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LINGUIST List 20.3119

Wed Sep 16 2009

Qs: Empirical Resources on Consonant Cluster Typology

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        1.    Steve Parker, Empirical Resources on Consonant Cluster Typology

Message 1: Empirical Resources on Consonant Cluster Typology
Date: 15-Sep-2009
From: Steve Parker <steve_parkergial.edu>
Subject: Empirical Resources on Consonant Cluster Typology
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I am looking for input (data) on tautosyllabic consonant clusters. Suppose
that a syllable begins with two adjacent consonants, followed by a vowel:
CCV. Technically this is called an initial demisyllable. I am aware of two
competing claims/proposals about what kinds of consonants are
cross-linguistically unmarked or preferred in this type of situation, both
based on the notion of relative sonority. For the sake of simplicity, let
us assume a common five-way sonority scale:

V (vowel)
G (glide)
L (liquid)
N (nasal)
O (obstruent)

(1) One approach posits that specific languages can place a minimum
sonority distance requirement on onset clusters, such that Spanish, for
example, allows OL but not *ON or *NL, since obstruents differ from liquids
by two steps on the sonority scale, whereas obstruents plus nasals or
nasals plus liquids differ by only one sonority rank. One implication of
this is that there could or should exist languages in which the only
permissible onset clusters consist of an obstruent followed by a glide,
such as /py/, /kw/, etc., whereas OL onsets, such as /pl/ or /tr/, are not
attested. Works such as Steriade (1982) and Selkirk (1984) are examples of
this general theory.

(2) A different approach is the Sonority Dispersion Principle proposed by
Clements (1990). In this theory the three segments in an initial CCV
demisyllable prefer to be evenly spaced apart in terms of relative
sonority. This leads to the claim that OL (obstruent + liquid)
syllable-initial clusters are universally preferred over OG (obstruent +
glide). One implication of this is that there could or should exist
languages in which the only permissible onset clusters consist of an
obstruent followed by a liquid, such as /pl/ or /tr/, whereas *OG onsets,
such as /py/, /kw/, etc., systematically do not occur.

I am preparing to carry out a major cross-linguistic study in which I test
the claims of these two competing approaches on a robust sample of
languages, preferably a set of languages which is genetically and
geographically balanced. Evidence for or against these two theories could
potentially come from different areas of the phonology:

(1) inventory of attested syllable patterns
(2) relative frequency of different types of syllable patterns
(3) child language acquisition data
(4) dynamic morphophonemic alternations

The latter, for example, would consist hypothetically of an underlying
combination of morphemes which might otherwise be expected to surface as OL
(obstruent + liquid), but which instead is realized phonetically as OG
(obstruent + glide), or vice-versa. To illustrate, /pla/ > [pwa] or /kwa/ >
[kra], etc.

The general research question which I am trying to tease apart is, which
type of initial cluster, OL or OG, is truly unmarked in the languages of
the world? My general impression at this point is that the answer to this
issue is mixed, with some languages showing a preference for OL, and others
indicating that OG is default. I think there are also other languages in
which these two types of clusters are more or less evenly preferred.

What I am looking for is hard empirical and statistical evidence from
individual languages, or even better yet from many languages, in response
to this dilemma. I would especially like to know if any published surveys
or typological databases already exist which address this issue, or which
would allow me to perform searches to answer these questions? In addition,
I would be happy to hear about electronic dictionaries and/or text corpora
in relevant languages which would lend themselves to easily counting unique
words (types) or tokens of forms containing such clusters (OL and/or OG).

By the way, I am aware of the difficult issue of interpreting OGV
sequences, such as [kwa], in terms of whether the [w] is really in the
onset or the nucleus, whether it is a separate consonant or just
labialization of the [k], etc. So I would especially value cases of
languages in which there is a clear answer to these questions.

Thank you very much,

Steve Parker
Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics and SIL International

Linguistic Field(s): Phonology

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