The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Phonology Circle 2/17 - Donca Steriade

Speaker: Donca Steriade (MIT)
Title: The Tribrach Law
Date: Tuesday, February 17th
Time: 5-6:30
Place: 32-D461

In a 1884 paper, Saussure sketched the evidence for a rhythmic constraint operating in prehistoric Greek, whose effect was to eliminate non-final sequences of three light syllables. Saussure called it la loi du tribraque, the tribrach law (abbbrev. TL; tribrach = three lights). The TL is interesting in several ways. It’s typologically unusual. It employs, in Greek, a wide range of solutions, from vowel lengthening to syncope, to ineffability and violation of morphological exponence constraints. It is a rhythmic phenomenon that’s easier to interpret in a foot–free theory of metrical prominence, than in a foot-based one. Finally, a closer look at the evidence shows that the TL was still alive in 5th cent. Attic, but morphologically limited: Saussure was thinking as a neogrammarian when he denied TL’s survival in historical Greek. Once we realize that TL continues to operate in historical times, it turns into the most reliable evidence available to determine the weight of different consonant clusters in Greek. This has consequences for the analysis of reduplication and for our understanding of the ways in which weight is computed.