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Review of  Change, Chance, and Optimality

Reviewer: Peter K Norquest
Book Title: Change, Chance, and Optimality
Book Author: April McMahon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 12.1590

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McMahon, April. (2000) Change, Chance and Optimality, Oxford
University Press, paperback, x+201 pp., $19.95, ISBN: 0-19-824125-9
(hardback, $60.00, ISBN: 0-19-824124-0).

Peter Norquest, Joint Program in Linguistics and Anthropology,
University of Arizona.

Summary 'Change, Chance and Optimality' centers around, and delivers an
intelligent critique of, Optimality Theory (OT: Prince & Smolensky
1993), a constraint-based theory of phonology which has had a
tremendous impact on the world of formal linguistics throughout the
past decade. This book is comprised of six chapters altogether,
summarized in the following paragraphs.

Chapter one provides a brief history of generative phonology before OT,
in which the primary machinery used in phonological theory were rules,
which were language-specific, descriptive tools and therefore lacked
direct explanatory power. One of the main problems with a rule-based
framework is that rules may be overused, and a way to counter this
problem was to propose constraints on their application. This was a
logical step in light of the fact that outputs, as well as inputs, play
a controlling function in language, as in the case of 'rule
conspiracies' where a number of rules interact in complicated ways to
derive what are ultimately the same surface patterns. Constraints were
ultimately recognized as necessary phonological tools because of their
ability to capture generalizations which were neglected under strictly
rule-based approaches.

OT stands in sharp contrast with rule-based theories due to the fact
that it does away with rules altogether and relies solely on a single
formal object, that of constraints. These constraints are assumed to
be part of an innate Universal Grammar (UG), and their interaction
should therefore be able to result in as well as explain the set of
possible human languages, no more and no less. It is in this way that
OT is arguably superior to a rule-based theory, since it is purely
constraint-based (and therefore more elegant) and appeals to universal
principles of human grammar, nullifying the problem of arbitrary and
language-specific parts of a grammar. However, language-external
factors such as the abilities and limitations of speakers, which can
indeed lead to language-specific developments, are not reconcilable
with a deeply universalist model such as OT, and an attempt to do so
may lead to such attention on the machinery of the theory (such as
expanding the constraint set with constraints of dubious universality)
that its real-world application becomes overlooked. McMahon's central
concern in this book then is that "OT, in attempting to confront the
universal component of phonological behavior, is in danger of failing
to cope with the language-specific part." (p. 10).

The focus of chapter two is upon evidence that many allegedly universal
constraints are in fact language-specific, and that OT cannot function
without the addition of parochial rules or their equivalent. The
chapter begins with an outline of those processes which seem
particularly amenable to OT analyses (prosodic and metrical processes),
and those where OT faces greater challenges and which are better-suited
to rule-based analyses (morpho-phonological interactions, alternation,
opacity, language-specific processes with no clear rationale,
variation, and change). The central question of the chapter is then
raised: are all of the constraints which have been proposed to deal
with these phenomena really universal, violable, and innate? It is
first suggested that there are implicitly two classes of constraints
used in the literature. The first is comprised of the kind which are
indeed violable and rankable. The second is made up of a smaller
number of constraints which are universally undominated, such as NUC
(Prince & Smolensky 1993: 87) which requires syllables to have a
nucleus. McMahon asserts that we must consider accepting the fact that
certain constraints "form a universally undominated class,
characterized precisely by the property of inviolability, which then
itself requires explanation, probably from outside of phonology ...
research on which constraints fall into the inviolable class, and
therefore progress on any unifying factors, is unlikely to take place
so long as OT denies the existence of inviolable constraints" (p. 17).

