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Review of  Onsets

Reviewer: Christoper R. Green
Book Title: Onsets
Book Author: Nina Topintzi
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Issue Number: 22.224

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AUTHOR: Nina Topintzi
TITLE: Onsets
SUBTITLE: Suprasegmental and Prosodic Behaviour
SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 125
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2010

Christopher R. Green, Department of Linguistics, Indiana University


This book is a revised and extended version of Topintzi's 2006 thesis from
University College London. The work offers an extensive presentation of a
historically controversial topic, namely the moraicity of segments located in
the onset position of a syllable. Topintzi provides a compelling argument in
favor of the presence of two types of moraic onsets (underlying and coerced)
that places all syllable constituents on equal standing regarding their ability
to associate with a mora. The just-noted language-specific differences in these
properties are attributed to the ranking of optimality theoretic constraints on
onset markedness. The author presents typological evidence drawn from a diverse
set of languages in support of her claim that moraic onsets clearly exist in the
languages of the world but have been glossed over for theoretical reasons by
many phonologists. Phenomena such as compensatory lengthening, stress,
gemination, and word minimality effects are discussed, among others. Topintzi's
new theory acts as an extension of standard Hayesian (1989) moraic theory by
admitting moraic onsets; however it still retains the ability to distinguish
between languages that have them and those that do not.


Chapter 1 presents Topintzi's theory of onset moraicity by reviewing the failure
of other theories of syllable and moraic structure to entertain an account of
languages and phenomena in which onset weight can be implicated. The initial
focus is on stress, for which she presents a typology of languages where either
the quality of an onset, the presence of an onset, or both can be responsible
for stress patterning. Throughout the book, onset moraicity is framed alongside
coda moraicity, more specifically in regards to the fact that the presence vs.
absence of coda moraicity is a language-specific feature that, seldom
challenged, can be either an underlying or coerced characteristic. Along these
same lines, the author argues that onset moras can also be distinctive and
supplied underlyingly (i.e. true geminates) or similarly coerced or induced by
constraint. The latter situation is introduced in this chapter in terms of the
ranking of three key markedness constraints, and most importantly *μ/Ons/[+voi]
>> Be Moraic >> *μ/Ons, which becomes the focus of discussion in Chapter 2. Via
this ranking, onset-sensitive stress can be discussed in languages where either
the quality of the onset (QO, e.g. Karo), the presence of the onset (PO, e.g.
Aranda), or both (e.g. Pirahã) come into play in stress assignment patterns.
The necessity of this ranking is clearest in QO languages, where the author
argues that [-voice] sounds make the best moraic onsets. Sonorant onsets can be
moraic onsets depending on their specification in a given language for the
feature [voice]. This particular onset phenomenon differs markedly from the
analogous situation in codas where sonority, rather than voice, is most closely
linked to moraicity. PO languages are discussed in terms of stress-on-onset vs.
onset-on-stress systems where, simply put, onsetless syllables in stressed
positions acquire onsets and stress falls on a specific syllable unless it is
onsetless, respectively. Languages like Pirahã utilize a combination of
characteristics for weight (e.g. length, onset presence, and voicing) and
necessitate a slightly different analysis. Overall, the author argues that
certain languages have the ability to alter their prosodic and/or structural
characteristics in response to the requirements of stress assignment. Moreover,
the languages illustrated do so based upon the characteristics of syllable onsets.

Topintzi, in Chapter 3, next targets onsets as either the trigger or target of
various instances of compensatory lengthening. A key point of this chapter is
the author's proposal that noted onset-related compensatory lengthening
phenomena require that this process must not be viewed as one that acts to
preserve moras, but rather one that preserves positions, whether segmental or
prosodic. This point is motivated via the proposal of a cover constraint,
Position Correspondence (PosCorr), that acts like other Identity(I-O)
constraints in demanding faithfulness to a given position, whether via the
preservation of a root node or a mora. Furthermore, in this chapter, Topintzi
presents her argument that onset moraicity is a property evaluated on a
language-specific basis, just as has come to be accepted for coda moraicity. A
language's ranking of PosCorr among others markedness constraints, and
critically above a P-Dep-μ constraint (i.e. do not insert a non-positional
mora-licenser), motivates deletion either with or without compensatory
lengthening. By introducing several additional highly-ranked and powerful
constraints, Topintzi is able to formalize noted outcomes in certain languages,
particularly Samothraki Greek. She then problematizes the idea of compensatory
lengthening (CL) as mora preservation, as argued for in Hayes (1989), as well as
Kavitskaya's (2002) phonetic account of the process. Topintzi discusses the
inherent issue encountered in a Hayesian CL analysis, specifically that
proposing the assignment of a mora via Weight by Position, as Hayes does,
necessitates either seriality of derivation (an idea not supported in classic
Optimality Theory) or the assignment of an underlying mora (a violation of
Richness of the Base (Prince & Smolensky 1993/2004)). Topintzi's account of CL,
however, penalizes position loss without reference to the underlying moraic
representation of a given word. A complicating factor to her analysis is the
introduction of a variety of other powerful constraints to motivate certain
other types of CL noted in the languages of the world.

