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«1 English phonology and morphology Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero & April McMahon In: Aarts, Bas, & McMahon, April (2006). The handbook of English ...»

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English phonology and morphology

Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero & April McMahon


Aarts, Bas, & McMahon, April (2006). The handbook of English linguistics.

Oxford: Blackwell. 382-410.

1 Introduction

The title of this chapter poses a daunting challenge, since the

morphophonology of present-day English is one of the most intensively

studied areas in the whole of morphology and phonology. Indeed, as key

innovations in phonological and morphological theory have been introduced,

they have frequently been illustrated by means of case-studies from English:

this is true not only for classical rule-based generative phonology (Chomsky & Halle, 1968; henceforth SPE), but more recently for connectionist and dualroute approaches to inflection (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986; Pinker & Prince, 1988) and for output-output correspondence within Optimality Theory (OT) (Benua, 1995, 1997). It follows that we must define our aims somewhat narrowly.

First, then, this chapter focuses on interactions between phonology and morphology in present-day English and their implications for the shape of the morphology-phonology interface in natural language. Perforce, we disregard phonology-syntax interactions, although clearly some key facts and concepts in morphophonology have close phonosyntactic analogues. Our data are drawn from both British and American dialects, standard and vernacular, though obviously no variety is exhaustively described. We focus on facts that have figured prominently in the wider theoretical debate, but also pay some attention to phenomena that seem peculiar to English. Even the latter, however, underscore points of general relevance: as we shall see in section 3.5, for example, some of the idiosyncrasies of present-day English morphophonology are the product of historical contingencies; this illustrates how, when contending with the effects of diachrony, morphophonological theory routinely encounters historically conditioned facts that it can note but not explain.

From a theoretical viewpoint, we concentrate on major conceptions of the morphology-phonology interface, abstracting away from other dimensions of variation between theories. Wherever possible, therefore, our presentation is neutral between rule-based and constraint-based systems, with ‘rule’ simply meaning ‘symbolic generalization’ unless otherwise stated or required by context. We accordingly ignore the differences between rule-based Lexical Phonology and Morphology (LPM: e.g. Kaisse & Shaw, 1985; Kiparsky, 1982b, 1985) and Stratal OT (Bermúdez-Otero, 1999, forthcoming; Kiparsky, 1998, 2000; Orgun, 1996), except where the choice of model has affected the demarcation of phonology, morphology, and the lexicon (section 2) or the application of concepts such as cyclicity and level segregation (section 3). The generalaim of the chapter is to sift through the intricate debate (often highly esoteric and theory-internal) that surrounds English morphophonology and to identify key concepts and issues that deserve our continued attention, regardless of major shifts in the theoretical landscape.

2. The division of labour between phonology, morphology, and the lexicon

2.1 The problem We have thus far identified our main concern as being the interaction of morphology and phonology in present-day English, but the problem can only be formulated if we can first distinguish between (i) computations performed in the phonology, (ii) computations performed in the morphology, and (iii) lexical storage.

Here, however, the spectrum of opinion is extraordinarily wide. SPE did not countenance an independent morphological module and envisaged lexical storage as maximally economical, with all alternations derived via phonological rules. On the other hand, in connectionist and so-called cognitive approaches (Rumelhart & McClelland, 1986; Bybee, 1995, 2001) the lexicon is highly concrete and massively redundant: all grammatical knowledge, whether phonological or morphological, is taken to inhere in the network of associations between items stored in long-term memory, so that, in effect, the lexicon is the grammar.

2.2 Testing the boundaries

Most practitioners would assume intermediate positions between these two extremes; but, again, this raises the difficulty of formulating explicit criteria for drawing boundaries between the phonology, morphology, and lexicon.

The typical approach here has been to propose tests to identify genuine phonological rules. Below we review a number of these tests, although our list is not exhaustive.

