as well. Furthermore
certain speech errors also show that when syllables are deleted, or
added or word blends occur stress is 'reanalyzed'. Interesting that in
syllable or vowel deletions errors, unstressed reduced vowels surface as
full 'underlying (?) vowels after the stress reanalysis.

However -- one should not depend on such performance data to decide on
correct phonological theory. Such data should be considered as evidence
along with any other kind of evidence -- morphophonemic alternations,
generalization s, etc.

Vicki Fromkin

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