The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Linguistics Colloquium 10/30 - Maria Gouskova (NYU)

Speaker: Maria Gouskova (NYU)
Title: Exceptionality as a Property of Morphemes: the Case of Yers
Time: Friday, October 30, 2009, 3:30pm
Place: 32-141

Most languages have some phonological rules that apply only to a subset of eligible morphemes (for example, in English, regressive voicing assimilation, “thie[f]”/”thie[vz]” vs. the default progressive assimilation, “chie[f]”/”chie[fs]”). The question examined in this talk is whether there are rules that apply only to a subset of eligible segments. I will explore the hypothesis that exceptionality is a property of whole morphemes. This theory of exceptionality has many incarnations (Chomsky and Halle 1968 et seq.), but my version is formalized as Lexically Indexed Constraints in Optimality Theory (Prince and Smolensky 1993): in any given language, a universal constraint can be indexed to individual morphemes in the lexicon and ranked in two different positions in the language’s hierarchy (Pater 2000, 2006). I test this theory on a famous purported case of segment-by-segment exceptions: Slavic yers, vowels that idiosyncratically alternate with zero (e.g., [mox] vs. [mx-a] `moss (nom/gen sg)’ alongside [mex] vs. [mex-a] `fur (nom/gen sg)’). The dominant analysis of these “ghost vowels” is that they must be underlyingly marked as exceptional on a segment-by-segment basis. Yers are also usually underlyingly marked as representationally defective—either nonmoraic or lacking features (Kenstowicz and Rubach 1987, Melvold 1990, Yearley 1995, inter alia). In this talk, I revisit yers from a different perspective. Instead of treating the individual vowels as special, I argue that entire morphemes are indexed to special phonologies. I show that there are generalizations as to the quality and the position of alternating vowels in Russian. These generalizations are phonologically sensible, but they are lost in accounts where vowels are labeled as deletable on a segment-by-segment basis. Finally, I survey yers in other Slavic languages and test the OT hypothesis that a phonological rule can only be exceptional in one language if it is general in another.

Suggested readings: