LINGUIST List 12.1210

Wed May 2 2001

Review: McMahon, Lexical Phonology & History of English

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  • DETERDING David (ELL), Review of McMahon: Lexical Phonology and the history of English

    Message 1: Review of McMahon: Lexical Phonology and the history of English

    Date: Wed, 2 May 2001 11:29:48 +0800
    From: DETERDING David (ELL) <>
    Subject: Review of McMahon: Lexical Phonology and the history of English

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

    Reviewed by David Deterding

    Note: because of problems in representing phonetic symbols, I will use the following: [I] for the vowel in 'pin' [E] for the vowel in 'pen' [e] for the vowel in 'face' [ae] for the vowel in 'pat'


    This book considers the insights that historical changes in English can offer for the formulation of Lexical Phonology (henceforth LP), concentrating particularly on three areas: historical vowel shifts; Scottish vowel length; and rhoticity. The goal is to develop a strictly-constrained model of LP that can represent the phonology of all dialects of English without resorting to the excessively abstract nature of some previous models.

    In Chapter 1, McMahon introduces her approach to LP, in particular justifying the role that external evidence such as historical change and dialect variation can play in helping to determine the phonological structure of English. She argues that the highly abstract, psychologically unreal, underlying representations of previous formulations of LP arose as a direct consequence of their over-reliance on internal evidence and rejection of external evidence. However, while she criticises these versions of LP, particularly because they have been unable to shake off the influence of the Sound Pattern of English (henceforth SPE), her goal is not to abandon LP entirely but instead to develop a new, less abstract model of rule-based derivational phonology, as she is even more critical of constraint-based models such as Government Phonology and Optimality Theory.

    In Chapter 2, after reviewing the origins of LP, McMahon considers in some detail its best-known formulations, particularly that of Halle and Mohanan (1985). She is critical of this model for proposing Strict Cyclicity and Structure Preservation as constraints on lexical phonological rules but then finding ways to allow these constraints to be overridden (p.53), and she further concludes that there is no good reason for the lexical level of the phonology to have four separate strata, with a loop allowing derivations to cycle back from Stratum 3 to Stratum 2, and with a non-cyclic stratum (Stratum 2) being interspersed with the other three cyclic strata. Instead she proposes (p.84) a simpler phonological model with (in addition to the postlexical level) just two levels of lexical rules, Level 1 being cyclic and strictly subject to Structure Preservation and the Derived Environment Condition, and Level 2 being non-cyclic and not always strictly subject to Structure Preservation or the Derived Environment Condition. However, not everything in her model is necessarily simpler, as her rules need to make reference to bracketing configurations to distinguish affixed words from compounds, something which Halle and Mohanan's four-stratum model had aimed to make redundant.

    Chapter 3 investigates how alternations that arose out of historical vowel shifts, such as that between the vowels in the first syllables of 'sane'/'sanity' and the second syllables of 'courage'/'courageous', should be handled in a synchronic phonology of English. In considering the modern reflexes of these vowel shifts, particular attention is given to the consequences of strict adherence to the Derived Environment Condition.

    One example that illustrates McMahon's approach concerns the alternation between the vowels in the second syllable of 'profound'/'profundity'. Although this alternation arose out of the Great Vowel Shift in the same way as 'sane'/'sanity', McMahon argues that it has no psychological reality for speakers today (p.98), so it should not be present in the synchronic phonology of English. This demonstrates how historical evidence can inform us, but does not necessarily have the final say in determining how modern English should be represented.

    McMahon is particularly critical of the abstract underlying vowels that tend to occur in SPE-influenced versions of LP. In contrast, in her model of LP, as Level 1 lexical rules such as the Vowel Shift Rule (VSR) are strictly subject to the Derived Environment Condition, only words that have undergone a process such as affixation can be subject to VSR, and this means that the underlying representation of morphologically simple (underived) words must be surface-true (apart, maybe, from the effects of vowel reduction, to be discussed below). However, there is a cost to this: as both 'courage' and 'sane' are underived forms, neither can undergo VSR, which means that the [e] in the second syllable of 'courageous' and the [ae] in the first syllable of 'sanity' must be derived by two separate versions of VSR, one to deal with the underlying lax vowel /ae/ in 'courage' and create [e] in 'courageous', and the other to deal with the tense vowel /e/ in 'sane' to create [ae] in 'sanity'. This is unfortunate, as these two alternations both originate from the same historical shift and are basically the same, so it is quite inelegant to represent them as two separate rules. McMahon acknowledges this problem (p.91), but asserts that the benefit of strict adherence to the Derived Environment Condition for Level 1 rules outweighs the disadvantage of this duplication of VSR.

