Language Evolution: The Windows Approach addresses the question: "How can we unravel the evolution of language, given that there is no direct evidence about it?"
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AUTHOR: Nina Topintzi TITLE: Onsets SUBTITLE: Suprasegmental and Prosodic Behaviour SERIES TITLE: Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 125 PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2010
Christopher R. Green, Department of Linguistics, Indiana University
This book is a revised and extended version of Topintzi's 2006 thesis from University College London. The work offers an extensive presentation of a historically controversial topic, namely the moraicity of segments located in the onset position of a syllable. Topintzi provides a compelling argument in favor of the presence of two types of moraic onsets (underlying and coerced) that places all syllable constituents on equal standing regarding their ability to associate with a mora. The just-noted language-specific differences in these properties are attributed to the ranking of optimality theoretic constraints on onset markedness. The author presents typological evidence drawn from a diverse set of languages in support of her claim that moraic onsets clearly exist in the languages of the world but have been glossed over for theoretical reasons by many phonologists. Phenomena such as compensatory lengthening, stress, gemination, and word minimality effects are discussed, among others. Topintzi's new theory acts as an extension of standard Hayesian (1989) moraic theory by admitting moraic onsets; however it still retains the ability to distinguish between languages that have them and those that do not.
Chapter 1 presents Topintzi's theory of onset moraicity by reviewing the failure of other theories of syllable and moraic structure to entertain an account of languages and phenomena in which onset weight can be implicated. The initial focus is on stress, for which she presents a typology of languages where either the quality of an onset, the presence of an onset, or both can be responsible for stress patterning. Throughout the book, onset moraicity is framed alongside coda moraicity, more specifically in regards to the fact that the presence vs. absence of coda moraicity is a language-specific feature that, seldom challenged, can be either an underlying or coerced characteristic. Along these same lines, the author argues that onset moras can also be distinctive and supplied underlyingly (i.e. true geminates) or similarly coerced or induced by constraint. The latter situation is introduced in this chapter in terms of the ranking of three key markedness constraints, and most importantly *μ/Ons/[+voi] >> Be Moraic >> *μ/Ons, which becomes the focus of discussion in Chapter 2. Via this ranking, onset-sensitive stress can be discussed in languages where either the quality of the onset (QO, e.g. Karo), the presence of the onset (PO, e.g. Aranda), or both (e.g. Pirahã) come into play in stress assignment patterns. The necessity of this ranking is clearest in QO languages, where the author argues that [-voice] sounds make the best moraic onsets. Sonorant onsets can be moraic onsets depending on their specification in a given language for the feature [voice]. This particular onset phenomenon differs markedly from the analogous situation in codas where sonority, rather than voice, is most closely linked to moraicity. PO languages are discussed in terms of stress-on-onset vs. onset-on-stress systems where, simply put, onsetless syllables in stressed positions acquire onsets and stress falls on a specific syllable unless it is onsetless, respectively. Languages like Pirahã utilize a combination of characteristics for weight (e.g. length, onset presence, and voicing) and necessitate a slightly different analysis. Overall, the author argues that certain languages have the ability to alter their prosodic and/or structural characteristics in response to the requirements of stress assignment. Moreover, the languages illustrated do so based upon the characteristics of syllable onsets.
Topintzi, in Chapter 3, next targets onsets as either the trigger or target of various instances of compensatory lengthening. A key point of this chapter is the author's proposal that noted onset-related compensatory lengthening phenomena require that this process must not be viewed as one that acts to preserve moras, but rather one that preserves positions, whether segmental or prosodic. This point is motivated via the proposal of a cover constraint, Position Correspondence (PosCorr), that acts like other Identity(I-O) constraints in demanding faithfulness to a given position, whether via the preservation of a root node or a mora. Furthermore, in this chapter, Topintzi presents her argument that onset moraicity is a property evaluated on a language-specific basis, just as has come to be accepted for coda moraicity. A language's ranking of PosCorr among others markedness constraints, and critically above a P-Dep-μ constraint (i.e. do not insert a non-positional mora-licenser), motivates deletion either with or without compensatory lengthening. By introducing several additional highly-ranked and powerful constraints, Topintzi is able to formalize noted outcomes in certain languages, particularly Samothraki Greek. She then problematizes the idea of compensatory lengthening (CL) as mora preservation, as argued for in Hayes (1989), as well as Kavitskaya's (2002) phonetic account of the process. Topintzi discusses the inherent issue encountered in a Hayesian CL analysis, specifically that proposing the assignment of a mora via Weight by Position, as Hayes does, necessitates either seriality of derivation (an idea not supported in classic Optimality Theory) or the assignment of an underlying mora (a violation of Richness of the Base (Prince & Smolensky 1993/2004)). Topintzi's account of CL, however, penalizes position loss without reference to the underlying moraic representation of a given word. A complicating factor to her analysis is the introduction of a variety of other powerful constraints to motivate certain other types of CL noted in the languages of the world.
