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Review of  Phonological Typology

Reviewer: Yolanda Rivera Castillo
Book Title: Phonological Typology
Book Author: Matthew K Gordon
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Morphology
Issue Number: 28.470

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Phonological Typology by Matthew Gordon (2016, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press) describes cross-linguistic patterns of phonological systems. It provides explanations for these patterns by relying on formal studies of system internal restrictions, experimental data from studies in phonetics and perception, and statistical analysis of large corpora. This is a most welcome approach that brings data from different fields to support the phonological generalizations it describes. Ultimately, as the author states, most research on phonology inevitably deals with typological issues (p. 1):

Because phonological theory dating back to work by Trubetzkoy (1939), Hockett (1955), Jakobson (1962), and Jakobson et. al. (1963) has characteristically been concerned with explaining and modelling cross-linguistic variation, typology has become largely inseparable from most research in phonology […].

The author indicates that, despite this connection, phonology has an “impoverish[ed] position” in typology (p. 5). That explains why this book plays an important role in this field since it delivers an overview of research done so far in key areas: segmental inventories, segmental processes, syllable structure, prosodic features, and prosodic morphology.

Therefore, this book is of interest, not only to phonologists who work on typology, but also to all those interested in sound systems. Additionally, those interested in the interface between phonological subsystems and between prosody and morphology will find this book informative and challenging since the results of the data analysis contest some generalizations stated by previous work.

This book offers in depth descriptions and analyses of sub-system interfaces that are not always available in multi-feature large projects such as WALS. Nevertheless, the author draws data, precisely, from WALS, UPSID, Stress-TYP, and similar projects in order to incorporate information from a large number of languages, including different language families.

This book incorporates data from phonological and phonetic analyses, describing correlations between these, and facilitating generalizations informed by phonetic data and their interpretation, following on previous work by the author (Gordon 1999, 2002, 2005, and 2006). This goal should guide all inquiries in phonology, according to proponents of Laboratory Phonology (Ohala 1990). However, some have argued that functional explanations to the emergence of linguistic patterns should be sufficient, that there is no need to appeal to structural motivations, such that all regular sound change is “phonetically motivated” (Blevins 2008). Still, there are cases in which phonetic conditions do not lead to the same results. For example, Svatensson and House (2006) have demonstrated that dialects of the same language, that share numerous similarities, can develop very different prosodic systems from the same phonetic conditions.

The author’s approach consists of combining phonetic and phonological explanations, as he has stated in previous work (Gordon 2002: 54-55): “[…] the phonology of weight is the result of a compromise between choosing weight distinctions that are not only ideal phonetically but also structurally simple in terms of the phonological predicates it manipulates.” This, together with the integration of generalizations about different subsystems (i.e., segmental and prosodic) into a coherent interpretation of cross-linguistic patterns, elucidates the role of interface in phonological structure.

The book is organized as follows:
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: Theory and Explanation in Phonological Typology
Chapter 3: Phonemic Inventories
Chapter 4: Syllables
Chapter 5: Segmental Processes
Chapter 6: Stress
Chapter 7: Tone and Intonation
Chapter 8: Prosodic Morphology

Chapter 1: Introduction

This chapter provides an overview of the approaches applied in this typological analysis. Both constraint-based and frequency-based explanations are at the core of the study. It combines findings from phonological theory and typology (p. 5): “This book thus represents an attempt to provide a synthesis of the fields of typology and modern phonological theory.” This chapter also provides a list of languages (pgs. 10-14) included in the survey for the purpose of drawing statistical generalizations, while indicating that it incorporates a smaller set of major languages than WALS.

Chapter 2: Theory and Explanation in Phonological Typology

In this chapter, the author discusses the classic issue of the relation between phonetics and phonology in relation to the development of typological generalizations: “An important unresolved issue among phonologists is the extent to which phonological predicates themselves are sufficient to explain patterns without recourse to phonetic and other functional factors.”

