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Review of  Lenition and Contrast

Reviewer: Chiara Frigeni
Book Title: Lenition and Contrast
Book Author: Naomi Gurevich
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Phonetics
Issue Number: 17.105

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Date: Sun, 1 Jan 2006 16:51:31 -0500 (EST)
From: Chiara Frigeni
Subject: Lenition and Contrast

AUTHOR: Gurevich, Naomi
TITLE: Lenition and Contrast
SUBTITLE: The Functional Consequences of Certain Phonetically
Conditioned Sound Changes
SERIES: Outstanding Dissertations in Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2004

Chiara Frigeni, University of Toronto

In this book, Gurevich's dissertation, Gurevich explores the role of
contrast preservation in phonetically based sound changes such as
consonant weakening. The inspection of 230 such phonetic processes
in 153 languages reveals the ''overwhelming tendency for these
phenomena [92%] to avoid neutralization'' of contrast, thus suggesting
that phonetically conditioned sound changes ''do not operate
independently of functional considerations.'' (p. 3)

While in the introductory chapter the maintenance of contrast is
referred to in purely functionalist terms, in the final discussion that
follows the survey this same concept is captured in more grammar-
internal terms: ''it appears that systems of contrast in languages exert
a gradual diachronic force over phonetic processes, a force which
plays a prominent role in shaping phonological systems.'' (p. 280) It
appears that by the end of the cross-linguistic investigation,
*maintenance of contrast* is rather the trace left over time by the
constraining power of phonology over sound changes driven by extra-
grammatical sources. In this respect, Gurevich makes an important
contribution to the long-standing debate about the ambiguous nature
of sound changes, both exception-less and structure-dependent
(Kiparsky 1995), a debate recently revitalized by the Evolutionary
Phonology project (Blevins and Garrett 1998, 2004 and Blevins 2004).

The set of languages on which Gurevich bases her survey of
phonetically driven processes roughly corresponds to Kirchner's 1998
[2001] database, which, in turn, is partially based on Lavoie's 1996
[2001] one. In their works, both Kirchner and Lavoie aim at a unitary
approach at the different processes that have been categorized under
the rubric of lenition. Kirchner seeks this unity in the phonetic source
of the sound change. Lavoie assesses three models of weakening -
lenition as (i) an increase in sonority, (ii) a decrease in effort, and (iii)
a decrease in duration and magnitude of gesture - through the
phonetic analysis of weakening phenomena in American English and
Mexican Spanish and concludes that all three of them are needed in
order to account for the wide range of facts recorded. Gurevich, on
the other hand, turns her focus to the consequences of weakening
processes for the grammar. The same database developed by Lavoie
and Kirchner is examined through the question of whether lenition
processes neutralize lexical contrast or not. While an answer to this
question, either positive or negative, has often been assumed, the
question itself has been hardly asked. In this respect, Gurevich's
systematic investigation is most welcome and represents a solid
reference book.


In Chapter 1, ''Introduction'', Gurevich briefly reviews some work which
points to the relevance of functional issues such as the maintenance
of contrast in constraining phonetically driven consonant weakening.
The functionalist approaches she directly refers to include those of
Jacobs and Wetzels 1988, Jacobs 1994, Hualde 2000, and Silverman
2000. Gurevich reinforces this position by anticipating the results of
her own cross-linguistic survey, i.e. 92% of lenition processes involve
contrast neutralization avoidance, further discussed in Chapter 2. The
functionalist perspective supported by Gurevich's findings is here
contrasted with the conclusions from Hyman's 1999 and Kirchner's
1998 studies, as well as with the implications of markedness-based

Within a Bantu perspective, Hyman 1999 warns that the role of
contrast maintenance in constraining lenition and fortition outputs
cannot be overestimated, as for every language that maintains
contrast in lenition, there is another one that neutralizes it. In contrast
with Gurevich, Kirchner and others who propose markedness-based
theories do not explicitly ask whether lenition processes cause
contrast neutralization or not. They assume that such processes are
neutralizing as a consequence of theory-internal reasons (violation of
faithfulness constraints on the one hand and reduction to the
unmarked on the other hand). Kirchner explores the relation between
lenition and contrast only peripherally in his examination of the
relationship between the articulatory-grounded markedness constraint
LAZY which induces weakening and language-specific faithfulness
constraints (i.e. encoding underlying contrast). Markedness-based
theories relate lenition and context-dependent contrast neutralization
in so far as both processes are modeled to result in less marked or
unmarked structure.