Attention is then turned to system-specific strategies, and constraints
which are of dubious universality. One constraint of this type is
Prince and Smolensky's 'FREE-V', which is proposed for Lardil and
states that word-final vowels must not be parsed (in the nominative)
(Prince & Smolensky 1993: 101). If all constraints of this kind are
considered to be universal , then the list of constraints will be
extremely long and its organization a Hurculean task. It is noted that
parochial rules outside the constraint system have been reintroduced in
a number of analyses, an example of which is the r-insertion rule of
McCarthy (1993).

Correspondence Theory is examined in light of the fact that it has been
used in a rule-like fashion in some analyses of data which a serial
derivation otherwise renders transparent. Opacity facts in two
languages in particular are examined: Turkish vowel epenthesis and
velar deletion (Kager 1999), and Yawelmani Yokuts vowel lowering
(Archangeli & Suzuki 1997). The latter is examined critically in terms
of the specific kinds of constraints which are proposed to deal with
the data; a disparate correspondence constraint which allows non-
identical elements to correspond (input length and output non-
highness), and an input markedness constraint which determines the
shape of possible inputs, thereby conflicting with Richness of the
Base. The first disparate correspondence constraint is argued to not
only be extremely language-specific, but (in agreement with a statement
in Kager 1999: 381) to stipulate the opaque pattern rather than
explaining it.

McMahon criticizes sympathy theory for similar weaknesses, and argues
that both sympathy theory and Output-Output (OO) correspondence are
representative of an unwanted proliferation of theoretical machinery
within OT, which results from its inability to deal with phenomena such
as opacity which are more easily explicable in a derivational analysis.
In the closing section of chapter two, she points out that a child
acquiring a language will have no direct access to candidates in
tableaux except for the winner, and this poses a problem for sympathy
theory. Focusing upon acquisition under OT, two problems are pointed
out for OT: (1) "[L]exicon optimization is hard to implement for
alternating forms, where two or more outputs correspond to a single
input in classical generative terms ... Irregularities, alternations,
and misacquisition are all problematic for learning theory under OT",
and (2) "successful constraint ranking depends on access to the inputs:
we now discover that postulation of inputs, via lexicon optimization,
depends on a ranked set of constraints to provide the necessary lists
of violations ... the child needs a ranking to get URs and needs URs to
get a ranking" (p. 55). McMahon concedes that acquisition under OT is
difficult to evaluate at present given the indecision about types of
constraints and their interaction.

The main concern of chapter three is with the difficulties that OT
faces in accounting for sound change and residue, as well as variation.
McMahon argues that change should not be ignored by a phonological
theory for the following reasons: (1) if there are meaningful universal
principles, then these should define a space delimiting possible
developments; (2) knowing the history of a system can explain otherwise
opaque aspects of its current state; and (3) it is not always possible
to draw a decisive line between synchrony and diachrony, since there
are process types which operate both as sound changes and in synchronic
phonological alternations.

A chicken-and-egg question is raised which asks which comes first: a
constraint reranking which then motivates a new grammar, or a change in
the grammar which results in the acquisition of a novel constraint
ranking. McMahon favors the latter view, whereby system-external
factors bring about a sound change which is then encoded within a new
ranking; the opposite view leaves us wondering what the motivation
would be for a constraint reranking which only left visible effects in
the grammar after it had already occurred. There is an ensuing
discussion of epenthesis and deletion, metathesis, and chain shifts,
during which various issues are discussed including the possibility
that constraints might be acquired instead of innate, and the fact that
local conjunction represents one more example in the proliferation of
theoretical machinery which is coming to be more of a bane than a boon
to the overall theory.

McMahon argues in the following section that in accounting for a sound
change, universal constraints and constraint ranking alone are not
enough. Although OT accounts of sound change are meant to be
explanatory and not merely descriptive, reference to non-phonological
factors (i.e. phonetic and sociolinguistic) seems necessary, and while
a reranking of constraints certainly results from a sound change,
calling the reranking itself is extremely problematic. Two cases in
particular are used illustratively, that of the Middle English Great
Vowel Shift, and historical segment loss within Korean. The same types
of problems occur as well for cases of variation, where there is an
equal ambiguity of the roles within OT between external and internal
factors which result in synchronic variation.

