Roberts/HT 2013 Week 4


Pitfalls of rule-based phonology, and surface constraints as alternative.

A recap

Pieces on the board

(1) Units of phonological structure:

(2) An example tree:

Rules of the game

So what’s wrong with that?

If your goal is to describe, for example, The Sound Pattern of English, then you can use these principles to do it (Chomsky and Halle 1968 certainly did).

On the other hand, if your goal is to produce a theoretical model of how the brain decides what noises the articulators to make to express the meaning encoded in a given string of words, or produce a theoretical model that will do that job as well as a brain would—in other words, if you are trying to explain phonology, then the rule-based generative model has some problems:

So what’s the alternative?

We can implement phonological generalisations of the sort described by rules in terms of universal violable constraints.

(7) Example constraint: *NC̥

Assess a violation for every sequence of nasal + voiceless consonant that appears in the surface representation.

Defining constraints this way has certain consequences:

How would that work?


Input: /atʃowowo/ Non-Fi­na­li­ty GrWd­=­PrWd Ft­Bin WSP Un­even­Iamb Parse­Syll All­Ft­Left Dep-µ-IO
a. (a.tʃóː).wo.wo ** *
b. a.(tʃo.wóː).wo ** *! *
c. (a.tʃóː).(wóː).wo *! * ** **
d. (a.tʃó).wo.wo *! **
e. (a.tʃóː).(wo.wóː) *! **

Optimality Theory (Prince and Smolensky 1993) replaces the ordered-rules component of generative phonology with a transitively ranked hierarchy of universal violable constraints. What that means and how it works in practice is the subject of next week’s lecture.


Our practical class this week will be more theoretical than usual. Read Archangeli (1997) and come prepared to discuss the following points:

  1. If phonology is all about satisfying constraints on surface structure, why is it possible to produce any utterance other than whatever is the most harmonic one; something like [ba] or [ʔiʔi]?

  2. How many faithfulness constraints are there? How many faithfulness constraint schemas do we need?

  3. Where does the surface representation we're whipping into shape using constraints come from? Is its relation to the underlying form only enforced through faithfulness constraints, or does the UR guide the search for the optimal SR in some other way as well (or instead)?

If you want to write up answers to any or all of these questions and hand them in, you’re welcome to, but the main thing is to be ready to discuss them in class. I hope to do as little of the talking as possible!


Archangeli, Diana (1997) “Optimality Theory: an introduction to linguistics in the 1990s” in Archangeli, Diana and D. Terence Langendoen, eds. Optimality Theory: an overview pp. 1‒32. Oxford: Blackwell.

Browman, Catherine P. and Goldstein, Louis (1992) “Articulatory Phonology: an overviewPhonetica 49:155-180.

Chomsky, Noam and Halle, Morris (1968) The sound pattern of English. New York: Harper and Row.

Johnson, Keith (1997) “Speech perception without speaker normalization: an exemplar model” in Johnson, Keith and John W. Mullennix, eds. Talker variability in speech processing pp. 145‒166. San Diego: Academic Press.

Kager, René (1999) Optimality Theory. Cambridge University Press.

Kaye, Jonathan (1990) “Whatever happened to Dialect B?” in Mascaró, Joan and Marina Nespor, eds. Grammar in progress: GLOW essays for Henk van Riemsdijk pp. 259‒264. Dordrecht: Foris.

Kisseberth, Charles (1970) “On the functional unity of phonological rules.Linguistic Inquiry 1:291‒306.

Pierrehumbert, Janet (2001) “Exemplar dynamics: word frequency, lenition and contrastin Bybee, Joan and Paul J. Hopper eds. Frequency and the emergence of linguistic structure pp. 137‒157. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Pierrehumbert, Janet (2002) “Word-specific phoneticsin Gussenhoven, Carlos and Natasha Warner, eds. Laboratory Phonology VII pp. 101‒139. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Prince, Alan S. and Smolensky, Paul (1993) [2004] Optimality Theory: constraint interaction in generative grammar. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ringe, Donald A. (2006) From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press