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Review of  Lexical Phonology and the History of English

Reviewer: Peter K Norquest
Book Title: Lexical Phonology and the History of English
Book Author: April McMahon
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 12.2818

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McMahon, April (2000) Lexical Phonology and the History of English.
Cambridge University Press, xi+309 pp., hardback ISBN 0-521-47280-6,
Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 91.

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

[Another review of this book is posted at --Eds.]

Lexical Phonology and the history of English (LPHE) provides a critical
examination of English phonology in view of diachronic data, phonetic
facts and dialect variation, within the framework of Lexical Phonology
(LP). Chapter one introduces the author's position on diachrony,
namely that the past can, and should, be used to inform us about the
present, and vice versa. Directly related to this is the fact that in
Standard Generative Phonology (SGP), sound changes are equated with
synchronic phonological rules, which is viewed as a crucial theoretical
mistake. The main goals of LPHE include providing a discussion of
'external' evidence such as historical data, emphasizing the fact that
the sound changes which lead to changes in a language are sometimes
very different than the synchronic rules which encode these changes.
It is argued that synchronic facts which seem arbitrary are actually
amenable to analysis when the historical facts of the language are
taken into account.

A second goal of the book is to examine dialectal variation and
ultimately reject the identity hypothesis, which holds that underlying
representations are the same for all dialects of a language. This
highlights another problem within SGP, in which there is a general
preference for derivation over storage in the analysis of surface
forms, a fact which McMahon points out that there is no concrete
psycholinguistic evidence. This preference results in underlying
representations which are often very remote from their corresponding
surface forms, and complicates the problem of learnability.

A third goal, closely related to the one above, is the synchronic
problem of abstractness. This relates to a common practice in SGP to
evaluate grammars on the basis of maximal simplicity, often leading to
the use of some form of underspecification. The end result is that
underlying representations are often forms which are never realized on
the surface, and ignores evidence at the phonemic level which should
otherwise be crucial to a new language learner who is constructing a

McMahon chooses LP as a theoretical framework for her discussion
throughout the rest of the book. LP, a generative and derivational
model of phonology and morphology, consists of two components: the
lexical level and the postlexical level; these are differentiated by
having different properties as well as different constraints which act
upon them. The main goals for LP in LPHE are to constrain it in such a
way that the problem of synchronic abstractness is nullified. In order
to do this, McMahon lays down a number of theoretical ground-rules,
including the prohibition of derivation in non-alternating morphemes
(i.e. the surface form equals the underlying representation in such
cases), a rejection of the identity hypothesis on dialect variation,
and the exclusion of underspecification from the theoretical arsenal.
The first chapter concludes with an overview of two alternative
frameworks, Government Phonology and Optimality Theory.

The second chapter is devoted to a discussion on how to constrain the
model of LP. Beginning with an overview first of morphology and then
of phonology within LP, the following section offers a critique of the
version of LP used in Halle & Mohanan (1985). The central part of the
chapter deals with five current controversies within LP. The first of
these is the distinction between the lexical and postlexical rules,
which McMahon argues may not be rigid. The second is the interaction
between morphology and phonology, and how these are to be integrated
into the model. The third is the issue of stratification within the
lexicon, divided into questions about the domain of rule application on
the one hand, and the appropriate number of lexical levels on the
other; McMahon argues for merely two. The fourth controversy is about
the formulation and interrelations of major constraints within LP; the
fifth regards the question of the nature and necessity of

Important constraints upon LP which emerge at the end of the second
chapter are that the Derived Environment Condition limits level 1 rules
to derived environments, that lexical rules are limited to level 1
whenever possible, and that the underlying representation of a lexical
item will be equal to the underived member in an alternation as it
appears on the surface.

Chapter 3 offers an example of constraining application, using the
Modern English Vowel Shift Rule as a case study. The introduction
focuses on the assertion that synchronic rules are not the same as the
historical changes which resulted in them, despite the common practice
which treats them in an identical theoretic fashion. This was one of
the major pitfalls of the precedent set by the Sound Pattern of English
(SPE, Chomsky & Halle 1968), in which vowels are posited underlyingly
which never actually surface, and there are cases of absolute
neutralization leading to a learnability paradox. McMahon goes on to
divide the vowel shift rule into two distinct rules, one operating on
long vowels and the other on short ones, while arguing for the
underlying presence of diphthongs and an alternative analysis of [ju],
both contra SPE. In a discussion of English strong verbs, it is
contended that a robust subclass which became irregular more recently
may be derived, while other groups of strong verbs are actually
allomorphic and are used via a process of storage and linking.

A constrained LP is compared with SGP at the end of the chapter, and
differs from it in that (a) the strict imposition of constraints on LP
prohibits a maximally simple phonology; (b) synchronic rules and
diachronic sound changes need not be the same; and (c) different
dialects may have different underlying representations and phoneme
inventories, contra the identity hypothesis.

