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Revitalizing Endangered Languages

Edited by Justyna Olko & Julia Sallabank

Revitalizing Endangered Languages "This guidebook provides ideas and strategies, as well as some background, to help with the effective revitalization of endangered languages. It covers a broad scope of themes including effective planning, benefits, wellbeing, economic aspects, attitudes and ideologies."

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Dissertation Information

Title: The Nature of Homophony and its Effects on Diachrony and Synchrony Add Dissertation
Author: Jean-François Mondon Update Dissertation
Email: click here to access email
Institution: University of Pennsylvania, Department of Linguistics
Completed in: 2009
Linguistic Subfield(s): Historical Linguistics; Phonology; Language Acquisition;
Director(s): Donald Ringe
Rolf Noyer
Charles Yang

Abstract: An appeal to avoidance of homophony has been made by many linguists in both
the diachronic and synchronic arenas. In diachronic work it has been
suggested that a sound change can be prevented from occurring in a given
morphological environment if its occurrence would result in homophony with
another form; this is an example of the larger concept of 'prophylaxis.'
In synchronic work homophony has mainly been invoked in analyses couched in
an Optimality Theory (OT) framework. Viewed as a synchronic constraint
present in a grammar, anti-homophony effects have played a large role in
such analyses where expected surface forms are prevented from occurring if
they would result in intra-paradigmatic 3/4 and in some cases
transparadigmatic 3/4 homophony with another form. Once one attempts to
seriously model language change in an OT framework it becomes possible to
unite prophylaxis with synchronic anti-homophony effects by assuming that
regular sound changes start off as variable rules which are due to two or
more constraints which are not ranked with respect to each other. If,
however, an anti-homophony constraint is consistently ranked above the
non-strictly ranked constraints then the variable rules should fail to
apply in those environments (be they morphological or lexical) where
homophony would result.

Despite the apparent simplicity of this approach several criticisms can be
raised which highlight the problems which accompany such a theory. The
first half of the dissertation is devoted to proposing that no notion of
homophony-avoidance can play an active role in any component of the
grammar, whether phonological, morphological, syntactic, or what have you.
It reassesses the cases cited in the literature and concludes that most
are not strong examples of homophony avoidance in language change. For
those that are, however, a model of language change which does not violate
the Neogrammarian Hypothesis of the regularity of sound change is advanced.

Homophony has not only been discussed in the diachronic and theoretical
linguistic realm but it has also occasionally appeared - though ever so
briefly - in child language acquisition literature. The exact impact on
first language acquisition which homophony in the data imposes upon a child
seems to be ambiguous. Slobin theorized that 'if there are homonymous
forms in an inflectional system, those forms will tend not to be the
earliest inflections acquired by the child' (1973: 203). In fact, the
homonymous forms should tend to be replaced by those endings which have
fewer functions (i.e. 'inflectional imperialism'). As Smoczyńska (1985:
674) showed for Polish, however, 'the ending -i, which serves a number of
functions in the noun-declension system, is among the earliest endings used
by children.'

It seems as if homophonous endings are sometimes avoided while in other
situations they can even be overgeneralized or at least produced just as
early as non-homophonous ones. What explains this apparent
strengthening/retardation effect of homophony? The second part of this
dissertation develops a morphological learning algorithm which makes clear
predictions as to when homophony will be treated systematically as opposed
to accidentally by the linguistic system. The algorithm is tested against
language errors from Polish and Lithuanian.