The chapter further foregrounds the distinction between phonetic
(context-dependent) and phonological (context-independent or
absolute) neutralization, for this distinction is crucial to Gurevich's
assessment of the outputs of sound changes. Her systematic survey
reveals in fact that the phonetic neutralization attained through
consonantal weakening does not necessarily imply phonological
neutralization, i.e. obliteration of lexical contrast. The relevant
typology of neutralization is outlined and discussed in Chapter 2.
A description of the structure of the book concludes chapter 1.

Chapter 2, ''Investigation of Phonetically Conditioned Sound
Changes'', outlines the methods, and presents and discusses the
results of the cross-linguistic survey. This is the core chapter of the
dissertation and deserves attentive reading.

The methodological section clarifies the use of the sources as well as
the schema followed in the language analyses. Gurevich directly
consults the same grammar sources used by Kirchner and Lavoie in
their studies, implementing the information with further language
descriptions when needed. She refers to the primary sources as
faithfully as possible and omits all the pieces of information that
appear to be partial or inconsistent. Each identified process is filed
according to the following parameters: general information about the
language and its affiliation precede the outline of the sound
inventories (phonetic and phonemic wherever is possible) and a
categorization of the process in descriptive terms (spirantization,
voicing, etc.) as well as in functional terms (contrast
neutralization/maintenance). In particular, this functional
categorization of the process makes reference to four classes: *not
neutralizing* - ''processes that do not result in phonological
neutralization of any contrast''; *limited neutralization* - ''processes
that result in the phonological neutralization of a contrast, but its effect
is so minor that it could not significantly affect communication'';
*incomplete neutralization*--''processes that result in phonological
neutralization which is limited in some respect'' (limited to certain
contexts, mainly); and *neutralization*--''processes that result in
complete phonological neutralization.'' (pp. 19-20) This latter and most
crucial classification is discussed in detail in the language files which
form the bulk of the book. Each file is closed by comments on trends in
the grammar of the language, especially phonetic neutralizations, and
notes on differences between the proposed classification and
Kirchner's one.

The author recognizes the challenge of categorizing a process as
either neutralizing or not. Gurevich points out that the kind of
information needed for assessing presence/absence of homophony is
often missing in traditional descriptive grammars. The important
information comprises lists of minimal pairs and information on
functional load of oppositions, clear descriptions of phonotactics and
contrast displacements, as well as results of instrumental studies.
Thus, ''none of the cases classified as neutralizing in the corpus can
be conclusively established as obliterating lexical distinctions to the
point of hindering communication.'' (p. 20) ''However, for the sake of
the statistical analysis in the present study I rely wholly on available
information and equate all cases of *potential* phonological
neutralization with *actual* neutralization.'' (p.23) [emphasis by

The chapter further introduces and discusses the results of the survey
of languages. Firstly, the results are presented in overall terms
together with their statistical significance: 212 of 230 processes are
not neutralizing (92%) while the remaining 18 (8%) are. Neither the
size or the nature of the sample are shown to invalidate these
numbers. A fine-grained picture is also provided through the
distribution of neutralizing and not-neutralizing effects by process
type. Gurevich also considers the nature of the neutralizing processes
versus the non-neutralizing ones. In the former case, the number of
tokens is too small and lacks cross-linguistic significance; they are in
fact all Slavic voicing assimilation processes. The author avoids
overgeneralizations and points to the statistical significance of the
neutralizing context, which is pre-consonantal. This seems to back up
perceptually-driven models of neutralization (Steriade 1999, as
referred to by Gurevich, but also Côté 2000 and Kochetov 2001, for

Non-neutralizing processes, on the other hand, include those that are
never neutralizing, such as degemination, occlusivization, flapping and
voicing; and those that are almost never neutralizing, such as
spirantization. The latter is the best represented weakening process in
the corpus and the best sample thereof, as it shows the same ratio of
9:1 non-neutralizing to neutralizing processes as in the whole corpus.
To the former class of never-neutralizing processes Gurevich also
adds those processes which were once active in the grammar of a
language and yielded absolute neutralization of two phonemes, but
since ''the two [phonemes] never surface in the same contexts in the
language, obliteration of meaning distinction is avoided.'' (p. 21) It is
also worth noticing that occlusivization is traditionally categorized as a
fortition process rather than a lenition one, but since 7 instances
thereof were present in Kirchner's corpus, those are included in
Gurevich's assessment and show to be never neutralizing.

