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«Formal Phonology* David Odden OSU Abstract Two problematic trends have dominated modern phonological theorizing: over-reliance on machinery of ...»

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4. The nature of theoretical concepts As outlined above, Formal Phonology adopts a bottom-up inductive approach to theory formation. The main epistemological fact which the bottom-up approach focuses on is the transition from knowledge of language facts to conceptual conclusions about human language, which is to say, the justification for theoretical conclusions. Befitting its status as a scientific theory, FP requires a logically-organized system of conceptual knowledge.

4.1. The role of concepts in theorizing Conceptual knowledge is knowledge that extends beyond a concrete instance such as “this is Daddy”, “this is Fluffy” or “Fluffy broke the vase”. Conceptual knowledge refers to humans’ ability to identify characteristic properties of classes of things, as embodied in such identifications as “this is a person”, “this is a dog”, “Fluffy breaks vases”; and to further unify such identifications via higher-order identifications like “this is a mammal”. Positive attributes are a cognitive fact which humans can focus on, allowing them to identify instances of a conceptual category, by winnowing out the vast amount of stuff that is not relevant. To be useful as tools of knowledge, concepts must be simple, i.e. graspable by the mind in terms of a limited set of things that are already understood.

For instance, the phonological concept “spread” simply means “create an association relation between two elements”: a term encapsulates a simple definition. Suppose, however, that a theorist wanted to re-define the term “spread” to mean “add an association relation between an element dominated by Xiʹȃ and an immediately adjacent element Xjʹȃ to the right, provided that Xjʹȃ does not dominate anything; and otherwise, add a specification of X under Xjʹȃ which satisfies the OCP applied to X, scanning to the left”.

Whether or not some other advantage accrues to such a redefinition (eliminating “default specification” as a separate concept), it would be malformed as a concept, because of its considerable complexity.

Reaching a conceptual conclusion requires integrating and differentiating concrete instances to establish the referents of the concept. Integration means recognizing an essential similarity between those instances, and seeing that certain differences are unimportant. Differentiation means recognizing that some instances of a broader concept are, as a whole, distinct from other instances. The individuals referred to by the concept “dog” (this dog, that dog, the dog over yonder...) are not only “the same” in some essential respect, but they are all different from the things referred to by the concept “sheep”, “cow” or “jackal”. Likewise, the various things referred to by “jackal” are “the same” in certain essential ways, and are as a whole different from the things referred to by “dog”, “sheep” and “cow”. “Jackal” and “dog” may also be unified, based on their similarities, into a higher-level concept “canid”, which, as a whole, refers to different things from “bovid”.

Theory construction is, at its heart, the enterprise of discovering valid concepts in a domain. The physical concept “atom” refers to unnumerable actual things, including “this hydrogen atom”, “that hydrogen atom”, “that hydrogen atom over yonder”, “this carbon atom”, and so on. Its validity rests on the fact that it applies to an open-ended collection of instances, and the concept interacts with other concepts to accurately describe many aspects of nature, for instance the Law of Multiple Proportions in chemistry.

Needless to say, the Law of Multiple Proportions cannot simply be arbitrarily postulated in chemistry, it must be and was empirically established. To posit a scientific concept is to claim “This is true about the nature of the universe”, and the claim must be justified. Justifying a claim requires showing that it explains some fact, and that it is necessary in the light of alternatives. The fundamental necessity-basis for phonological concepts is that they capture the generalization “grammars do this” – there is no salvation for a theory which does not allow grammars to do what they actually do. Justification requires going beyond simply conjecturing that such-and-such might be the case, or finding an example that is consistent with a claim. It requires showing that there is a fact, and that upon consideration of alternatives, we must conclude that the facts are not already explained by existing concepts.

Modern formal theories of phonology are based on certain previous conclusions about the nature of the phonological computation, ones that have been amply justified by observing grammars in human lanFORMAL PHONOLOGY guages. Non-phonological aspects of grammars (syntax and morphology) concatenate


elements (morphemes) into linguistic expressions, yielding the input to the phonology, and phonological computations map that input to a physically implementable form, by changing representational properties of the input. At an early stage in the development of a theory of the mapping, conceptual knowledge about the computation will be limited, but it will expand by establishing new concepts. Early on, it would be recognized that phonological computation can involve more than one rule either within or between languages, which leads to the questions “how is this rule different from that rule?” and “what do rules, as a whole, have in common”. We observe that rules change segments in a systematic way in a defined context (“between vowels”, “after a nasal”, “before t,s,š,l,n”), and rules have three essential elements: the class of segments that are changed (the target), the class of segments that cause the change (the trigger), and the class of segments that result from the rule (the structural change).

It then becomes an empirical question what the nature of those elements is. Prior to determining what that nature is, it is metatheoretically known that their natures should be assumed to be the same.

Only a single concept – “feature bundle” – is needed to grasp what a target, trigger or structural change is, and unless there is compelling justification for distinguishing their natures, one should not entertain the possibility that the nature of “target” and “trigger” are distinct. Observation of rules leads to the conclusion that multiple segments can define a triggering context, thus {p,t,k} versus all others; {m,n,ŋ} versus all others; {p,b,m} versus all others, and this leads to the conclusion that rules are stated in terms of orthogonal properties (“features” – though the exact nature of those features, be they SPE-style, Government Phonology elements, or abstract minimalist structures in the fashion of the Parallel Structures Model or Radical Substance-Free Phonology, is a separate empirical question). The prior conclusion that rules have three formal elements (target, trigger, structural description) combines symmetrically with the new conclusion that rule elements are defined in terms of features, to yield the conclusion that targets are defined in terms of features, triggers are defined in terms of features, and structural changes are defined in terms of features. In the face of observational evidence from phonological rules, the simpler conclusion that a phonological grammar contains rules is elaborated by saying more precisely what a rule is, resulting in concepts identifying the components of a rule, and the understanding of these components is elaborated via the concept of “feature” which says how classes of segments are referred to.

Likewise, once we know that a rule may require the trigger to precede the target vs. follow the target, then we know that a large class of rules is possible – rules referring to {m,n,ŋ} before the target as well as {m,n,ŋ} after the target; rules referring to {p,m,b} before the target as well as {p,m,b} after the target. Each conceptual addition interacts with existing concepts to enable classes of rules to be formalized. What is added is a general concept, that rules can distinctively specify that the target precedes the trigger or follows the trigger, not a list of specific target-trigger pairs (“{m,n,ŋ} before {p,t,k}; {m,n,ŋ} before {a,e,i,o,u}; {m,n,ŋ} after {p,t,k}; {m,n,ŋ} after {a,e,i,o,u}...”}.

Symmetry is the automatic but defeasible consequence of the requirement for conceptual simplicity.

The conclusion that a rule may require one of two precedence relations (“the target precedes the trigger”, or, “the target follows the trigger”) combines with the method-concept for identifying elements in a rule This discussion should be read as a normative account of how a theory of phonology should develop, not a historical account of how the theory did develop. It is framed in terms of a system of “rules”, but the same account might, in principle, be framed in terms of “constraints”.

This discussion focuses on advanced theorizing, where we have already established through observation of languages that there are segments, that the shape of morphemes varies as a function of phonological context, that there are rules, and so on. These facts were established by prior observation, and we are now interested in higher-level conclusions about the nature of those rules.

This is a simple application of Occam’s Razor, the Newtonian version being “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. Therefore, to the same natural effects we must, so far as possible, assign the same causes”. This version of Occam’s Razor is an essential principle of the epistemology of FP.


(featural definition) to yield numerous possible contexts – “after a vowel” and “before a vowel”; “after a nasal” and “before a nasal”. The definitions of the constituent concepts do not contain complex exceptions e.g. “unless the feature matrix is a target, and precedes the trigger, and refers to nasal segments”, and therefore there is no means, using just simple concepts, to exclude such configurations from the set of predicted structures.

Were it to appear to be necessary to introduce an asymmetry, a new concept might be added and justified to achieve this result, for instance “the feature [nasal] cannot serve as the sole trigger in a rule if the trigger precedes the target”. What then could justify adding such a concept to the theory of phonology? One might be tempted to do so upon the discovery that there were no rules which apply after nasal consonants and vowels, especially if there are adequate numbers of rules triggered by a following nasal consonant or vowel. But even given such a fact, and even if we had a vastly larger sample of phonological systems than we presently do, this would not compel the addition of a complicating concept.

Recalling that phonological theory does not bear sole explanatory responsibility for all of speech behavior, proper justification for adding a complicating concept to phonological theory requires showing that non-grammatical explanations fail. The rareness of rules which devoice consonants post-nasally is a consequence of physical tendencies which favor the output amba (the brackets refer to the physical output of the body, see Hale & Reiss 2007) even from [ampa] over ampa even from [amba], and the grammatical asymmetry in treatment of voiced versus voiceless post-nasal consonants is explained by the fact that the data which form the inductive basis for grammar acquisition is asymmetrically distributed because of this extra-grammatical factor. Nothing needs to be added to phonology to explain these facts.

The apparent total non-existence of intervocalic devoicing in human language can likewise be explained by understanding the physical mechanism of vocal fold vibration, which renders a physical output bapa from [baba] a virtual impossibility – therefore, the theory of grammar does not need to say anything about why there is no intervocalic devoicing. In general, the lack of attestation of a certain language pattern is not a compelling argument for theory-complication in FP.

As noted in fn. 3, FP’s rejection of unsupported claims does not reduce theory construction to listing the known instances, because a theory is not a list of specific observations, it is a system of concepts which imply existing observations and predict future observations. A theoretical restriction is the addition of a complicating concept –a restriction on a theory is undesirable – and such an addition requires full justification, just as adding any computational mechanism requires justification.

4.2. Evaluation of competing concepts The concern of a theoretical phonologist is identifying and selecting between domain-internal alternatives, which is to say, making theoretical choices about phonological grammars. For the sake of illustrating the logical analysis entailed by FP, a brief comparison will be made between two theories of featurevariables, and the matter will be pursued in greater depth in section 6. It is clear that some such mechanism is necessary in phonology, given multi-feature assimilations and other notions regarding segmental “identity”. Very many languages have rules assimilating nasals in place of articulation to a following consonant, and without some variable concept refering to “the set of feature values that pertain to place of articulation”, the grammar of a language having N places of articulation would require N separate rules to implement the notion “assimilates place”. A familiar theory allowing this to be expressed in rules was articulated in SPE, via the use of feature variables – [αF,βG,γH]. McCawley (1973) proposes an alternative mechanism limited to specifying the notion “is the same as” w.r.t. a feature. Reiss (2003) proposes a third theory of identity references; finally, autosegmental representation theory offers representational concepts which may cover the same ground. The question is, how should the choice between these grammatical theories be made? The crucial steps are clearly identifying the underlying concepts of these theories, and judging those concepts for how well they match the facts.

The SPE theory of feature variables does not just import the general mathematical notion “variable” and apply it to a domain where only two values exist. Although feature variables somewhat resemble


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