In the final part of chapter three, McMahon compares OT with two
approaches to historical syntax (Lehmann & Vennemann, and Lightfoot)
and poses the larger question of whether or not change and variation
can be adequately treated in formal models at all. Four different
problems for these kinds of models are posited: (a) the non-
universality of universals, (b) the strength paradox, (c) the chicken
and egg problem, and (d) the external evidence problem. Upon
evaluation, OT fails on the last two, but passes on the first two given
the stipulation that there is a distinction made between universal
constraints and language-specific constraints (or rules). McMahon
warns at last that 'OT seems to be falling into the old Standard
Generative trap of seeing description and explanation as
interchangeable concepts' (p. 128). Chapter four compares OT with two
other systems, one also linguistic (Natural Morphology) and one not
(evolutionary biology). McMahon's goal is to show that when other
models are examined, they do not manage with only one kind of formal
statement; rather, both universal and system-specific mechanisms are
needed. It is therefore potentially more natural and ultimately more
fruitful to expect explanatory power of a theory which uses and
appropriately divides both rules and constraints than one which relies
either only on rules or only on constraints.

In Natural Morphology, explanation is not intended to be theory-
internal, but rather relies on three major principles (iconicity,
uniformity, and transparency) which are motivated by neurobiological
concerns such as perception, processing, or memory limitations. These
three principles are seen as violable, and while language change is
generally expected to take place in the direction of naturalness
(defined by typological considerations), 'unnatural' changes may occur
because of conflicts between the three principles or between different
components of the grammar such as morphology and phonology. Natural
Morphology does not restrict itself to these three universal
principles, however, but also includes system-dependent or language-
specific markedness measures which may come into conflict with the
universal principles. Natural Morphology ultimately recognizes three
levels of statements: (a) a universal set of principles (much like the
putatively inviolable constraints of OT), (b) system-specific
structural properties, and (c) historical accidents which shape systems
but which are outside the remit of the theory.

McMahon discusses a similar situation in Neo-Darwinian evolutionary
biology, where there are also three levels of explanation: (a) a
superordinate set of absolute constraints which arise from the laws of
physics and mathematics, (b) a class of violable constraints, and (c) a
final series of species-specific descriptions. An example of the first
level is the relation of volume and surface area, from which we can
draw exceptionless generalizations and specify certain limitations,
i.e. on skeletal scaling or gas exchange. An example of the second
level is the cross-species correlation between brain-size and body-
weight, for which a generalization can be made to which exceptions may
nevertheless be found. The final level is exemplified by the small
front limbs of a Tyrannosaurus Rex or the trunk of an elephant. In
McMahon's words (p. 147-8), "It would be possible, but essentially
pointless, to propose violable constraints requiring four-leggedness,
or marsupialness, or a constraint against trunks which is incredibly
high-ranking except in elephants; what we really need is just a
recognition that there are some facts we can perfectly adequately
describe, but not explain except in terms of historical contingency ...
Each species will require a degree of independent description in
isolation from the constraints, since it represents the current stage
in a long chain of changes, some of which refine the results of
originally random events."

Chapter five gives the challenge to proponents of an innatist approach
to explain how universal constraints developed in our species by the
mechanisms usually thought to be responsible for the development of
complex systems. McMahon argues that constraints (for example ONSET)
cannot be directly genetically encoded, but there must rather be a
level of genetic instructions which allow or favor the learning of
language systems which conform to particular criteria.

In biological evolution, gradual accumulations of complexity are much
more likely to lead to favorable outcomes than a single great leap,
although that is exactly the idea which has been popularized by Chomsky
and others. One piece of evidence that the evolution of language was a
gradual process is that the parts of the brain which are involved in
perception and production have homologues in other species. It is more
likely that language evolved as a mosaic with individual parts of UG
being introduced over time, although historically 'intermediate' stages
may be irrecoverable.

