LINGUIST List 8.690

Thu May 8 1997

Disc: Functionalism

Editor for this issue: Anthony Rodrigues Aristar <>


  1. Deborah Schmidt, more on OT functionalism
  2. CHARLES REISS, Re: Question on functionalism
  3. Mark Hale, otiosity

Message 1: more on OT functionalism

Date: Thu, 08 May 97 16:50:05 EDT
From: Deborah Schmidt <>
Subject: more on OT functionalism

Robert Kirchner (LINGUIST 8-689) writes, in reply to Charles Reiss,
that a theory of phonology that doesn't try to capture perceptual and
articulatory markedness is fundamentally uninteresting. In other
words, I suppose, while substantive universals are interesting, formal
universals aren't very. I do not share this view. I find the search
for formal universals to be very interesting, and the search for
substantive universals to be *phonetics*.

I see no reason to disparage a phonological theory that does not concern
itself with capturing phonetic markedness. Such a theory would indeed say
that phonetically bizarre alternations are *logically* possible. However,
such a theory would not actually predict that real human languages will
exhibit an abundance of phonetically bizarre alternations, since real
human languages must be both decode-able and pronounce-able, in order to
be acquirable by children. This is, I'm sure, what Reiss means when he
writes that it is otiose to offer a grammatical as well as a
perceptual/acquisition-based account of phonological phenomena.
Acquirability considerations, which boil down to decode-ability and
pronounce-ablility, exert selective pressure against a dialect's
developing anything but a phonetically manageable phonological system.
And this is thus how phonetic markedness observations can be accounted for.

Debbie Schmidt
University of Georgia
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Message 2: Re: Question on functionalism

Date: Thu, 8 May 1997 17:59:32 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: Re: Question on functionalism

In the citation below (LINGUIST 8-689), Kirchner seems to claim that
saying 'potato' with an initial [pt] cluster is easier than saying it
with a vowel between the first two stops. Now I am really confused,
since I had assumed that CV syllables were maximally unmarked--they
occur in all languages, etc, etc. Do people really believe that
[pteDo] is easier than [pteDo]? > > > The optimal output for a given
input depends, of course, on the identity of > the input. A [pt]
clusters is presumably more effortful than [t] by > itself, but it's
easier than [p] and [t] with an intervening voiced schwa > (which is
presumably what we're starting from in "potato"), and a fortiori >
easier than with a full vowel like [o], with tongue backing and lip >
rounding, if you believe in phonemic URs. Initial [pt] clusters are >
perceptually indistinct, because if the [p] is unreleased and there is
no > preceding vowel, there are no strong cues to its identity. But
perceptual > distinctness is precisely what's sacrificed in
fast/casual speech, in the > interest of articulatory economy.

Getting back to the "Contrarianistic" approach to phonology discussed
earlier: the question was raised as to why we don't get a lot of
fortitions if, according to the Contrarianist, the speaker likes to exert
effort. A colleague pointed what should have been obvious to me: by
assumption, the Contrarianist also wants to make trouble for, or at least
avoid helping, the hearer.
Fortition would make contrasts TOO perceptually robust. Remember, the
Contrarian agrees with the standard functionalist in assuming "competing
forces". Once again, the results appear to be identical whichever theory
one assumes.
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Message 3: otiosity

Date: Thu, 08 May 1997 19:30:33 -0400
From: Mark Hale <>
Subject: otiosity


>>3) If, as Kirchner discusses, lots of phonetic distributional patterns can
>>be explained on the basis of perceptual robustness, why do we need to
>>build this into the grammar? Contrasts that are hard to hear, are less
>>likely to be acquired. It is otiose to offer a grammatical, as well as a
>>perceptual/acquisition-based account of the same phenomenon.
>No, it's not otiose if you're constructing the theory of grammar directly
>from interaction between these conflicting phonetic factors, acquisitional
>constraints, and the like. What is otiose is a stipulation of the
>grammatical processes that follow from such interactions.

Assume the following factors influencing the acquisition process:

	(1) what is hard to perceive is hard to acquire

	(2) targets which are hard to get your articulators
		to hit are frequently missed (this is, presumably,
		the *definition* of hard-to-hit); learners can't
		distinguish between missed & hit targets (since
		they don't yet know what the targets are)

It seems inevitable that some such factors will have to be recognized by
any coherent theory of phonological acquisition. 

The implications seem obvious: contrasts which depend on cues which
are not robust (or not robust in some context) will frequently be lost
in the acquisition process, those that are not, will less frequently 
be lost (or not at all). Targets which are 'missed' in the production
of output by the sources being used by the acquirer will sometimes be
misacquired. The set of grammars produced by the normal mechanisms of
acquisition -- without the further stipulation of 'conflicting
phonetic factors' *in the grammar* -- will show precisely the features 
the 'functionalists' have advocated in this discussion.

The essential question facing phonology is not what is widely attested
vs. what is rare, but what is computationally tractable vs. computationally
impossible for a human phonological system (i.e., we are trying to develop
a theory of phonological UG). That 'unnatural' systems, with attributes that
in no way follow from the conflicting forces of 'ease of articulation' and
'maintaining contrasts', exist is, I hope, obvious to anyone who has examined
the matter in any reasonable detail. Such 'unnatural' (but computationally 
tractable) systems reveal that the computational system of human phonology is 
*more* than the interaction of these two forces. Since the effects of these 
two forces is already accounted for by any reasonable theory of acquisition, 
they are irrelevant. What is interesting, in my view, is what *else* is 
there in phonological UG -- i.e., what aspects of phonological systems can be 
shown to exist but not follow in a direct way from a 'tabula rasa' model of 
the human mind + a reasonable set of assumptions about acquisition. 
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