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Review of  Consonant Structure and Prevocalization

Reviewer: Thomas C. Purnell
Book Title: Consonant Structure and Prevocalization
Book Author: Natalie Operstein
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Issue Number: 23.4233

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AUTHOR: Natalie Operstein
TITLE: Consonant Structure and Prevocalization
SERIES TITLE: Current Issues in Lingustic Theory 312
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2010

Thomas C. Purnell, Department of English, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Natalie Operstein’s work has two stated goals: first, to provide a typology of
consonant prevocalization (CP) through cross-linguistic documentation and
classification; and second, to provide an autosegmental analysis of CP phenomena
using a vocalic node for consonants. Operstein defines CP as “phonological
processes which have in common the development of a vocalic prearticulation by
consonants” (p. 3), not to be confused with diphthongization of the preceding
vowel. The first two paragraphs of the preface provide an indication of the type
of analysis Operstein will provide (p. 1), namely, one drawing on AP, dependency
phonology and feature geometry. Specifically, overt distinctive features under a
consonant’s vocalic node are realized temporally, prior to other consonantal
features, using Articulatory Phonology (AP) tiers (Browman & Goldstein 1986).
Operstein includes a wide range of phonological processes under CP, with a few
examples being: excrescent vowels (e.g., English); prepalatalization, regardless
of whether palatalization is induced by a following /i, j/ or is a contrastive
aspect of the consonant (e.g., Estonian); and vocalization of consonants (e.g.,
Catalan). In short, over 150 varieties of dialects/languages (those listed in
Appendix II) are examined for various effects that can fit the CP pattern.

Structurally, the book is divided into two parts plus a conclusion. The three
chapters comprising Part 1 (“The theory”) cover Operstein’s theory and
justification for her treatment of the data that makes up the two chapters of
Part 2 (“The data”); this introduction of a theoretical treatment of CP,
followed by the relevant data, gives the reader Operstein’s perspective up front
and allows all data to be contextualized within the theory. There is a
conclusion chapter (Chapter 6) with no overt structural break from the Part 2
chapters; the conclusion’s inclusion with Part 2 is likely for balance in terms
of numbers of chapters. The end material includes references, two appendices
(“Rosapelly’s vocaloid” and “Languages in the survey”), an index of languages in
the text and a two-page index of subjects and terms. The Rosapelly appendix is a
two-page summary of Rosapelly’s focus on fixed articulatory positions for vowels
and consonants. The useful nine-page summary of the languages in the study goes
beyond just listing the languages and the page number on which each one occurs,
as in other works; here, each language is listed with references Operstein used
for that language and additional notes (i.e. sound changes and relevant
environment). Unfortunately, no author references are provided either in the
appendix or indices.

After a two-page preface, Chapter 1 (“Consonant prevocalization”) introduces the
reader to the topic of consonant prevocalization, Operstein’s approach to the
topic, and the organizational structure of the work. In the first half of the
chapter (sect.1.1 to sect.1.4), Operstein clarifies for the reader some terms
related to the theory of prevocalization (sect.1.5 and sect.1.6). Perhaps the
most crucial definition is of the “prevowel” -- the nonsegmental, vocalic
prearticulation of a consonant -- as a cover term for a host of other terms
appearing over the years, such as epenthetic vowel, parasitic vowel, etc. (p.
7). The greatest benefit of taking a phonological view of CP is that it allows
for a strong generalization to be made about a wide set of processes. As noted
in section 1.3, CP is focused on the production of a vocalic prearticulation and
not on the wide range of conditioning factors that include the phonological
(i.e., lexical or phrasal stress, adjacent distinctive features), the
morphophonological and the sociolinguistic factors. Throughout this book,
crucial themes reappear, such as the range of data, the concept of the
non-segmental prevowel, the mechanics of prevocalization via the persistence of
an oral V-place tier in consonants, and the distinction between prevocalization
and diphthongization. It is this last topic that is discussed in section 1.4.
Here, Operstein provides evidence for CP from perception (quoting Reinhardt
1970), phonology (e.g., Mascaró’s 1985 analysis of Catalan), and phonetics
(e.g., portions of prevowels are shorter than offglides of diphthongs;
differences in intra-elemental ‘binding’; optional loss of prevowels in fast
speech, etc.). Operstein notes that concrete phonetic analyses are lacking,
other than Lehiste (1965) (although references to phonetic analyses are peppered
appropriately throughout the book). The second important piece of Chapter 1 is
Operstein’s situating of her analysis against other theoretical explanations of
the data. Section1.6 is an important section to understanding Operstein’s
position because it is here that she goes through past analyses, pointing out
some shortcomings, and laying out some basic data. She begins first with
comments on Andersen’s (1972) analysis of dialectal Polish. Then, Operstein
builds on Wetzel & Sluyter’s (1995) analysis of Maxakali, however, she argues
that the analysis falls out from general properties and not just as a means for
a specific language analysis. Finally, Operstein rejects Gussenhoven & Weijer’s
(1990) diachronic analysis of CP in English as vowel diphthongization. The
reason for spending time to walk through differences between CP and
diphthongization is that the focus remains on CP emanating from the consonant
and not the vowel. As such, CP and its related vowel lengthening and vowel
epenthesis processes all strengthen the vowel and lenite the consonant. Note
that an explanation of Operstein’s analysis does not necessarily appear in
Chapter 1.

