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Title: Phonology: Mysterious /s/
Submitter: Rostam Shirazi
Description: Hi

I've been puzzling on the status of word initial s+C, which is related but
somewhat tangential to my thesis.

The basic problem: /s/ is more sonorous (acoustically speaking) than /t/
and /k/, but can occur before them in (traditionally) monosyllabic words
such as 'sky' and 'stripe', resulting in a double sonority peak.

In some languages, word initial s+C is not permitted and must be preceded
by a vowel - thus we have 'escuela' for 'school' and 'estadio' for
'stadium' in Spanish. Portuguese exhibits similar patterns, but the /s/
manifests as a post-alveolar fricative, ie. 'sh' in English orthography.
Other languages, such as Italian, pattern like English - 'scuola'.

Now, I've read that the prohibition or otherwise of word initial s+C is a
parameter (eg J. Kaye 1992 'Do you believe in Magic - the story of s+C
clusters') but I've also read that there could be an articulatory
explanation - that /s/ requires minimal jaw displacement from the resting
position, followed by /t/ and /k/ which require more displacement, through
/r/ etc right up to the vowel which requires the most displacement and is
the sonority peak. Therefore /s/ takes its rightful place at the beginning
of clusters from an articulatory point of view (B. Lindblom, in Macneilage
(ed) 'The Production of Speech'1981).

The problem with the first explanation (parametric) is twofold: firstly
it's not really explanatory at all. It doesn't answer the question of why
's' in particular is unique in terms of its phontactic behaviour. Secondly,
it's not clear, if the number of parameters is not to grow out of control,
why the ability of a languages to supply s+C at the beginning of words
should be subject to its own parameter. How would this be geno- rather than
phenotypical? It's asking a lot of the hereditary component to specify to
this level of detail, surely?

The problem with the second explanation is that, if articulatory ease is
behind the anomalous patterning of /s/ at the beginning of initial
clusters, why do some languages prohibit it? What's easy, in physiological
terms, for one person should be easy for everyone, right?

Then I noticed some interesting word pairs in English. First of all I was
curious about word pairs such as 'state' and 'estate', 'special' and
'especially' in English. In fact, the 'es-' words in these pairs all seem
to be borrowings from Old French, which behaved like modern Spanish in
banning /s/-intial clusters (in Modern French, these words have simply lost
the /s/ altogether, so we have Old French v. Modern French
estudiant etudiant, escole ecole). However, there is some variation that is
more difficult to explain etymologically such as 'espace - spacieux' in
French. (Note that Spanish and Portugues, in contrast, brook no exceptions
to the rule 'no initial s+C'.

If some languages can maintain both intial s+C and intial V+s+C, parametric
and articulatory explanations are further undermined. Is an explanation in
terms of language history called for?

To pin this down to a few points:

What are your thoughts on mysterious /s/? Are there any explanations I
haven't covered?

Can an account in terms of parameter settings accomodate the variation
observed in initial s+C languages (ie. that they also have V+s+C)?

Can an account based on articulatory economy be made to accomodate the fact
that some languages completely prohibit intial s+C?

Can an account that appeals only to language history and/or genetic
relatedness be made to work?

Speculations on the properties of /s/ that result in its strange behaviour?

Grateful for any comments.
Date Posted: 21-Sep-2005
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Morphology
Phonetics
Phonology
Typology
Genetic Classification
LL Issue: 16.2712
Posted: 21-Sep-2005

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