The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Phonology Circle 4/7 - Benjamin Storme

Speaker: Benjamin Storme
Title: Explaining the distribution of French mid vowels
Date/Time: Monday, Apr 7, 5:30p
Location: 32-D831

In French, mid vowels have a peculiar distribution (often called the “loi de position”), with closed mids [e, ø, o, ə] tending to occur in open syllables not followed by schwa and open mids [ɛ, œ, ɔ] in open syllables followed by schwa and in closed syllables. Making sense of this distribution requires addressing the two following questions:

a. Why should syllable structure be relevant for the distribution of vowels along F1?
b. Why do open syllables followed by schwa pattern with closed syllables rather than with open syllables?

In this talk, I will present results of two experiments suggesting that the relationship between vowel quality and syllable structure cannot be derived via duration alone, as hypothesized in most phonological accounts (Morin 1986, Fery 2003, Scheer 2006 among others). Closed mids and open mids do not appear to have a special duration apart from that contributed by F1. Also, French does not seem to have a closed syllable vowel shortening effect.

Instead, I will propose that the relationship between vowel quality and syllable structure can be understood in terms of the perceptual requirements of vowels and consonants. Consonants that are poorly cued by their release transitions require good closure transitions. Building on work by Burzio (2007) and Lisker (1999) on English, I will argue that longer and lower vowels provide better closure transitions than shorter and higher ones. This will derive the preference for open mids and the absence of schwa in closed syllables and open syllables followed by schwa. When the release transitions are good enough, then no pressure is imposed on preceding vowels and the vowel inventory that is best dispersed along F2 and maximizes the number of duration contrasts, namely the inventory with closed mids and schwa, is chosen. This proposal will be formulated using the OT implementation of Dispersion Theory by Flemming (2004).