The author indicates that the role of phonetic factors in the typology of phonological patterns is the subject of vigorous debate (p. 32). For example, regarding the realization of laryngeal features (voicing or devoicing) in different syllabic positions, he describes a phonetically driven approach, such as Steriade’s (1999) analysis of Hungarian voicing, which reveals advantages in predicting the location of voiceless consonants. However, the author indicates, Steriade’s (1999) account does not capture four way alternations in languages like Lezgian. Additionally, non-phonetically driven accounts (Lombardi’s 1995) leaves some facts unexplained. The author concludes that diachronic approaches, like those of Evolutionary Phonology (Blevins 2004, 2006), provide more accurate explanations to these specific facts. An important question raised by these conclusions is whether these cases must be treated synchronically as exceptions (listed in the lexicon), or if a synchronic explanation is necessary.

Finally, Chapter 2 introduces this book’s guiding principle in phonological explanations, which includes a combination of different approaches and types of data, while avoiding analytical biases.

Chapter 3: Phonemic Inventories

The author presents generalizations concerning frequency of phonemes in different languages. He demonstrates that the frequency of phones within languages often matches frequency measures cross-linguistically. Then again, the author’s explanation of phoneme frequency is grounded in phonological and phonetic facts. For example, typically voiced fricatives are less frequent than their voiceless counterparts. However, labial and non-sibilant dental voiced fricatives (β/ɸ, ð/θ) are more frequent than their voiced counterparts. He argues (pgs. 46-47) that this asymmetry regarding certain voiced fricatives is due to the fact these phonemes, often described as fricatives, are actually approximants in many languages.

Moreover, regarding geminates, the author explains that, although voiceless obstruent geminates (/tt/) are more easily perceived in perception experiments, these are not necessarily more frequent than geminates (such as /jj/ and /ll/), which are harder to perceive (p. 56). Therefore, the relation between segmental frequency and perception is not a simple one.

The author puts forward numerous generalizations regarding segmental inventories. The issue of distinctiveness is related to the articulatory distance between phonemes. He summarizes different approaches that address the issue of the distribution of vowels in the vowel space, frequency, and the typology of phoneme inventories (pgs. 57-82). There is a critical assessment of approaches such as Adaptive Dispersion Theory, Dispersion Focalization Theory, Quantal Theory, proposals of articulatory complexity, perceptual saturation, feature enhancement, and feature economy.

On the other hand, secondary features enhance auditory saliency (p. 65), among which we find creaky and breathy voicing, aspiration, and prenasalization, elaborated place features (labiodentals, palatoalveolars, retroflexes, uvulars, and pharyngeal), and elaborated airstream mechanisms (clicks, implosives, and ejectives). The conflict between auditory clarity and articulatory difficulty is evident in the low frequency of segments with secondary features (see Haspelmath 2006 for discussion).

Finally (p. 43), Gordon describes the “Correspondence Problem” (Corbett, 2008) for datasets he accesses for his descriptions:

More generally, because UPSID relies on a collection of language descriptions that vary considerably in their thoroughness and accuracy, it is susceptible to occasional erroneous or misleading data […] These criticisms also pertain to other large-scale surveys consulted for this book.

However, the author states that the more quantitatively robust typological generalizations overcome these problems.

Chapter 4: Syllables

This chapter deals with generalizations on the composition of syllables cross-linguistically and intra-linguistically. It includes descriptions of common patterns at syllable edges as well as part of syllabic nuclei.

An important generalization made by this book is that the frequency of syllable types does not determine which syllable types are basic and which are not. For example, CV constitutes the basic type, found in all languages. However, only 12.6% of languages allow only CV as a syllable type in the WALS survey (p. 85), a generalization that runs against claims made about languages such as Creoles, often described as allowing only CV structures (McMahon 1994; Kinney 2005). Another interesting generalization is that languages allowing onsetless syllables are as common as those licensing syllables with single codas (CVC). This applies despite that fact that ONSET is a high-ranking constraint in numerous languages, according to OT analyses, and has been described as a requirement since early OT descriptions (Prince and Smolensky 1993).

Regarding intralinguistic sets of consonants, the author finds a correlation between the number of consonants and syllable complexity. This follows from Maddieson’s (2007, 2013) description, which states that languages “with simple syllables have a mean of 17.66 consonants and those with syllables of intermediate complexity have an average 21.30 consonants, and those with greater complexity possess a mean of 25.28 consonants. (p. 119)” Clearly, a larger set of consonants provides a more divergent set of melodic profiles, which allows for greater differentiation among adjacent segments. According to the author, similar correlations emerge between the number of consonants and the complexity of onsets and codas.

