Roberts/HT 2014 Week 1


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.

Further Reading

You will get the most out of the next lecture if you have read and thoroughly understood Chapter 1 of Kager (1999).

If you get lost starting there (or just want to read further!), take a look at McCarthy (2007), Archangeli (1997), and/or Dresher (1996), plus the other papers listed under General introductions to OT on page 49 of Kager’s book. If you want to read even further, you can move on to the Founding papers of OT listed on the same page.


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.

Dresher, B. Elan (1996) “The rise of Optimality Theory in first-century Palestine.GLOT International 2:8.

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.

McCarthy, John J. (2007) “What is Optimality Theory?Language and Linguistics Compass 1:260‒291.

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