    McMahon considers the sequence /ju/ in 'cute', in some detail, and she proposes that this is a rising diphthong (onglide) in modern English (in contrast to falling diphthongs such as /ai/ and /au/). One issue here is that, in her analysis, the [j] in 'tabular' is inserted by rule, as this word is derived from 'table', but the /j/ in 'cute' is part of an underlying /ju/ diphthong, as this is an underived word. This means that, if we compare RP with General American (GenAm), we would have to say that the two dialects have different underlying vowels in the underived 'duke' but a different application of rules in the morphologically complex 'studious' where RP has an inserted [j] but GenAm does not, even though the contrast between RP and GenAm 'duke' and 'studious' is basically the same: GenAm does not have a [j] after coronal consonants.

    One rule that deals with consonants but is discussed in Chapter 3 because it interacts with VSR is Velar Softening, the rule that derives the medial [s] in 'criticise' from the final /k/ in 'critic'. It is argued (p.128) that Velar Softening must occur before VSR on Level 1 of the lexical rules, because the conditioning environment for the rule must make reference to vowels before they have undergone VSR. However, if it is a Level 1 rule, it cannot apply to morphologically simple words, which means that it cannot apply to 'reduce', even though historically the final /s/ in 'reduce' is related to the [k] in 'reduction' in exactly the same way that the [s] in 'criticise' is related to the final /k/ in 'critic'.

    Finally in Chapter 3, McMahon considers irregular verb alternations such as that between 'fight'/'fought', and she proposes that all they are simply held in the lexicon and not derived by rule, with the exception that the alternation between /i/ and [E] found in words such as 'keep'/'kept', 'sleep'/'slept' and 'feel'/'felt' and also that between /ai/ and [I] in 'bite'/'bit' and 'hide'/'hid' are derived by rule. An issue that arises out of this analysis (p.134) is that regular inflection belongs on Level 2 of the lexical rules, but the affixation of the /t/ suffix necessary to feed VSR for the derivation of the above forms must occur before VSR so it must be on Level 1. This means that essentially the same rule (past tense suffixation) applies on two separate levels.

    In Chapter 4, the nature of Scottish vowel length is analysed in considerable detail. The Scottish Vowel Length Rule (SVLR) states that some vowels become lengthened before a voiced fricative, a final /r/, or a morpheme boundary. The existence of a morpheme boundary as one of the conditioning environments results in pairs such as 'need' [nid] and 'kneed' [ni:d], and also 'tide' [taid] and 'tied' [ta:id], which differ in length because, in the second word of each pair, the final [d] is a past tense suffix.

    McMahon considers the connection between SVLR and Low Level Lengthening (LLL), the rule that lengthens vowels before voiced consonants or at the end of a word in all varieties of English, and she concludes that the two are separate for three reasons: first, not all vowels are subject to SVLR but they are all subject to LLL; second, not all voiced consonants condition SVLR, as voiced plosives, nasals, and /l/ are not in the conditioning environment; and finally, for SVLR there is the 'tide'/'tied' distinction, which makes reference to morpheme boundaries, while LLL never makes reference to word-internal structure. However, she also concludes that the two processes were historically linked, but that the extra lengthening in the SVLR environments resulted in this process becoming sufficiently perceptually salient for SVLR to become promoted into a lexical rule, while the lesser lengthening in the LLL environments remained inaudible to most speakers with the consequence that LLL remains a postlexical rule (p.201).