• SPE allowed unlimited phonological opacity: such restrictions as it imposed emerged during acquistion from (relatively ill-defined) provisions in the evaluation measure. In contrast, [Bybee-]Hooper’s (1976) True Generalization Condition requires genuine phonological rules to be transparent, and therefore not to be contradicted by surface evidence.

Although this work has been influential, the proposal seems too strong:

more recent research usually acknowledges that phonological rules may be opaque, but proposes grammatical architectures that impose severe formal restrictions upon the complexity of phonological opacity effects, over and above learnability considerations (see e.g. Bermúdez-Otero, 2003, §2).

• Phonological naturalness has often been seen as a hallmark of genuine phonological rules, although ‘naturalness’ has variously been defined formally (e.g. genuine phonological rules operate over features, which define natural classes of segments, rather than random segment lists), or functionally (e.g. genuine phonological rules are phonetically grounded), or typologically. In OT, whether mono- or poly-stratal, naturalness is a key criterion, as every genuine phonological process must be the best solution to the problem posed by a given ranking of phonological markedness and faithfulness constraints. Definitions overlap here, since the notion of markedness in OT is intrinsically typological, but can be given both formal and functional readings, as in the recent controversy over the grounding of constraints (Bermúdez-Otero & Börjars, forthcoming; Hale & Reiss, 2000;

Hayes, 1999a; Hayes et al., 2004).

• In Kiparsky’s (1994, p.16) reading, Ford & Singh (1983) and Spencer (1991, §4.4) claim that all rules subject to morphological conditioning are morphological. A more nuanced version of this approach is advanced by Anderson (1992), who asserts that genuine phonological rules (as opposed to ‘word-formation’, i.e. morphological, rules) can be circumscribed to a morphologically defined domain, but cannot refer to specific morphemes or morphological/syntactic features. This claim is explicitly endorsed in Stratal OT by Orgun (1996) and, modulo alignment constraints, by Bermúdez-Otero (forthcoming, ch. 2). The cost of this strategy may be a proliferation of cophonologies, but see section 4 for some interesting applications of the concept of cophonology. Monostratal OT, in contrast, tacitly reverts to the SPE position that all morphological information is available to the phonology (see Bermúdez-Otero, forthcoming, ch. 2;

Orgun & Inkelas, 2002, p. 116).

• Kiparsky (1994) asserts that morphological rules can be distinguished from phonological rules (both lexical and postlexical) by the cluster of formal

properties in (1):


–  –  –

The properties in (1a) are clearly related to the criteria of transparency and naturalness: any transparent phonological rule will ipso facto be general and follow all morphological operations in the same cycle, while any natural phonological rule will ipso facto manipulate nonarbitrary phonological constituents and observe phonological locality conditions.

However, it should be clear that (1a) falls far short of requiring absolute transparency or naturalness. In consequence, Kiparsky’s (1994) proposal can easily be adopted in post-SPE rule-based frameworks, where opacity is formally unlimited and naturalness criteria are defined formally rather than functionally; but it will not work in theories with strong transparency and naturalness requirements —including, interestingly, Kiparsky’s own (1998,

2000) stratal version of OT.

• More recent work in Stratal OT seeks to derive the typical life-cycle of phonological rules (Harris, 1989; McMahon, 2000) from properties of the phonological learning algorithm. From this viewpoint, Bermúdez-Otero (2003, forthcoming) suggests that phonological alternations triggered by an independent phonotactic requirement are easier to acquire, and therefore more resistant to morphologization and lexicalization, than phonological alternations lacking in phonotactic motivation. The evidence of Berko’s (1958) classic wug test supports this claim: Berko found that, by age five, children acquiring English know that the plural noun suffix is an alveolar fricative, i.e. /-S/; however, when selecting among its surface allomorphs, i.e. [-z ~ -s ~ - z], children perform best when the choice is phonotactically determined (e.g. [w -z], [b k-s]), slightly worse when the choice requires knowledge of the underlying voice specification of the suffix (e.g. [l n-z], though *[l n-s] is phonotactically fine), and worst of all when there is competition between several potential repair strategies (e.g. [tæs- z] with epenthesis vs *[tæs] with coalescence).