Finally, this book does not question the validity of sonority scales despite the fact that the author acknowledges that there are numerous exceptions in cases of sonority reversals and in the fact that “[…] sibilant fricatives disobey sonority sequencing principles and that dental/alveolar consonants are more freely tolerated than other consonants at the periphery of clusters (p. 104).” The author demonstrates that syllabic constituency is not a matter of simple formulas but a complex issue determined by numerous factors, including but not limited to: the number of consonants in the language, the number of vocoids in the nucleus, and the similarities in place features between adjacent vowels and consonants.

Chapter 5: Segmental Processes

Gordon (p. 123) describes three key segmental processes: (a) alternations and constraints on the “featural” properties of sounds induced either by adjacent or nearby sounds or by position (assimilation/dissimilation/fortition/lenition); (b) changes in the number of sounds (deletion/insertion); and (c) alternations in the “ordering” of adjacent or nearby sounds (metathesis).

Regarding assimilation, the author describes consonant-consonant, consonant-vowel, vowel-vowel feature changes. Typologically, there are very few instances in which a vowel influences a consonant (p. 127), except in cases of palatalization. Other generalizations involve the directionality of consonant-to-consonant assimilation, which is typically regressive. This is true except in the case of sets of coronal consonants, due to the phonetic saliency of the first consonant in these.

This book addresses the fact that many frameworks lack the mechanisms to explain long distance assimilation. For example, one of the strengths of Autosegmental Theory is that it explains the presence of segments that “block” or are “neutral” in long distance assimilation. However, the author points out, if vowels and consonants belong to different tiers, AT cannot explain cases of nasal feature spreading in Sundanese, since nasalization spreads to vowels, glides, and glottal consonants, and is only blocked by oral vowels.

Finally, in the case of deletion and insertion, the author underlines the role of stress and syllable structure constraints in determining when these processes apply.

Chapter 6: Stress

This chapter outlines key issues regarding stress placement. There is extensive discussion of analyses of syllable weight, moraic representation, and metrical structure and the effectiveness of these in explaining the variety and complexity of stress placement in different languages.

The author includes data from the Stress-Typ project, a large project that describes the stress systems based on whether stress assignment is bounded or unbounded, if it is weight sensitive or not, among other criteria (Goedemans & van der Hulst 2009). A number of languages (750) and, for the most part, primary sources have become part of this project (van der Hulst 2014: 37). There is also the Stress Pattern Database, created by Jeffrey Heinz in 2006, which includes 403 languages (van der Hulst 2014:38).

He concludes that there is a core distinction between weight sensitive and fixed stress systems. Gordon also explains the role of vowel quality in stress placement. However, the issue of whether vowel quality is driven by stress level or if it is the other way around, is not discussed in detail in this chapter. Rather, the author approaches this issue by considering the relation between vowel quality and rhyme weight. He proposes two scales based on his previous work (p. 184, on Gordon 2006): one sensitive to the nucleus and its melodic features, and one sensitive to rhyme weight. This overcomes the circularity of approaches that claim vowel quality is determined by stress level, while these also claim that stress falls on syllables with full vowels.

There is extensive discussion of binarity and the role of foot type in the analysis of stress placement, while the author also suggests that incorporating ternary feet in representations might explain some cases better than by simply using binary feet (p. 203). The author also discusses the issue of whether onsets play a role in syllable weight or not, concluding, based on his own previous work on perception (Gordon 2005) that the auditory nerve responds more acutely to vowels following an onset than to those in onsetless syllables.

Chapter 7: Tone and Intonation

The author evaluates different surveys of prosodic systems in this chapter. According to his conclusions, the majority of languages use tone to convey lexical contrasts (p. 215). However, he recognizes that separating languages into tone and stress groups is problematic.

As indicated by the author, tone can be delimitative or culminative (quoting Downing 1996). Moreover, he indicates that there are systems in which tone assignment suggests the presence of a related metrical structure (p.218). This brings up the question of what distinguishes tonal from stress systems. His answer is that (quoting Hyman 2006) metrical prominence is obligatory in stress systems but not in tone systems (p. 219). His assessment approaches the issue of distinctions between prominence systems, and the possibility that most languages have mixed features in their systems, as proposed by Duanmu (2004).

