The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Ling-Lunch 4/26 - Kevin Ryan

Speaker: Kevin Ryan (Harvard)
Title: Statistical onset weight effects in stress and meter
Date/Time: Thursday, Apr 26, 12:30-1:45p
Location: 32-D461

A traditional observation regarding syllable weight is that it can be determined only by properties of the rime, while onsets are universally ignored. Apparently onset-sensitive weight criteria have received renewed attention in recent years (e.g. Gordon 2005, Topintzi 2010), but such cases remain uncommon. This talk presents a new kind of evidence for onset-sensitivity in syllable weight, arguing that its effects are more pervasive across languages and phenomena than previously acknowledged. In particular, I examine weight-sensitive systems exhibiting gradience/variation. Gradient syllable weight can be found in stress, poetic meter, word order (heavy shift), textsetting, and rhythmic centering or synchronization. In all of these systems, onsets not only matter, but matter in ways that are both highly consistent with each other and with the typology of categorical onset-sensitive criteria.

I focus on stress and meter, the two most discussed weight systems in phonology. First, in complex, less than fully deterministic stress systems such as those of English and Russian, onset size is a significant predictor of stress/accent placement in roots both in the lexicon and in wugs (e.g. a nonword like “brontoon” is more likely to be initially stressed than one like “bontoon”; see also Kelly 2004). I argue that this behavior cannot be attributed to analogy alone, but reflects grammatical generalization. Second, in metrics, syllables with longer onsets are avoided in preferentially light positions and overrepresented in preferentially strong ones, even while controlling for various confounds (rime structure, word shape, etc., as in Ryan 2011). A theory of syllable (or Steriadean interval) weight based on the (stochastic) perceptual downbeat of the syllable rather than the (fixed) onset-rime boundary correctly predicts both the emergence of onset effects in statistical systems as well as its rarity under small n-ary categorization (effectively, the priority of the coda).