    Initially, McMahon assumes that SVLR takes place on Level 2, because it interacts with regular past-tense inflection which is a Level 2 lexical rule (p.193). However, after considering further evidence, she concludes that SVLR may also apply on Level 1 (p.195).

    Two further issues remain with Scottish vowel length. First, SVLR applies (for some speakers) in words like 'spider' and 'pylon' (p.193) which do not appear to meet its conditioning environment, unless it is assumed that there is a false morpheme boundary after the /ai/ in each word. Second, as SVLR introduces a non-phonemic distinction between vowels such as [i] and [i:], it is not Structure Preserving, which is one of the defining characteristics of lexical rules, and even if we assume that Structure Preservation only strictly applies to Level 1 of the lexical rules, this does not resolve the issue, as SVLR also applies on Level 1. One solution to these two issues is that there may be an incipient phonemic contrast between long and short /ai/ that is slowly undergoing diffusion through the lexicon, for if this is true, then the introduction of length distinctions by SVLR no longer violates Structure Preservation (p.203).

    In Chapter 5, McMahon contends that different dialects of the same language can differ quite substantially, not just in the sounds in individual words and the inventory of phonemes, but also in the underlying phonetic features, and she suggests that while tenseness is an underlying distinctive feature for GenAm vowels, length may be the corresponding feature for RP vowels.

    McMahon also considers underspecification theories, which she claims are built on the flawed premise that computation is always favoured over storage so that every last bit of regularity must be teased out and represented in terms of rules (p.215). She argues that this kind of theory leads to unreasonably abstract underlying pandialectal representations, and she further claims that, as underspecification can allow fundamental constraints such as Structure Preservation to be easily circumvented, it is an unwelcome component of any properly constrained model of LP.

    Finally Chapter 6 investigates linking [r] and intrusive [r] in many varieties of English such as RP, and it is concluded that these two are basically the same, being instances of the rule of [r]?Insertion, where an [r] is inserted after a schwa or [+long][-high] vowel and before any other vowel. This rule must take place on all three levels (p.280): Level 1 of the lexical rules, as it occurs before Level 1 suffixes in 'doctoral' and 'dangerous'; Level 2, as it occurs before regular Level 2 inflectional suffixes in 'colouring' and 'soaring' (and also the intrusive 'saw[r]ing'); and the postlexical level, as it operates across word boundaries as in 'fear of flying' (and the intrusive 'data[r]analysis').

    McMahon proposes that this represents an instance of rule inversion, whereby the historical rule of /r/?Deletion has now become a modern rule of [r]-Insertion. Once again, we can see how the historical record can inform us, but does not always determine the final shape of the synchronic phonology.

    Critical Evaluation

    Anyone who does not have a substantial background in phonology and is not reasonably familiar with LP would probably find much of this material hard to understand. For example, applications of the Alternation Condition, the Elsewhere Condition, and the Strict Cyclicity Condition are discussed in quick succession on pages 15 to 16, but none of these conditions is explained till later: the Elsewhere Condition on page 42, the Strict Cyclicity Condition on page 45, and the Alternation Condition on page 85. In other instances where prior knowledge is assumed: 'children' is given as an exception to the blocking effect which prevents the accumulation of semantically equivalent affixes on a single word (p.41), but this example might be opaque to anybody who did not already know that 'childer' was once the plural of 'child'; the CiV Tensing rule is listed in the derivation of words like 'comedian' (p.90) with no explanation; and there is frequent criticism of Duke of York derivations, where certain rules undo the effects of previous rules, but the colourful and rather apt imagery behind this name would be lost for anyone not already familiar with the nursery rhyme about the duke marching to the top of a hill and then marching down again. It is, perhaps, a pity that this allusion is not explained.

    However, this book is not intended as an introductory text on phonology. Instead it aims to be a serious contribution to the debate on phonological structure, and it achieves this admirably. Moreover, despite the frequent assumptions about background knowledge, the text is actually very clearly written with obvious close attention to detail and only very occasional flaws in the text. (On page 115, 'sulphuric' is shown as undergoing CiV Lengthening, which is clearly an error, but such oversights are rare.) Anybody who is familiar with the background in phonology will find this book an exceptionally coherent and valuable contribution to debates on various controversies in the field.