This chapter addresses other issues, such as the “complexity” of tone systems (number of tones), the geographic distribution of non-tonal languages, contour versus level tones, frequency of tone types, the relation between syllable weight and contour tones, tonal processes (like tone sandhi), tonogenesis, depressor consonants, tonal crowding, and intonation, particularly final intonation contours.

Chapter 8: Prosodic Morphology

This chapter considers the issue of word minimality constraints and the structure of prosodic words. It also explains the role of minimality in reduplication and repair strategies.

The author indicates (p. 263) that minimality constraints “may hold of certain morphological classes of words but not others or may differ between morphological classes.” He also states that minimality constraints run contrary to weight scales, with the requirement that words be disyllabic (or bimoraic sequences) as the most restrictive of all conditions. Some languages have no constraints on word minima (such as English), while others (Mohawk) require that verbs comply with disyllabic minimality (p. 264). Repair strategies, including epenthesis, lengthening, among others, often apply to fulfil minimality constraints.

According to Gordon’s survey of 144 languages, only 35% of these exhibit minimality constraints. Regarding frequency, the most frequent constraint in Gordon’s (2006) survey (and the WALS sample) is that minimal words have a CVC syllable structure. He finds, from different surveys, that whole root reduplication is the most common type, and this may be ruled by morphological rather than phonological constraints.


This book achieves its main goal, as stated by the author (p. 302):

This book has attempted to provide an overview of the cross-linguistic distribution of a number of phonological properties by integrating results from three sources: existing typological surveys in the literature, a survey of various properties in the WALS sample of languages, and tabulations of language-internal frequency data.

This book constitutes an important contribution to the field of phonological typology. It also provides a unified description of some apparently unrelated phonological phenomena, therefore contributing to understanding the subsystem interface.


Blevins, Juliette. 2008. Phonetic Explanation without Compromise. Diachronica 25(1). 1-19.

Corbett, Greville G. 2008. Universals and Features. Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 76. 129-144.

Duanmu, San. 2004. Tone and Non-tone Languages: An alternative to language typology and parameters. Language and Linguistics 5(4). 891-923.

Goedemans, Rob & Harry van der Hulst. 2009. StressTyp: A database for word accentual patterns in the World languages. In Martin Everaert & Simon Musgrave (eds.), The Use of Databases in Cross-linguistic Research, pp. 235-282. New York/Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Gordon, Matthew K. 1999. Syllable Weight: Phonetics, Phonology, and Typology. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles-California.

Gordon, Matthew K. 2002. A Phonetically Driven Account of Syllable Weight. Language 78(1). 51-80.

Gordon, Matthew K. 2005. A Perceptually-driven Account of Onset-sensitive Stress. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 23. 595–653.

Haspelmath, Martin. 2006. Against Markedness. Journal of Linguistics, 41. 25-70.

Kinney, Ashlynn Leigh. 2005. Serial Organization of Speech Sounds in Creole Languages. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Texas-Austin, Austin-Texas.

McMahon, April S. 1994. Understanding Language Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murray, Robert W & Theo Vennemann. 1983. Sound change and syllable structure in Germanic phonology. Language 59(3). 514-528.

Ohala, John J. 1990. There is no interface between phonology and phonetics: A personal view. Journal of Phonetics 18. 153–171.

Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky. 1993. Optimality theory: constraint interaction in generative grammar. Rutgers Optimality Archive; ROA-537-0802.

Svantesson, Olaf & David House. 2006. Tone Production, Tone Perception, and Kamnu Tonogenesis. Phonology 23. 309-333.

Van der Hulst, Harry. 2014. The study of Word Accent and Stress: Past, present, and future. In Harry Van der Hulst (ed.), Word Stress: Theoretical and Typological Issues. Cambridge, pps. 3-55. UK: Cambridge University Press.
Yolanda Rivera-Castillo is currently a professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras campus. She has taught at different institutions in the US, and has chaired first-year language programs as well as linguistics programs. Her research interests include the study of the Papiamentu prosodic system, as well as nasalization and vowel harmony in Papiamentu and other Atlantic Creoles. She has published papers on Creole phonology as well as on the Phonology-Syntax interface.

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