An exceptionally interesting portion of this book is Chapter 4 in which Topintzi
discusses the role of onset moraicity in meeting word minimality requirements,
specifically in Bella Coola (e.g. Bagemihl 1991). The author explains that
Bella Coola represents a unique instance in which the ranking of Be Moraic is
promoted, given the ability in this language for any consonant to be a moraic
onset, i.e. Be Moraic >> *μ/Ons/[+voi] >> *μ/Ons. This unique quality, however,
is only witnessed in CV syllables where this constraint ranking, alongside
others demanding such attributes as minimal bimoraicity but militating against
segment insertion, compel onsets to either gain or retain their moraicity.
Furthermore, these requirements and their relationship to restrictions on word
maximality (via Root-Max) and a relatively high-ranked MParse (e.g. Prince &
Smolensky 1993/2004) place tight bounds on the overall process.

Chapter 5 focuses on the information that geminates and gemination can supply in
support of onset moraicity. In this chapter, Topintzi focuses on underlying or
'true' geminates, i.e. the idea that underlyingly moraic consonants can surface
as geminates in both onset and coda positions. The author argues that the
well-known 'flopped' geminate structure in which a geminate consonant is
syllabified as part of both a moraic coda and a non-moraic onset is inadequate
and rather ill-informed. Furthermore, she takes as an issue the fact that
duration is not necessarily a phonetic correlate of geminates, but rather that
often the increased length of geminates results only from syllabification.
Drawing evidence from Pattani Malay, Topintzi presents a case in which a
regularized pattern of final stress is altered in words containing an initial
geminate consonant, suggesting therefore that the initial geminate carries
weight, renders its syllable heavy, and attracts stress. Initial geminates,
thus, act as moraic onsets. Topintzi next takes up the case of Trukese,
described in more detail by Davis & Torretta (1998), to illustrate the
interaction between word minimality and compensatory lengthening. In Trukese, a
bimoraic word minimality condition can be satisfied by either a long vowel or an
initial geminate, and furthermore, additional processes that delete a mora (and
thereby yield a potential word minimality violation) can be compensated for (in
some instances) via the creation of an onset geminate. What is key in this
chapter is that underlying moraic consonants that are syllabified as onsets can
participate in the same phonological processes as their coerced counterparts
discussed earlier. Topintzi also explores the properties of word-medial
geminates to illustrate that they, too, can function as onsets, rather than
being contained in a 'flopped' structure. This argument is shown most
convincingly for Marshallese. In this language, word-final closed syllables are
not heavy, but otherwise heavy syllables attract stress. Words containing a
final syllable with an initial geminate attract stress. The phenomenon is
striking in that word-final geminate syllables are able to attract stress to the
exclusion of potentially stress-bearing syllables earlier in the word. Thus,
this presents an argument for the representation of moraic geminate onsets and
against 'flopped' structure.

Chapter 6 departs somewhat from Topintzi's overall direction of argumentation in
that it introduces a number of inconclusive cases of moraic onsets, as well as
languages in which she believes onset moraicity has been incorrectly or perhaps
carelessly proposed. She also considers additional phenomena that are more
problematically discussed in terms of the role of onset weight, among them tone,
reduplication, and certain other metrical features. Notably, Topintzi offers
provocative discussion on the rarity of onset moraicity which she frames in
terms of the general rarity of onset deletion processes and the conflicting
demands of tone and moraicity on particular types of segments that can
potentially be found in onsets.


Taking a step back, it would have been perhaps worthwhile to start this book by
first reading the final chapter of conclusion and discussion before attempting
to delve into the extensively detailed and formal analysis offered in the core
chapters of the work. This is because it is in the final chapter that Topintzi
makes her most compelling and transparent statement of the facts and phenomena
upon which her theory so explicitly relies. By reading this chapter first, the
intricate facts and progression of the author's argument would more readily have
fallen into place. While the first chapter of the book surely offers the reader
an overview of moraic theory and necessary preliminaries on onset moraicity and
weight, it rather quickly delves into an intricate presentation of data and an
even more detailed introduction to several relatively unusual optimality
theoretic constraints whose ranking and roles require some thoughtful reflection
and understanding on behalf of the uninitiated reader. Furthermore, I venture
to guess that those who have had only basic or introductory exposure to
optimality theoretic analysis and argumentation would not have much luck
tackling such a book (or even a chapter of it), as Topintzi's keen, thoughtful,
and rather elegant analyses are full of subtleties that likely fall beyond the
familiarity of many readers. Overall, Topintzi's work is thought-provoking and
her presentation of typological data in favor of onset moraicity quite intriguing.

This is not to say, however, that it does not appear to have a few minor but
important analytical shortcomings. Briefly among these is Topintzi’s attempt to
account for the seemingly exceptional behavior of Karo stress. While Topintzi
understandably argues against alternate analyses for various phenomena, her
argument against Gabas (1999) on the subject of Karo does not resolve the
analytical dilemma, but instead problematizes the presented alternative analyses
by turning focus to the proposition that her reanalysis is ''more promising'' and
''more advantageous''. More specifically, while Topintzi’s analysis appears to
account for a handful of exceptional cases that defy Gabas’ anticipated stress
shift, her analysis fails to account for other problematic cases. In order to
address such recalcitrant data, Topintzi lays blame to unidentified (i.e.
presumably mistranscribed) H tone and nasalization in such instances where her
analysis unfortunately falls short. Blumenfeld's (2006) analysis of this
language is similarly deemed by the author to be ''less economical''. In this and
several other instances, the author's stance against previous work is quite
strong. Also somewhat problematic is her frequent use of optimality theoretic
cover constraints that act (whether intentionally or not) like phonological
rules and have the effect of overlooking or overshadowing the intricacies that
they entail, a practice reminiscent of what she argues against in this book
concerning the state of knowledge on moraic onsets. These minor criticisms,
however, do not detract in any significant way from the overall contribution of
Topintzi's work. Indeed, the subject of onset moraicity is one about which
relatively few phonologists are aware and one which perhaps even more
phonologists are likely to gloss over or conversely to ignore in the face of
better known moraic principles (or generalizations) offered in earlier work.
The facts presented and principles challenged should provide a true 'reality
check' when it comes to ideas such as the prosodic inertness of onsets that
phonologists perhaps too often take for granted.


Bagemihl, Bruce (1991) Syllable structure in Bella Coola. Linguistic Inquiry 22:

Blumenfeld, Lev (2006) Constraints on phonological interaction. Doctoral
dissertation, Stanford University.

Davis, Stuart & Gina Torretta (1998) An optimality-theoretic account of
compensatory lengthening and geminate throwback in Trukese. NELS 28: 111-125.

Gabas Jr., Nelson (1999) A grammar of Karo (Tupi). Doctoral dissertation,
University of California, Santa Barbara.

Hayes, Bruce (1989) Compensatory lengthening in moraic phonology. Linguistic
Inquiry 20: 253-306.

Kavitskaya, Darya (2002) Compensatory lengthening: Phonetics, phonology,
diachrony. New York and London: Routledge.

Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky (1993/2004) Optimality Theory: Constraint
interaction in generative grammar. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Topintzi, Nina (2006) Moraic onsets. Doctoral dissertation, UCL.

Christopher Green (Ph.D., Indiana University) is a Research Scientist at the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language. His work focuses on prosodic phonology, and more specifically on syllabic and moraic theory and tone in African languages, with a specialization in the Mande sub-family. Green’s research aims to highlight the descriptive and theoretical merits of exploring understudied and underdocumented languages through firsthand field linguistics. Chris’s dissertation, 'Prosodic phonology in Bamana (Bambara): Syllable complexity, metrical structure, and tone', explores the phonological changes apparent in an emergent variety of Bamana spoken in Bamako, Mali, and frames segmental and tonal processes underway in the language in reference to prosodic structure above the level of the syllable.

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