An exceptionally interesting portion of this book is Chapter 4 in which Topintzi discusses the role of onset moraicity in meeting word minimality requirements, specifically in Bella Coola (e.g. Bagemihl 1991). The author explains that Bella Coola represents a unique instance in which the ranking of Be Moraic is promoted, given the ability in this language for any consonant to be a moraic onset, i.e. Be Moraic >> *μ/Ons/[+voi] >> *μ/Ons. This unique quality, however, is only witnessed in CV syllables where this constraint ranking, alongside others demanding such attributes as minimal bimoraicity but militating against segment insertion, compel onsets to either gain or retain their moraicity. Furthermore, these requirements and their relationship to restrictions on word maximality (via Root-Max) and a relatively high-ranked MParse (e.g. Prince & Smolensky 1993/2004) place tight bounds on the overall process.
Chapter 5 focuses on the information that geminates and gemination can supply in support of onset moraicity. In this chapter, Topintzi focuses on underlying or 'true' geminates, i.e. the idea that underlyingly moraic consonants can surface as geminates in both onset and coda positions. The author argues that the well-known 'flopped' geminate structure in which a geminate consonant is syllabified as part of both a moraic coda and a non-moraic onset is inadequate and rather ill-informed. Furthermore, she takes as an issue the fact that duration is not necessarily a phonetic correlate of geminates, but rather that often the increased length of geminates results only from syllabification. Drawing evidence from Pattani Malay, Topintzi presents a case in which a regularized pattern of final stress is altered in words containing an initial geminate consonant, suggesting therefore that the initial geminate carries weight, renders its syllable heavy, and attracts stress. Initial geminates, thus, act as moraic onsets. Topintzi next takes up the case of Trukese, described in more detail by Davis & Torretta (1998), to illustrate the interaction between word minimality and compensatory lengthening. In Trukese, a bimoraic word minimality condition can be satisfied by either a long vowel or an initial geminate, and furthermore, additional processes that delete a mora (and thereby yield a potential word minimality violation) can be compensated for (in some instances) via the creation of an onset geminate. What is key in this chapter is that underlying moraic consonants that are syllabified as onsets can participate in the same phonological processes as their coerced counterparts discussed earlier. Topintzi also explores the properties of word-medial geminates to illustrate that they, too, can function as onsets, rather than being contained in a 'flopped' structure. This argument is shown most convincingly for Marshallese. In this language, word-final closed syllables are not heavy, but otherwise heavy syllables attract stress. Words containing a final syllable with an initial geminate attract stress. The phenomenon is striking in that word-final geminate syllables are able to attract stress to the exclusion of potentially stress-bearing syllables earlier in the word. Thus, this presents an argument for the representation of moraic geminate onsets and against 'flopped' structure.
Chapter 6 departs somewhat from Topintzi's overall direction of argumentation in that it introduces a number of inconclusive cases of moraic onsets, as well as languages in which she believes onset moraicity has been incorrectly or perhaps carelessly proposed. She also considers additional phenomena that are more problematically discussed in terms of the role of onset weight, among them tone, reduplication, and certain other metrical features. Notably, Topintzi offers provocative discussion on the rarity of onset moraicity which she frames in terms of the general rarity of onset deletion processes and the conflicting demands of tone and moraicity on particular types of segments that can potentially be found in onsets.
