LINGUIST List 8.732

Thu May 15 1997

Disc: Functionalism

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. benji wald, Re: 8.703, Disc: Functionalism

Message 1: Re: 8.703, Disc: Functionalism

Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 00:02:56 -0700 (PDT)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.703, Disc: Functionalism

I've been following the discussion of "functionalism" (I think
it came out of a discussion of "optimality theory") with some
interest, though, to be frank, not reading with complete
understanding. To make up for that, I haven't taken sides, but
am trying to understand at what level claims made in phonology
have phonetic consequences that are "universal", and to what
extent they reflect differences in phonetic organisation from
one language to another. Whatever what I just said means,
here's something that I think is relevant.

>an initial [pt] target ... For Natural Phonology,
>the fortitive epenthesis gives rise to the 'intuition' that you can't
>have initial /pt/ clusters.

In discussion now these have been called, as above, /pt/
clusters (English "*pot*ato" with a "reduced vowel"). I don't
get it. To me, an "English" (if not universal) initial
"cluster" only *releases* the last consonant of the cluster
(cf. the "p" in the non-initial /pt/ "cluster", as in "aptitude"
is not released). But the /p/ is released in "potato" -- or
does someone claim otherwise? In a "real" English cluster, like
/st/, not only is nothing but the final consonant released, but
there is no delay in onset of vowel voicing following it, e.g.,
in "stay" (i.e., there is no what used to be called "aspiration"
of the consonant before the stressed vowel). In /pt/ato, the t
release does lead into delayed vowel voicing, as it should for a
SINGLE consonant before a stressed vowel. So talking about a
"cluster" seems to be loose talk, and I can't tell if that is
leading to a pointless discussion expressed in the following
apparent paradox:

>The fact that you can't pronounce the cluster in no way means that the
>cluster is banned as a side-effect in the pronunciation of some other
>phonetic target.

This was followed by the statement:

>Traditional phonological theory captures constraints
>of this sort as static 'phonotactic' conditions on clustering, not as
>behavioral constraints on linguistic articulation.

Indeed, and we find that most (?) English speakers treat the
/kn/ in "knish" like the /pot/ (NOT /pt/) in "potato", and say
"knish". They don't say, e.g., /a-knish/, putting an
anaptyctic vowel in front, as if they associated the initial
/kn/ cluster with medial /kn/ as in "acne". With respect to
this, we note that Spanish speakers learning English do tend to
supply an anaptyctic vowel to pronounce "stay" as "e-stay".
Meanwhile, Swahili speakers take Arabic loans like stahili
"deserve" and English stimu "steam" and converts the /st/
clusters into /sit/, an extra syllable, where the vowel tends to
be voiceless, a common Swahili phonological process for as vowel
to undergo in between two voiceless consonants (and also between
a voiceless consonant and pause). Devoicing of vowels in
certain contexts seems to be as "natural" as voicing consonants
between vowels, leading to a contradiction for a theory which
thinks it has to choose between C -> voiced /V_V and V ->
voiceless /C_C (where both C's are voiceless). Incidentally,
(Classical) Arabic seems to have the "Spanish" solution to
initial /st/ clusters inasmuch as a predictable vowel is
preposed i-stah.a:l (< stah.a:l "deserve"). Unlike "real"
vowels this vowel is truly initial, not preceded by a glottal
stop, as both orthography and morphophonemics show.

So, without taking sides, I wonder on what level of abstractness
this discussion of natural or universal phonology is taking
place, and how differences among languages arte accounted for.
I also wonder what "cluster" means to those who consider
"potato" to have an initial cluster in allegro spoken English.
- Benji
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