Gurevich's survey further brings to light that the most frequent
strategies to avoid contrast neutralization are *active sound shifts*,
such as *phonemic overlap* (37%) (''when in some context a phoneme
A shifts to B, which is also phonemic in the language, but A/B
opposition is maintained because in the same context B is realized as
another sound'', p. 52) and *contrast shifts* (contrast displacement)
(29%). ''This confirms Silverman's (2000) prediction that phonetically
conditioned changes may be accompanied by additional changes
motivated by meaning-maintenance consideration: these sound shifts
are the most common meaning maintenance strategies, and may very
well be such contrast-motivated changes.'' (p. 52)

Chapter 3, ''Languages'', records all the weakening processes (230
tokens in total) filed and analyzed language-by-language (153
languages in total) and according to the system explained in Chapter
2. This is the largest chapter, making up 80% circa of the book.

Chapter 4, ''Implications'', revisits the trends emerging from the
analysis of the corpus: (i) ''Lenition processes are overwhelmingly
meaning-maintaining'', (ii) ''Syllable context is significant'', as those few
processes that annul phonemic contrast occur in pre-consonantal
position, and (iii) ''existing contrasts in a language affect the progress
and outcome of phonetically-conditioned processes. Voicing is 79%
more common where this feature is not contrastive, and spirantization
is 92% more common under the same circumstances. The outcome of
the spirantization of alveolar stop depends on the shape of the
phonemic inventory in a given language. And the more common
distinction maintaining strategies observed in cases of phonetic
neutralization and sound mergers involve system-wide changes.'' (p.

Gurevich further elaborates on the significance of such trends for a
model of the phonetic-phonology interface. While sound changes are
grounded in the physiology of language production and perception,
their own outputs are indeed constrained by grammar primarily in
terms of the shape of phonemic inventories (as in the case of flapping
being ''avoided only when r is part of the phonemic inventory'', ibidem),
and of the functional load of a given phonemic contrast. The
relationship between phonetically-driven sound changes and grammar
is further documented by the restructuring effect on the entire
phonemic system following the neutralization of contrast when this
happens, and by the systematic avoidance of neutralization through
contrast shifts whenever is possible.


Gurevich's dissertation deserves special attention on the part of those
scholars interested in the nature of the relationship between phonetics
(broadly understood as the interplay of articulatory, acoustic, and
perceptual modules) and phonology (mainly intended as the abstract
system of phonemic oppositions). It in fact makes a contribution to the
debate opened by Blevins 2004 on the role of sound change in
shaping phonological patterns and systems. Through the assessment
of the outputs of weakening processes in a large corpus of languages,
Gurevich demonstrates that the response to phonetically-based sound
changes is systemic. Gurevich's findings thus strengthen the claim
that sound changes, while being exceptionless - a reflex of their extra-
grammatical source - are structure-dependent - a reflex of the
constraining power of phonology (Kiparsky 1995, 2004).

The merit of this work lies in the rigor of the approach: (i) a rigorous
adherence to the previous corpora constructed by Lavoie 1996 and
Kirchner 1998 in order to allow a straightforward comparison and
evaluation; (ii) rigorous definitions of neutralization types; (iii) rigorous
coherence throughout the survey of the languages; (iv) rigorous
statistical assessments; (v) rigorous caution in discussing statistically
non-significant findings.

The major shortcoming of this work by Gurevich is the lack of a truly
strong contextualization of her own work within the current debates in
phonological theory, both on the side of diachronic phonology and
that of the nature of contrast maintenance. She makes an attempt in
the introductory chapter, but this is not successful in my opinion,
especially because of the rather difficult, to me, notion of *functional
considerations* she resorts to in order to justify contrast maintenance.
As she concludes at the end of the book (see quote at the beginning
of this review), the picture of contrast maintenance is a complex one
and one that seems to imply some grammar-internal mechanism. In
the latter case, for instance, it has been recently proposed that
contrast preservation should be considered as an independent
principle of grammar (Lubowicz 2003). I believe that the in-depth
analysis of single language cases, clearly beyond the scope of a
broad cross-linguistic investigation, could shed some light on the
constraining role played by the organization of phonemic contrast on
sound change outputs; something that has the effect of preserving
contrast, without necessarily being an independent principle of
grammar. As pointed out by Lavoie (2001:167), ''[t]he role of
categorical perception and phoneme inventories must not be
overlooked, as they certainly influence the perception of the
consonants and may account for some outcomes which do not follow
directly from the phonetics. Many Australian languages, for example,
have no phonemic fricatives, and when their stops weaken, they are
said to weaken directly to sonorants.'' Note that this seems accurate
also for Ibero-Romance languages, for instance, where the allophonic
lenited voiced fricatives are better characterized as approximants from
an acoustic point of view.

It is unfortunate that these issues are not discussed, as this discussion
would have pinpointed the theoretical relevance of Gurevich's
findings; on the other hand, one must acknowledge the breadth and
solidity of Gurevich's survey and statistical evaluation, as well as the
theoretical relevance of the bare facts she brings to light.


Blevins, Juliette and Andrew Garrett. 1998. The origins of consonant-
vowel metathesis. Language 74. 508-556.

Blevins, Juliette and Andrew Garrett. 2004. ''The evolution of
metathesis.'' In Hayes, B., Kirchner R. and D. Steriade. Phonetically
based phonology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 117-

Blevins, Juliette. 2004. Evolutionary Phonology. The emergence of
sound patterns. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Côté, Marie-Hélène. 2000. Consonant cluster phonotactics: A
perceptual approach. Doctoral dissertation: MIT, Cambridge,

Hualde, José Ignacio. 2000. ''On system-driven sound change: Accent
shift in Markina Basque.'' Lingua 110. 99-129.

Hyman, Larry. 1999. ''Contexts of Fortition and Lenition in Bantu.''
Abstract. Presented at the ''International Conference in Phonology'' in
Nice, France.

Jacobs, Haike and Leo Wetzels. 1988. ''Early French lenition: A formal
account of an integrated sound change.'' In van der Hulst, Harry and
Norval Smith (eds.), Features, segmental structure and harmony
processes. Part I. 105-129.

Jacobs, Haike. 1994. ''Lenition and Optimality Theory.'' Proceedings of
LSRL XXIV, February 1994. Rutgers Optimality Archive. ROA# 127-

Kiparsky, Paul. 1995. ''The phonological basis of sound change.'' In
Goldsmith, John A. (ed.), The Handbook of Phonological Theory.
Blackwell. 640-670.

Kiparsky, Paul. 2004. Universals constrain change, change results
in typological generalizations. Ms., Stanford University. Downloadable

Kirchner, Robert. 1998. An effort based approach to consonant
lenition. Doctoral dissertation: University of California, Los Angeles.
Published in the Routledge Outstanding Dissertation Series in 2001.

Kochetov, Alexei. 2001. Production, perception and emergent
phonotactic patterns. A case of contrastive palatalization. Doctoral
dissertation: University of Toronto. Published in the Routledge
Outstanding Dissertation Series in 2002.

Lavoie, Lisa. 1996. ''Consonant strength: Results of a data base
development project.'' Working papers of the Cornell Phonetics
Laboratory. Volume 11. 269-316.

Lavoie, Lisa. 2001. Consonant strength. Phonological patterns and
phonetic manifestations. Outstanding dissertations in Linguistics. New
York and London: Garland.

Lubowicz, Anna. 2003. Contrast preservation and phonological
mappings. Doctoral dissertation, University of Massachusetts at

Silverman, Daniel. 2000. ''Alveolar stops in American English, and the
nature of allophony.'' In Tamanji, Pius N. and Kiyomi Kusumoto (eds.)
NELS 28. GLSA, University of Massachussetts: Amherst.

Steriade, Donca. 1999. ''Alternatives to the syllabic interpretation of
consonantal phonotactics.'' In Fujimura, O., B. Joseph and B. Palek
(eds.) Proceedings of the 1998 Linguistics and Phonetics Conference.
The Karolinum Press. 205-242.

Chiara Frigeni is a fifth-year PhD student in the Department of
Linguistics at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation focuses on
the role of abstract representations and domains in defining the
phonetics/phonology interface within the synchronic grammar and
through the diachronic development of Sardinian (Romance).

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