• Finally, in their dual-route approach to morphology Pinker & Prince (1988) have produced detailed and fairly explicit criteria for distinguishing between lexical storage and morphological computation, at least for inflection. These criteria turn out to be relevant to the distinction between lexicon and phonology, although their applicability is limited. First, if a morphological item is (or can be) constructed online, the logic of the theory requires that all phonological alternations associated with that construction should also be computable online. Thus, since the past tense and past participle suffix /-d/ is added to verb stems by a genuine morphological rule, it follows that the [-d ~ -t ~ - d] alternation must also be generated by a (phonological) rule. As it happens, this rule is independently required to capture robust word-level phonotactic constraints, which provide further evidence for it. However, this argument does not work in the opposite direction: a phonological pattern may be enforced by a discrete symbolic generalization represented in the grammar even if it does not trigger alternations associated with regular morphological processes. An extreme case would be that of productive phonotactic patterns in isolating languages, which do not cause alternations but are shown to be grammatically active in, for instance, the nativization of loans (Yip, 1993, 1996).

2.3 Do the criteria converge?

If the theory of grammar is to have nontrivial empirical content, one should aim to draw the boundaries between phonology, morphology, and the lexicon by means of a set of logically independent but empirically convergent criteria.

As we have seen, however, some of the criteria reviewed in the previous section are mutually incompatible: for example, if phonological rules must be typologically or phonetically natural, then the scope of phonological computation will be considerably narrower than if the status of an alternation depends only on its form and locality properties, as suggested by Kiparsky (1994). Finding a set of convergent criteria has in fact proved to be rather hard. In this section we shall illustrate these difficulties by considering the possible involvement of a phonological process of vowel shift in the alternations found in strong verbs (e.g. eat~ate) and in irregular weak verbs (e.g. keep~kept).

As is well-known, present-day English has a number of vowel alternations triggered by morphologically sensitive processes of shortening and lengthening (see e.g. SPE, pp. 178ff.; Myers, 1987). Their morphological conditioning is discussed in section 3 below.

• In stressed antepenultimate syllables followed by a stressless penult, long vowels are subject to so-called ‘trisyllabic shortening’: e.g. sāne~sănity, serēne~serĕnity. This should be regarded as the result of trochaic shortening under final syllable extrametricality: i.e. (săni)ty, se(rĕni)ty (Hayes, 1995, §6.1.5). Trochaic shortening also applies in penultimate syllables before the suffix -ic: e.g. cyclōne~cyclŏnic, Hellēne~Hellĕnic (see section 4 below).

• Long vowels undergo shortening in closed syllables, assuming word-final consonants to be extrasyllabic: e.g. dēep~dĕpth, fīve~fĭfty.

• Finally, short vowels undergo lengthening when immediately followed by CiV sequences: e.g. comĕdy~comēdian, harmŏny~harmōnious.

In SPE, the qualitative aspect of these alternations is handled by means of a rule of long vowel shift, which largely recapitulates traditional accounts of the

diachronic evolution of long vowels in Early Modern English:

–  –  –

Consider now the vowel alternations found in strong verbs such as eat~ate, dig~dug, and fly~few, extensively discussed in Halle & Mohanan (1985). Halle & Mohanan’s analysis is ostensibly within LPM, but wears the restrictions inherent in the architecture of that model very lightly; in fact, it approximates in abstractness the SPE description on which it is based (see McMahon, 2000). Following the programmatic assumptions of SPE, Halle & Mohanan seek to derive these vowel alternations by rule, whilst positing the smallest possible number of rules and maximizing the application of each rule (i.e. its ‘functional yield’). To achieve this end, Halle & Mohanan formulate a number of (essentially morphological) processes of ablaut, and allow their output to take a free ride on long vowel shift. The alternations are thus factored out into a morphological and a phonological component.

–  –  –

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