LINGUIST List 8.670

Tue May 6 1997

Disc: OT

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Joaquim =?iso-8859-1?Q?Brand=E3o?= de Carvalho, disc. on OT

Message 1: disc. on OT

Date: Wed, 30 Apr 1997 14:59:36 +0100
From: Joaquim =?iso-8859-1?Q?Brand=E3o?= de Carvalho <>
Subject: disc. on OT

[Reply to Chris Hogan's question on OT, LINGUIST 8.457]

I think that the basic question about the epistemological status of OT does
not concern its falsifiability. Even if OT specified which constraints are
permitted in the theory, the entire theory would probably not be affected
whenever constraints might be shown to be 'falsified'. The reason is that
constraint falsification could always be viewed by OT supporters as
constraint violation. Now, as is well-known, OT constraints are violable by
definition. This is perhaps the more (if not the only) interesting feature
in OT with respect to previous approaches : let us not be afraid of
exceptions ; exceptions do exist, and are, thereby, marked.

The important point, from which it can be shown that OT is NOT a linguistic
theory nor a theory tout court, is that constraints are formally arbitrary
and thereby circular. Let us take constraints like 'syllables must have
onsets' or 'syllables must not have codas'. These constraints are arbitrary
insofar as nothing but empirical observation tells us why onsets should be
obligatory, while codas should not. As a result, the so-called 'emergence
of the unmarked' hides, in fact, mere circularity in OT approaches to
syllable structure. Why is a given system unmarked rather than marked ?
Because it fails to violate the constraints posited by the theory. But why
does the theory posit a given constraint rather than its contrary ?
Because this is what we find in unmarked systems.

In sum, OT must run after the facts because it does not provide an
independent theory of markedness (for syllable structure in the present
case), contrary to what should be expected from a real linguistic theory.

Joaquim Brandao de Carvalho
1, rue Henri Poincare
75020 Paris
Tel. : (0033) 1 43643418
Faculte des Sciences Humaines et Sociales - Sorbonne
Universite Rene Descartes - Paris V
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