Taking a step back, it would have been perhaps worthwhile to start this book by first reading the final chapter of conclusion and discussion before attempting to delve into the extensively detailed and formal analysis offered in the core chapters of the work. This is because it is in the final chapter that Topintzi makes her most compelling and transparent statement of the facts and phenomena upon which her theory so explicitly relies. By reading this chapter first, the intricate facts and progression of the author's argument would more readily have fallen into place. While the first chapter of the book surely offers the reader an overview of moraic theory and necessary preliminaries on onset moraicity and weight, it rather quickly delves into an intricate presentation of data and an even more detailed introduction to several relatively unusual optimality theoretic constraints whose ranking and roles require some thoughtful reflection and understanding on behalf of the uninitiated reader. Furthermore, I venture to guess that those who have had only basic or introductory exposure to optimality theoretic analysis and argumentation would not have much luck tackling such a book (or even a chapter of it), as Topintzi's keen, thoughtful, and rather elegant analyses are full of subtleties that likely fall beyond the familiarity of many readers. Overall, Topintzi's work is thought-provoking and her presentation of typological data in favor of onset moraicity quite intriguing.
This is not to say, however, that it does not appear to have a few minor but important analytical shortcomings. Briefly among these is Topintzi’s attempt to account for the seemingly exceptional behavior of Karo stress. While Topintzi understandably argues against alternate analyses for various phenomena, her argument against Gabas (1999) on the subject of Karo does not resolve the analytical dilemma, but instead problematizes the presented alternative analyses by turning focus to the proposition that her reanalysis is ''more promising'' and ''more advantageous''. More specifically, while Topintzi’s analysis appears to account for a handful of exceptional cases that defy Gabas’ anticipated stress shift, her analysis fails to account for other problematic cases. In order to address such recalcitrant data, Topintzi lays blame to unidentified (i.e. presumably mistranscribed) H tone and nasalization in such instances where her analysis unfortunately falls short. Blumenfeld's (2006) analysis of this language is similarly deemed by the author to be ''less economical''. In this and several other instances, the author's stance against previous work is quite strong. Also somewhat problematic is her frequent use of optimality theoretic cover constraints that act (whether intentionally or not) like phonological rules and have the effect of overlooking or overshadowing the intricacies that they entail, a practice reminiscent of what she argues against in this book concerning the state of knowledge on moraic onsets. These minor criticisms, however, do not detract in any significant way from the overall contribution of Topintzi's work. Indeed, the subject of onset moraicity is one about which relatively few phonologists are aware and one which perhaps even more phonologists are likely to gloss over or conversely to ignore in the face of better known moraic principles (or generalizations) offered in earlier work. The facts presented and principles challenged should provide a true 'reality check' when it comes to ideas such as the prosodic inertness of onsets that phonologists perhaps too often take for granted.
Bagemihl, Bruce (1991) Syllable structure in Bella Coola. Linguistic Inquiry 22: 589-646.
Blumenfeld, Lev (2006) Constraints on phonological interaction. Doctoral dissertation, Stanford University.
Davis, Stuart & Gina Torretta (1998) An optimality-theoretic account of compensatory lengthening and geminate throwback in Trukese. NELS 28: 111-125.
Gabas Jr., Nelson (1999) A grammar of Karo (Tupi). Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara.
Hayes, Bruce (1989) Compensatory lengthening in moraic phonology. Linguistic Inquiry 20: 253-306.
Kavitskaya, Darya (2002) Compensatory lengthening: Phonetics, phonology, diachrony. New York and London: Routledge.
Prince, Alan & Paul Smolensky (1993/2004) Optimality Theory: Constraint interaction in generative grammar. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Christopher Green (Ph.D., Indiana University) is a Research Scientist at
the University of Maryland’s Center for Advanced Study of Language. His
work focuses on prosodic phonology, and more specifically on syllabic and
moraic theory and tone in African languages, with a specialization in the
Mande sub-family. Green’s research aims to highlight the descriptive and
theoretical merits of exploring understudied and underdocumented languages
through firsthand field linguistics. Chris’s dissertation, 'Prosodic
phonology in Bamana (Bambara): Syllable complexity, metrical structure, and
tone', explores the phonological changes apparent in an emergent variety of
Bamana spoken in Bamako, Mali, and frames segmental and tonal processes
underway in the language in reference to prosodic structure above the level
of the syllable.