The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Harvard Phonology Talks 2/10 - Michael Becker

The second phonology talk this month at Harvard is by Michael Becker.

Speaker: Michael Becker (Harvard)
Title: Universal Grammar protects Initial Syllables
Time: Thursday, February 10, 5:00pm
Location:  Boylston Hall 303 (third floor)

(Joint work with Lauren Eby Clemens, Jonathan Levine, and Andrew Nevins)

In English, voicing alternations (e.g. knife ~ knives) impact mostly monosyllables, while polysyllables are rarely impacted. The opposite is true of Turkish: most monosyllables keep their base faithful under affixation (e.g. top ~ topu ‘ball’), while most polysyllables tolerate a voicing alternation (gurup ~ gurubu ‘group’). In this talk, I examine the two types of languages, and show that the symmetry is only superficial. The Turkish trend is accessible to the grammar and extends readily to novel words, whereas English speakers treat novel words the same regardless of size. In other words, English speakers fail to find the generalization (“the surfeit of the stimulus”).

Initial syllable faithfulness explains this asymmetry: The [p] in top ~ topu is protected by initial syllable faithfulness and by general faithfulness, while the [p] in gurup is protected by general faithfulness only. English goes against the Universal bias, requiring monosyllables to be less faithful than polysyllables. But with general faithfulness highly ranked, the ranking of initial syllable faithfulness is irrelevant, and the speakers are blocked from forming the required generalization.

Having established the asymmetry in the novel word tasks, we press English speakers further and ask them to learn unfamiliar morphophonological alternations (e.g. mi?p ~ mi?b-ni). Unencumbered by the accidental nature of actual English, the speakers fall back on their Universal Grammar and exhibit the Turkish pattern.

This line of investigation, which goes from real words to novel words and from novel words to novel alternations, allows us to trace the biases that humans use in the phonological organization of the lexicon, and allows us to expose behavior that roundly contradicts the ambient language, yet conforms to the biases we see in the world’s languages.

Upcoming phonology talks at Harvard:
2/14: Matthew Wolf (Yale)
2/24: Karen Jesney (UMass Amherst)
2/28: Gillian Gallagher (NYU)