    Many of the claims made by McMahon will be controversial, not least the central claim that diachronic evidence can contribute invaluable data for determining the structure of phonology. In the tradition of SPE, of course, it was assumed that the goal of phonology is to model the knowledge held by an individual speaker, and as most speakers are not aware of the historical changes that took place in their language, such data must be irrelevant. McMahon, however, makes a compelling case that historical change originated from somewhere, and if the phonological representation cannot model such change, then there is something wrong with that representation. It is somewhat ironic that, in explicitly allowing evidence from historical processes to help determine the structure of phonology, McMahon's model of English phonology is actually far less influenced by the past than SPE-based models which often seem to incorporate every twist and turn in the history of the language into their synchronic rules for the derivation of words.

    A parallel claim is that evidence on dialectal variation can contribute to the structure of phonology, though this is perhaps a bit less controversial. Nowadays the work of Labov and others has shown that the concept of an ideal speaker with a single monolithic pronunciation is not just improbable but actually misguided, as we all have a variety of accents which we use at different times. Consequently, it is nowadays widely accepted that, even if the goal of phonology is to model the knowledge of an individual, this should include the variation exhibited by the individual.

    With respect to dialect variation, McMahon considers the claim that all dialects of the same language have the same underlying phonological representation, and she argues convincingly that this viewpoint is simply not tenable, for this kind of common underlying representation would have to be highly abstract, which would compel us to adopt an implausibly complex derivation for the surface form. Moreover, she argues that the boundary between different languages and dialects of the same language is too fuzzy to support the contention that the former have different underlying representations while the latter have a common underlying representation. Different dialects often evolve over time into different languages, so at what point does a common underlying representation suddenly become a different one?

    Although McMahon claims to be developing the theory of LP, or more specifically allowing it to develop away from the insidious legacy bequeathed by SPE, in reality her criticisms of LP run rather deep. One of the key insights of LP is that there are two different kinds of phonological rules: those in the lexical level which are idiosyncratic and subject to exceptions; and those in the postlexical level which are more phonetically motivated and exceptionless (Carr, 1993: 179). McMahon does maintain this basic distinction, and she further retains another fundamental aspect of LP, the separate levels of the lexical rules, particularly to accommodate affixes such as ?ity and ?ic in Level 1, and -ness, ?hood and regular inflections in Level 2. However, her re-introduction of bracketing conventions to distinguish affixed forms from compounds makes her model rather different from that of Halle and Mohanan, with their four lexical strata and no such bracketing conventions. She further suggests (p.71) that their use of four separate strata of lexical rules could, in theory, be extended to an infinite number; but, in the absence of firm evidence that all human languages can be modeled with two levels of lexical rules, it is not entirely clear that her two levels are actually much further away from infinity than their four strata.

    In fact, as the rules in Level 2 of McMahon's model are not always strictly subject to Structure Preservation and the Derived Environment Condition, two of the basic characteristics of lexical rules, in reality one might conclude that the fundamental division into lexical and postlexical rules is not that clear, and indeed, she does suggest (p.55) that the lexical-postlexical distinction may be more gradient than absolute. (Note, also, that the clear division of rules into separate, autonomous levels is not really maintained when a single rule, [r]-Insertion, can apply on three different levels.)

    One might, therefore, see McMahon's model as consisting of three levels: a fully lexical level, which is strictly subject to Structure Preservation and the Derived Environment Condition; an intermediate level, that is not strictly subject to those constraints, but which is phonetically somewhat idiosyncratic, does have exceptions, and results in binary distinctions which speakers are often aware of; and a postlexical level, which has strong phonetic motivation, is entirely exceptionless, and introduces small, perceptually inaudible features of pronunciation. If, then, there are three levels on this gradient analysis, is there any evidence that there might not be a fourth level, or, in theory, infinite levels?