Where the reader finds Operstein’s actual theory is in Chapter 2
(“Intrasegmental consonant structure”). This chapter has two main thrusts,
arguing for bigestural consonants (i.e., comprising a consonantal and vocalic
distinctive feature node), and a realignment of the vocalic portion of the
consonant being articulated, consistent with sonority and other prosodically
driven factors (e.g., prevocalization not appearing word initially in Estonian).
After first laying out the theoretical framework (sect.2.2), in which it is
argued that consonants are bigestural, and arguing for the specificity of
distinctive features in the vocalic node of the consonant that motivates
prevocalization, Operstein then explains intrasegmental gestures (sect.2.3.1),
followed by ensuing prevocalization of the consonant’s vocalic node with respect
to modified (sect.2.3.2) and plain consonants (sect.2.3.3). The chapter relies
on the overlapping tiers and degrees of closure specified in AP (Browman &
Goldstein 1986 et seq.). The important piece of Operstein’s argument with
respect to the tiers is that there are two tongue body tiers, one for consonant
features and one for vowel features; specifications on these tiers can be
simultaneous or sequentially ordered. Because they are autosegmental gestural
tiers, they have some degree of independence; thus, one can start a gesture,
such as labial closure, either before, during, or after the tongue root assumes
a pharyngeal position. A helpful example is provided in Figure 11 (p. 53), where
a fully articulated dark [l] is distinguished from a prevocalized dark [l] and a
vocalized variant. The tongue tip tier, specified for “alveolar/closed,” is
almost entirely aligned with the tongue body tier, specified for
“pharyngeal/wide.” The prevocalized variant occurs because the tongue body or
pharyngeal part of the consonantal gesture occurs prior to another oral closure;
without closure, vocalization ensues on the portion of the consonant that does
not overlap with closure. Consequently, for the vocalized variant, there is no
closure tier specification such that the entire pharyngeal specification assumes
an open vocal tract. The next important distinction between Operstein’s analysis
and others is that she argues for a persistent V-place node or set of features,
arguing from an articulatory observation that labial and tongue tip consonants
have a wide range of tongue body positions arising from coarticulation. Thus,
Operstein argues, the vocalic tier for tongue body must be present in all
consonants, not just in secondarily articulated ones.

Rounding out the first part on theory, Chapter 3 (“Related processes”) first
discusses consonant postvocalization (e.g., palatal offglides arising from
palatal consonants), and then addresses syllabic consonants (i.e., the ensuing
vowel quality derives from the V-place features of the consonant). Operstein
argues that the persistent V-place tier, and not the C-place tier, results in
postvocalization and vocalization of syllabic consonants. The chapter ends with
an overview of alternative approaches to the data. The two alternatives covered
are vowel intrusion and compensatory vowel lengthening. Operstein shows that the
timing of specified C-place and V-place tiers accounts for these phenomena as well.

The second part of the book on data is oriented toward the quality of prevowels.
The front prevowels are covered in Chapter 4 (“Front prevowels”) and all other
prevowels in the subsequent chapter. The front prevowel is the most common kind
of prevowel, triggered by laminal-coronal type consonants (i.e., alveolar,
palatals and other palatalized consonants; dentals are excluded because
apicality permits wide variance in tongue body position). The order of
presentation is palatalized consonants (sect.4.2), palatals (sect.4.3) and
alveolars (sect.4.4). The contrastively palatalized consonant section
(sect.4.2.2) includes separate subsections on Finno-Ugric, Slavic, Greek,
Romance, Gallo-Romance and Celtic. Likewise, the contextually palatalized
consonant section (sect.4.2.3) includes Iranian, Archaic Latin and Northern
Italo-Romance, Tocharian, English and other languages. The role of diachronic
analysis of CP is often used to explain modern patterns, as in the case of the
English discussion. The last section of palatalized consonants (sect.4.2.4)
suggests that CP had a hand in Germanic i-umlaut (although note that there are
no references on the topic after 1997). The palatal section (sect.4.3) covers
palatals, palatoalveolars and alveopalatals in Catalan, French, Portuguese,
English and other languages. The alveolar section is laid out slightly different
in that it covers sound classes, liquids (sect.4.4.1), /s/ (sect.4.4.2) and /n/
(sect.4.4.3). A very brief portion on word-final weakening rounds out the chapter.

The second chapter in the data portion of the book, Chapter 5 (“Other
prevowels”), is divided into three main subsections focusing on the consonant
type that generates the prevowels: prevelarization and prelabialization
(sect.5.2); postvelars (sect.5.3); and retroflexion (sect.5.4). Most of the
discussion of this chapter lies in the first section on prevelarization and
prelabialization, with some discussion by sounds (e.g., dentals, sect.5.2.1;
dark [l], sect.5.2.2; velar nasals, sect.5.2.3; labial and labialized
consonants, sect.5.2.6), as well as by language (e.g., the broad consonants of
Gaelic, sect.5.2.4) and by process (e.g., back umlaut and breaking, sect.5.2.5).
Note that these two data chapters are devoid of the mechanics of prevocalization
from Chapter 2; what is demonstrated here is Operstein’s command of
cross-linguistic patterns. Nevertheless, throughout, references are made to C-
and V-gestures, as it is assumed that Chapter 2 has been understood prior to
examining the data chapters.

The brief Chapter 6 (“Conclusions and outlook”) consists of four pages of text.
The two main conclusions are that plain nonlaryngeal consonants lenite by
prevocalizing, and that prevocalization arising from secondary articulation in
consonants is an enhancement of the consonant, the redundancy of which often
leads to a loss of the consonant’s secondary articulation. A number of future
directions are listed on the last two pages.


Overall, Natalie Operstein provides the field with a comprehensive compilation
of phenomena that result in the appearance of vocalic subsegments prior to the
consonants that are the source of those prevowels. Out of her command of data,
Operstein also provides a generalization, namely, that V-place features are
persistent in consonants, not just in those with secondary specification. The
theoretical machinery affording her this claim is AP, with its autosegmental
gestural tiers. In AP, onsets of specified tiers (e.g., the beginning of a
gestural specification) can be temporally aligned with other specified tiers.
The result is either that the V-place and C-place tongue body gestures can
completely overlap with each other, or that the gestures overlap to some varying
degree. Prevowels, then, are the consequence of a V-place gesture on a consonant
starting before the rest of coda C-place gestures.

Operstein is to be commended simply for gathering a wide range of data and
grouping them with an eye towards instances of prevowel formation, where the
data had not previously been classified as such. Given the way data is
presented, this book may appear to be a throwback phonological treatise without
all the anacronism one might expect. First, sidestepping level ordering, etc.,
Operstein tackles the subphonemic process that lends itself to an autosegmental
explanation. The data is replete with underlying, feeding and bleeding
environments, etc., all of which remind one of analyses in vogue from the early
days of 1970s autosegmental phonology up through Archangli & Pulleyblank (1994),
with phonology at the fore and phonetics playing a supporting, less phonetic
''ground hugging'' role (Halle 1962/1972). This is not to say that there is no
phonetic discussion or that other types of analyses cannot handle such data
(e.g., alignment constraints); CP is a collection of observed patterns and any
theorist can take a shot at explaining the data. Operstein, to her credit,
offers an analysis of a wide range of data so that the explanations given for
both specific instances and the general case of CP afford the reader some
insight into human language. Nevertheless, theoretical phonologists may have
preferred more representations or situating the data in theoretical constructs.

Although Operstein makes good use of the phonological approach in order to
capture generalizations and group together a broad set of data, those interested
in “lab phon” methods or the interaction of phonetics and phonology may be
slightly frustrated with what appears to be an old-school approach to phonology
(e.g., no spectrographic and/or waveform images). Throughout, Operstein does try
to relate the data to acoustic representations, albeit via citing relevant
literature. This reader, for one, needed more hands on reassurances and ended up
accessing the Estonian data from the JIPA website (Asu & Teres 2009) and also
examined x-ray microbeam data for English variation in dark [l] production in
order to examine phonetic evidence of CP. Operstein uses several occasions to
distinguish between diphthongs and prevowels, leading one to wonder whether this
is the time for a new articulatory analysis of much of the CP data.

Phonological data is present throughout the book and the variety of data, coming
from diachronic and synchronic analyses of languages and dialects, will be
extremely useful to the field. In spite of this, the reader might get the
impression that Operstein was drawing from the ‘oldies-but-goodies’ list by the
sources used. What is not meant here is that she failed to find relevant data;
instead, it appears that she was working with non-contemporary data and
analyses. This may be most apparent to readers working on American English
dialects. While having great respect for work by early-to-mid 20th century
dialectologists (e.g., Stanley, Sledd), this reader, for one, felt that works
like the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash & Boberg 2006), Thomas
(2001) and other works with greater nuanced analyses on vowel qualities in
Southern American English would be referenced, but were not. One might argue
that they deal with vowels and not consonants, but since works like these are
rife with discussion on diphthongs, and since diphthongs are often confused with
prevowels, Operstein could have taken a look at them.

This leads to an additional question arising from Operstein’s work. In spite of
the vast number of languages and dialects included, one wonders whether
Operstein sold herself short on a couple of issues. The first has to do with
vowel diphthongization in American English, just to use one example. Is the
diphthongization involved with many of the vowel shifts stimulated by this
process? What comes to mind are diphthongized vowels, specifically /æ/ before
nasals and voiced obstruents, and their prevelar raising in the Upper Midwest
before the voiced velar plosive (e.g., BAG > BEG). It would have been really
interesting if Operstein had broached such cases in her section on breaking
(sect.5.2.5) and/or in the long footnote on /æ/ in English (p. 145), where the
most contemporary reference is Wells (1982). The second issue where Operstein
may have shorted herself is that she does not bring laryngeal specifications
into the analysis, which are important given the articulatory relationships
between laryngeal and supralaryngeal gestures. Omitting this tier prevented her
from making an even broader generalization, connecting CP to pre- and
post-consonantal aspiration. In fact, if one wants to make the broadest
generalization, then prevocalization and preaspiration should be connected,
presumably distinguished only by specification of vibrating vocal folds or
cessation of vocal fold vibration, yet motivated by fortition of the vowel or
lenition of the consonant.

Rosapelly’s appendix is an interesting feature of the book, but one that might
have been more relevant to contemporary phonetics if it informed modern
phonetics rather than being a historically interesting note. Rosapelly’s
observations were that consonants and vowels generally have three comparable
parts such that the steady state of a vowel and fricative are comparable to the
closure of a plosive; thus, sounds are either vowels or vocaloids. It is useful
to place these comments in the context of x-ray studies premised on held steady
states that begin appearing just after Rosapelly’s writings (e.g., Russell 1928,
Perkell 1969) [NB, this is the only place in the text where English translations
are not provided for the reader.]. Upon reflection, two questions come to mind.
First, since the time of Rosapelly’s analysis, articulatory analyses now make
use of fairly high sample rates (e.g., Westbury’s 1994 x-ray microbeam studies
have a sample rate of one sample every 6.866 ms). These higher sampled analyses
demonstrate that, while articulators slow down, there is constant movement in
the mouth, often reflecting high degrees of co-articulation. Why did Operstein
not cast Rosapelly against more contemporary studies? Such a cast would have
been generally more insightful than just noting an observation that vowels and
consonants share a steady state. Second, regarding this appendix, Operstein
would have contributed more to her argument with a comment on the phonetics of
coarticulatory effects not occurring at the juncture in which they occur (e.g.,
CP occurs at the beginning of the consonant, not where the vowel or offglide

Lastly, I would like to mention a few minor shortcomings. Chapter 2 could have
used more Browman & Goldstein-esque diagrams showing how the distinction works
between the subtypes of plain consonants. For example, representations of clear
[l] of English onsets and German codas are missing from Figure 11 and the plain
[p] is missing from Figure 12. Also, Operstein could pull from sonority clines
(again, perhaps a phonetic picture) to better explain the lenition of the
consonant and strengthening of the vowel. Specifically, prevocalization
increases the time and declension of energy, thereby using energy changes to
enhance the syllable peak. Then there is the problem of AP tiers and, while this
is not her problem directly, she should explain how to constrain tiers. Perhaps
she might need a more traditional representation, with paths between tiers,
similar to what was proposed in Archangeli & Pulleyblank (1994)? Finally, there
are just a few minor typos, though none cause confusion. The one notable error
is in the table of contents and in the text, where section 2.2 is mislabeled as
section 1.2.

In sum, this is a worthy addition to the Current Issues in Linguistic Theory
book list.


Archangeli, D. & D. Pulleyblank 1994. Grounded Phonology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Asu, E. & P. Teras. 2009. Estonian. Journal of the International Phonetic
Association 39: 367­72.

Browman, C. & L. Goldstein. 1986. Towards an articulatory phonology. Phonology
Yearbook 3: 219-52.

Gussenhoven, C. & J. Van De Weijer. 1990. On V-place spreading vs. feature
spreading in English historical phonology. The Linguistic Review 7: 311-32.

Halle, M. 1962/1972. Phonology in generative grammar. In V. Makkai (ed.),
Phonological theory: Evolution and current practice, 380-92. New York: Holt,
Rinehardt and Winston.

Labov, W., S. Ash & C. Boberg. 2006. The Atlas of North American English.
Berlin: Mouton.

Lehiste, I. 1965. Palatalization in Estonian: Some acoustic observations. In V.
Koressaar & A. Rannit (eds.), Estonian Poetry and Language: Studies in honor of
Ants Oras, 136-62. Stockholm: Tryckeri AB Esto.

Mascaró, J. 1985. Compensatory diphthongization in Majorcan Catalan. In L.
Wetzels & E. Sezer (eds.), Studies in Compensatory Lengthening, 133-46.
Dordrecht: Foris.

Perkell, J. 1969. Physiology of speech production: Results and implications of a
quantitative cineradiographic study. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Reinhardt, K. 1970. Intrusive [i] before /S/ in Brazilian Portuguese. Word 26:

Thomas, E. 2001. An Acoustic Analysis of Vowel Variation in New World English.
PADS 85. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wells, J. 1982. Accents of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wetzel, L. & W. Sluyter. 1995. Formação de raiz, formação de glide e
‘decrowding’ fonético em Maxacalí. In L. Wetzels (ed.), Estudos fonológicos das
línguas indígenas brasileiras, 103-49. Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ.

Westbury, J. 1994. X-ray microbeam speech production database user's handbook
(version 1.0). Unpublished manuscript, Madison, WI.

Thomas Purnell (Associate Professor, English, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) is interested in cross-language and cross-dialect variation in vowels and consonants from low-level phonetic cues to phonological features. He publishes specifically on sociophonetics and phonological theory.