In terms of how the evolution of language relates specifically to OT,
the question is posed as to whether the constraint set is fixed or
flexible; the former case would have most likely resulted from a
macromutation which is unlikely from an evolutionary point of view, but
on the latter view novel constraints may have the option of developing
and becoming innate via genetic assimilation. The only other
alternative to these two possibilities is that there is a subset of
universal constraints which have developed under selective pressure,
and an additional set of rules or language-specific (and therefore
learned) constraints which are not innate. '[I]n animals, as in
languages, we face the conclusion that things could be otherwise: we
must describe them as they are; explain them when we can; and try to
develop a nose for the difference' (p. 176).

The final chapter takes up the theme that 'things could be otherwise.'
McMahon argues that the properties of language or of organisms in
general could have evolved differently, and constraints hypothesized by
the theorist to circumscribe only the variation currently attested are
themselves shaped by contingency. Explanation for phonological
phenomena must therefore ultimately include theory-external explanation
from such areas as phonetics and neurolinguistics.

In discussing the future of OT on the final page of her book, McMahon
argues that the first and most important task for the model must be a
full assessment of the universality of constraints and a decision as to
whether there is an initial subdivision between truly inviolable and
violable constraints, and the question posed whether the latter
category includes language-specific constraints. It must then be
decided if some of these should be rather seen as rules instead of
constraints, and if so, what the nature is of the interaction between
constraints and rules. If a model including both constraints and rules
indeed ends up being superior to one which only uses constraints, then
it will have to be decided if it is better to place the constraints on
well-formedness, or otherwise on rule-application.


'Change, Chance and Optimality' is an extremely welcome evaluation and
critique of OT. It deals with this extremely important and influential
theory in a very fair and even-handed way, and does a good job of
addressing both internal and external issues which are directly
relevant to the efficacy of OT. The treatment of what are widely
recognized problem spots for OT, such as opacity and degrees of
constraint universality, is clear and straightforward.

The most important part of the book is perhaps the contextualization of
OT in relation to other complex systems within the natural world, and
the poignant observation that scientific treatment of these systems
does not procede in the most profitable way by the postulation of only
a single formal object, but rather through the recognition that there
are various systems interacting with each other and that what we
observe today is a result of both the history of and the current
manifestations of these interactions. The research agenda which is
offered at the end of the book is one which must certainly be
confronted by phonologists, as the failure to do so will leave huge
gaps in the attempt to work toward a phonological theory which is
maximally explanatory and predictive.

The only disappointing part of her book is the fact that there is not
more concrete examples or case-studies of how constraints and rules
might be integrated into the kind of model which McMahon ultimately
argues for throughout and especially at the end. This is not an
extreme fault, since such an undertaking could very easily be a
monograph-sized endeavor; however, I hope that we have not heard the
last word from McMahon on the topic of OT and that the future will see
more from her on the instantiation of rules and constraints in a
unified phonological theory. In the meantime, the reader has been
given much to consider and to guide them in the world of phonological


Archangeli, Diana & Keiichiro Suzuki (1997). 'The Yokuts challenge',
in Iggy Roca (ed.), Derivations and Constraints in Phonology. Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 197-226.

Kager, Rene (1999). Optimality Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

McCarthy, John (1993). 'A case of surface constraint violation.'
Canadian Journal of Linguistics, 38: 169-95.

Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint
Interaction in Generative Grammar. Manuscript, Rutgers
University/University of Colorado at Boulder.

Reviewer's Biographical Sketch I am a PhD student in the Joint Program
in Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. My
research interests include historical phonology with an emphasis in
East Asia (Altaic, Sino-Tibetan and Kadai) and on Athabaskan, and the
phonetic groundedness of sound change. My ultimate goal is to establish
a more explanatory and predictive model of sound change which
integrates typological data with phonetic facts. I hope to follow a
career path which allows me to continue research in these areas as well
be an active part of the linguistics community.


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