The relationship between synchrony and diachrony is treated in more
detail in chapter four, this time using the Scottish Vowel Length Rule
(SVLR) as a case study. The SVLR is the name of a relatively early
phenomena which affected Scots dialects and Scottish Standard English
(SSE), neutralizing the historical vowel length distinction. Although
there have been arguments that the SVLR is not exclusively Scottish,
McMahon offers a convincing argument that they are the result of a
misunderstanding based on the conflation of the SVLR and a pandialectal
rule of low-level lengthening (LLL), which affects vowels before all
voiced consonants. An early form of LLL is argues to have contributed
to SVLR, where long vowels shortened everywhere except before voiced
fricatives and /r/, and short vowels with tense sources lengthened in
the same environment, neutralizing the vowel length distinction. SVLR
is different from modern LLL in that the environment of operation is
slightly different, SVLR is binary and sensitive to morphology where
LLL is scalar and utterance- (not word-) final, and SVLR is therefore
lexical, where LLL is postlexical. The history of the SVLR is offered
as one model for the life-cycle of a sound change to phonological rule,
moving gradually from a low-level phonetic effect to a postlexical rule
and finally to a lexical rule.

Chapter five addresses dialect differentiation within LP and the
'unwelcome effects of underspecification.' Using the distinction
between SSE and RP English as an example, McMahon argues that there is
no principled reason for wanting to derive surface forms in these
dialects from a common set of underlying representations, except for
the sheer desire to do so. She also rejects the idea that there is
some qualitative difference between the notion of different dialects
and different languages, the former merely representing a smaller
accumulation of changes than the latter. In an ensuing critique of
underspecification, which is used when there is an emphasis on
computation over storage and on maximal economy of the grammar, three
main problem areas emerge: learnability, predictions made by
underspecification (i.e. that 'underspecified' segments should not
pattern with 'specified' segments), and inhibition of cross-system

Chapter six concludes LPHE with a focus on /r/. Various English
dialects are examined and compared in accordance with their treatment
of /r/, and McMahon offers an account of the development from /r/-
Deletion to /r/-Insertion, before examining a variety of other analyses
in the literature. The interaction between /r/ and various cross-
sections of the English vowel inventory which cannot be grouped into
natural classes allow the author to demonstrate how historically-
explicable changes result in seemingly arbitrary synchronic situations
which can only be analyzed in view of these changes. Historical /r/-
lenition is then analyzed within the framework of Articulatory
Phonology (Browman & Goldstein 1986), and McMahon suggests the ultimate
incorporation of Articulatory Phonology into LP.

The merits of LPHE are many, and the book addresses several of the core
controversies within current phonological theory. The main
contributions, which correspond to the goals laid out in the first
chapter, are the relation between historical facts and synchronic rules
and representations, the critique of the identity hypothesis and
dialects, and the discussion of the unwelcome effects introduced by any
theory which relies on underspecification. The introduction of
Articulatory Phonology into LP is particularly welcome, and
Articulatory Phonology could conceivably be utilized within
phonological frameworks other than LP with equally positive results.
McMahon is meticulous in her discussion of historical phenomena such as
the VSR and Scots and SSE dialect differentiation without being overly
opaque. There are no significant problems with the book in my
estimation, with the caveat that although there is an overview of LP
provided early on, the reader will benefit immensely from having
studied the model of LP in the primary sources before tackling LPHE.
This is especially recommended for readers who have not had much (or
any) formal training in LP to provide them a general background in the
model which is indispensable for getting the most possible out of this

The implications of LPHE for the field of phonology are considerable,
and it would be good to see the questions about the identity hypothesis
on dialects or underspecification addressed in alternate theories of
phonology, such as Optimality Theory or Government Phonology in which
they should be equally relevant. The issue of the relationship between
historical change and synchronic patterns is one which is long overdue
for special attention in all theories of phonology (and other subfields
such as syntax, for that matter), and I hope that other linguists will
be inspired by McMahon's treatment of the cases in LPHE to examine data
in other languages from this perspective.

Browman, Catherine P. & Louis Goldstein (1986) 'Towards an
articulatory phonology.' Phonology Yearbook 3: 219-52.

Chomsky, Noam & Morris Halle (1968) The Sound Pattern of English. New
York, Harper & Row.

Halle, Morris & K. P. Mohanan (1985) 'Segmental phonology of modern
English'. Linguistic Inquiry 16: 57-116.

I am a graduate student in the Joint Program in Linguistics and
Anthropology at the University of Arizona. I am interested in
historical phonology, with a regional focus on East and Southeast Asia
as well as the North American Pacific coast. Most recently I have been
interested in stress-to-weight effects on diachronic prosodic
restructuring. I am planning to do field research in the near future
on Chamic and Kadai languages on the island of Hainan, and to
incorporate this data into my forthcoming dissertation. I hope to
ultimately find a position within academia where I can continue to
pursue research in these areas.


Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0521472806
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 322
Prices: U.S. $ 65.00
U.K. £ 45.00