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Review of  Optimality Theory and Phonetics-Phonology Interface

Reviewer: Peter T. Richtsmeier
Book Title: Optimality Theory and Phonetics-Phonology Interface
Book Author: Štefan Beňuš
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): Hungarian
Issue Number: 21.2571

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AUTHOR: Štefan Beňuš
TITLE: Optimality Theory and Phonetics-Phonology Interface
SERIES: LINCOM Studies in Theoretical Linguistics 40
YEAR: 2009

Peter T. Richtsmeier, Ph.D., Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing
Sciences, Purdue University

''Optimality Theory and Phonetics-Phonology Interface'' provides an account of
Hungarian vowel harmony within the framework of Optimality Theory (hereafter OT;
Prince & Smolensky 2004). Beňuš' approach to vowel harmony, and phonology in
general, incorporates articulatory data of Hungarian vowel production and the
dynamic formalism of Articulatory Phonology (Browman & Goldstein 1995, Gafos
2002, Gafos & Beňuš 2006).

Chapters 1, 2, and 3 provide introductions to phonology, OT, and articulatory
dynamics, respectively. The scientific heart of the book, however, is Chapter 4.
There Beňuš presents word sets outlining the general patterning of vowel harmony
in Hungarian, phonetic data regarding vowel articulation in different harmonic
environments, and an OT analysis. Beňuš keeps much of his analysis focused on
the Hungarian vowels that are transparent to harmony: /i/ and /i:/, and to some
degree /e/ and /e:/. He argues that these vowels are transparent because 1) they
can be retracted phonetically with minimal change to their perceptual
characteristics, and 2) this retraction does not push them into the perceptual
space of other vowels. Based on these generalizations, he proposes OT
constraints that specify the articulation of Hungarian vowels. A class of AGREE
markedness constraints requires vowel harmony within the stem and across
suffixes. These interact with IDENT faithfulness constraints that require
uniformity of vowel perception and articulation from underlying to surface

The most exciting section of the book is the review of past formal analyses of
vowel harmony. The basic finding running through previous research is that
transparent vowels do not participate in harmony on a perceptual level but do at
an articulatory level: Articulation of the vowel changes with the harmonic
environment, but the percept remains constant (Bakovic & Wilson 2000, Gafos
1999, Kaun 1995). In other words, /i/ in Hungarian may participate in harmony at
an articulatory level but not at a perceptual level. The non-high vowel /e/ has
less wiggle room with respect to its percept, however, which is why it appears
to be less transparent.

The OT account Beňuš provides is internally consistent. Markedness constraints
push morphologically complex forms to harmonize their vowels while faithfulness
constraints preserve the contrasts we see on the surface. Nevertheless, the
marriage between OT's parallel architecture and the inherently time-dependent
nature of Articulatory Phonology's dynamic specification seems contradictory.
Ultimately, the book does not explain how articulatorily specified whole words
are evaluated by a set of constraints, and the reader is left to wonder how this
tricky theoretical task is accomplished.

This dilemma is obscured to some degree in the book because the constraints are
presented as if they are evaluated at a single point in time. The argumentation
goes something like this: If vowel articulation at some point is at such and
such position, no violation; if the articulation is at some other point, one or
more violations. Presumably, however, words in the lexicon are not timeless
transcriptions but instead gestural scores, or records of articulatory placement
over time. So, for the OT grammar to evaluate a candidate, it must evaluate the
temporally specified gestural score rather than a set of phonemes. Beňuš
(personal communication) argues that the gestural score consists of ''parameters
such as stiffness, initial position, target location, etc.'' which can be
evaluated by an OT grammar without respect to time. However, this specification
is not detailed in the book, so it is difficult to understand how this
evaluation will work.

Another concern raised by the analysis is that it treats non-contrastive
articulatory differences as phonological. As mentioned above, the analysis
allows for transparent vowels such as /i/ to have multiple articulatory
specifications while maintaining a constant percept. The problem is that the
analysis implies that the different articulations of /i/ are themselves goals,
similar to allophones. This creates a problem with respect to multiple /i/
vowels: If all the vowels are specified for position, the number of /i/ vowels
should not change which suffixes are permitted. This turns out not to be the
case. Compare, for example the alternating azpirin-ban/ben (aspirin-in) to
kabin-ban/*ben (cabin-in). Why would combinations of transparent vowels be less
transparent (i.e., allow for the fronted suffix –ben) than single transparent
vowels? This fact is most readily explained if articulation of transparent
vowels is the result of coarticulation, as others have suggested (Gordon 1999,
Valima-Blum 1999), which would allow later /i/ vowels in a word to maintain a
nominally fronted articulation. Beňuš essentially adopts this coarticulation
analysis for stems with multiple transparent vowels, but he does not provide an
account that makes predictions for why transparency effects are the result of
coarticulation in some places but not in others.

With respect to future work, it seems essential that a better explanation be
given for how Articulatory Phonology can be incorporated into an OT framework.
The present analysis, while suggestive, is far from complete. Furthermore,
additional articulatory data may clarify the relationship between vowel
transparency and coarticulation. If Beňuš is right to adopt the view that
transparency does occasionally involve perceptually indistinct articulatory
goals, further evidence is necessary, particularly in terms of explaining when
coarticulation accounts for apparent cases of harmony and when it does not.


Bakovic, Eric & Colin Wilson (2000) Transparency, strict locality, and targeted
constraints. In R. Billerey and D. B. Lillehaugen (Eds.), WCCFL 19 Proceedings,

Browman, Catherine P. & Louis M. Goldstein (1995) Dynamics and articulatory
phonology. In R. F. Port and T. van Gelder (Eds.), Mind as Motion, pp. 175-193.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gafos, Adamantios (1999) The articulatory basis of locality in phonology. New
York: Garland.

Gafos, Adamantios (2002) A grammar of gestural coordination. Natural Language
and Linguistic Theory 20, 269-337.

Gafos, Adamantios & Stefan Beňuš (2006) Dynamics of phonological cognition.
Cognitive Science 30(5), 905-943.

Gordon, Matthew (1999) The ''neutral'' vowels of Finnish: How neutral are they?
Linguistica Uralica 1, 17-21.

Kaun, Abigail (1995) The typology of rounding harmony: An Optimality Theoretic
approach. Doctoral dissertation, UCLA. [Published as UCLA Dissertations in
Linguistics, No. 8].

Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky (2004) Optimality Theory: Constraint interaction
in generative grammar. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Valimaa-Blum, Riitta (1999) A feature geometric description of Finnish vowel
harmony covering both loans and native words. Lingua 108, 247-268.

Dr. Richtsmeier studies language learning in young children using artificial grammars. His current research focuses on the contributions of phonetic variability and word-type frequency to phonological learning.