    Let us consider the possibility of a fourth level a bit further. Level 1 lexical rules, like Velar Softening and VSR, are Structure Preserving and subject to the Derived Environment Constraint. Level 2 rules, such as SVLR, may occasionally break these constraints but they cannot be fully postlexical because they can refer to morphological information. In contrast, postlexical rules can make no reference to morphological information so that, for example, Regressive Assimilation of a nasal consonant takes place whether it is inside a word such as 'income' or across a word boundary such as 'tin cup'. However, note that Low Level Lengthening takes place at the end of words, and this is one kind of morphological information (p.192), so LLL does not entirely fit in with the framework for postlexical rules. It is just possible, therefore, that we may need another level between Level 2 of the lexical rules and the postlexical level.

    The number of levels is perhaps a minor difference from previous formulations of LP. A rather more fundamental deviation from other models is McMahon's rejection of abstract underlying phonological forms. While many phonologists may welcome the abandonment of /fixt/ and /bix/ as the underlying representations of 'fight' and 'buy' (Halle and Mohanan, 1985: 110), there may be less agreement with the complete elimination of abstract underlying forms, which seems closer to Natural Phonology (Hooper, 1976) than LP.

    Although McMahon aims to make the underlying representations of underived forms maximally surface-true, in some cases it seems that they cannot be completely surface-true, for the underlying form of a word like 'courage' must have a full vowel, not a schwa or [I], in the second syllable if 'courageous' is to be derived by rule. Presumably, the schwa or [I] in 'courage' is derived by vowel reduction, though this is never is actually fully explained. Though we are told (p.92) that the issue of vowel reduction is being left aside "for the moment", the only subsequent consideration of this issue is when we are told (p.101) that the schwa in the second syllable of 'harmony' may either be derived by vowel reduction or it may be a surface-true schwa with the full vowel necessary for the derivation of 'harmonic' obtained by means of a Spelling Pronunciation rule. Unfortunately, McMahon leaves this unresolved, stating "I will not pursue this analysis further".

    Given that, in McMahon's model, most irregular verb alternations are assumed to be held in the lexicon and not derived by rule, and given that alternations for 'keep'/'kept' and 'bite'/'bit' cannot be derived entirely by existing Level 2 rules but need their own Level 1 rule of past tense affixation, it is perhaps strange that she does not go the whole hog and assume that all irregular verb alternations are purely lexical, with any apparent regularity explained by means of cognitive pattern associations. Pinker (1999) makes a strong case for this dual model, with rules handling all regular forms and lexical retrieval combined with pattern associations for all irregular forms, and in some ways this seems neater than assuming that the past forms of just two small classes of irregular verbs are formed by rule. This would appear to be a valuable area for future research, to determine how psychologically real the rule-based past tense formation of the 'keep'/'kept' and 'bite'/'bit' verbs is.

    One underlying theme of the whole book is: what happens if we insist that the Derived Environment Condition applies strictly to all Level 1 lexical rules. We have seen some of the consequences of this: we must assume two separate Vowel Shift Rules, even though they describe essentially the same process; the difference between RP and GenAm in the occurrence of /j/ in 'duke' and [j] in 'studious' cannot be described by a single rule; and Velar Softening cannot deal with the alternation between /s/ and [k] in words like 'reduce' and 'reduction', even though this is essentially the same alternation as that between the /k/ and [s] in 'critic' and 'criticise'. One conclusion might be that strict adherence to the Derived Environment Condition causes more problems than it solves, though this is certainly not the conclusion that McMahon draws, as she insists that properly constraining the model of phonology by means of the Derived Environment Condition and Structure Preservation is absolutely essential.

    Although many will certainly disagree with some of the positions McMahon adopts, all phonologists are likely to find this book very interesting and exceptionally valuable. Overall, it provides many fascinating, well-argued contributions to an understanding of the nature and structure of phonology, and it is certain to become a classic text for anybody interested in this area.


    Carr, P (1993). Phonology. London: Macmillan.

    Halle, M & Mohanan, K P (1985). Segmental Phonology of Modern English. Linguistic Inquiry, 16:1, 57-116.

    Hooper, J B (1976). An Introduction to Natural Generative Phonology. New York: Academic Press.

    Pinker, S (1999). Word and Rules: The Ingredients of Language. London : Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

    About the reviewer: David Deterding is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His webpage is: