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Discussion Details

Title: Optimality Theory and trends in children's speech
Submitter: Aubrey Nunes
Description: While OT has enjoyed great descriptive success in relation to 'end-state'
or competent phonology, it seems to me less capable of explaining trends in
children's speech. Because these trends have not been taught, it seems to me
that they have to fall out, either from the theory of acquisition, or from
the properties of the Articulatory/Perceptual interface - in terms of ‘ease
of articulation’ or analogical or some other sort of mishearing. Some of
these trends are asymmetric.

Two asymmetries, noted by Cruttenden (1978) are:

Fronting with Coronal context-freely replacing Dorsal in stops as
overwhelmingly the commonest such process;

Dorsal harmony in 'doggy' as [gogi] overwhelmingly commoner than
coronal harmony.

There is also Smith's (1973) 'puddle puzzle', with Dorsal again
replacing Coronal, but this time in a way which seems to me disharmonic, in
'puddle' as [pugal].

In Nunes (2002) from two experiments with a total of 120
normally-developing children up to the age of 8;6 I also found further
asymmetries, such as:

Metathesis in 'hospital' as [hostipal] the only articulator in any of
the 120, very rarely labial harmony (in one child with a serious speech
disorder), and coronal harmony, not at all, as far as I know;

Disharmony in ‘monopoly’ as [manokali], as the only one step process I have
ever observed involving the articulators in this word.

Migration of the /s/ in 'spaghetti' to a position in the onset of the
stressed syllable with the surface form almost always as [basketi],
[psketi], or [sketi], with the mere reduction of the initial cluster as
[sageti] or [pageti] seemingly very rare (I have never heard it);

In 'soldier' the splitting of the affricate and the floating of the
non-anterior property of its fricative edge into the onset of the
stressed syllable to make the realisation a homonym of 'shoulder'
rather than the reduction of the affricate, giving 'solder' (not in any
of the 120, and otherwise rare);

Typically coronal harmony in a set of cases including 'cardigan',
'hippopotamus' and 'calculator' as [ka:didan], [hitapotamus] and
[kaltalayta] where the domain contains two oral stops. matching in all
respects including ambisyllabicity, differing only in their articulator.

In all of these cases, there is at least one possible alternative, seemingly
at least as easy to say, which children either don’t say or say only rarely.
These asymmetries can be seen in normally developing children's speech from
2;0 to 8;6, as well as in disordered phonologies. On independent grounds, it
is surprising to find asymmetries in errors.

Not speculating on whether these errors are at the point of lexicalisation
or in the speech production system, the asymmetries as a set are not easily
or plausibly attributable to A/P interface effects.

This leaves only the theory of acquisition.

In every case, there may a description of the process in terms of
Descriptive Faithfulness or some other constraint. But this does not
explain why the process occurs where it does. For OT to account for
asymmetries which have no reflex in competent phonology, it would seem
necessary to postulate constraints which are universally outranked,
violating Pinker's 1984 Continuity criterion and the similar idea from
Atkinson (1982).

Atkinson, M. (1982) Explanations in the study of child language.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cruttenden, A. (1978) Assimilation in child language and elsewhere.
Journal of Child Language 5: 373 – 378.

Nunes, A. (2002) The Price of a Perfect System: Learnability and the
Distribution of Errors in the Speech of Children Learning English as a First
Language. PhD Thesis, University of Durham.

Pinker, S. (1984) Language learnability and language development.
Harvard: University Press.

Smith, N. (1973) The Acquisiiton of phonology. Cambridge: University Press.
Date Posted: 26-Nov-2004
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
LL Issue: 15.3307
Posted: 26-Nov-2004

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