The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Phonology Circle 2/29 - Sam Zukoff

Speaker: Sam Zukoff (MIT)
Title: The Mirror Alignment Principle: Morpheme Ordering at the Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface (Part II: Arabic)
Date: Monday, February 29th
Time: 5-6:30
Place: 32D-831

The topic of Semitic nonconcatenative morphology is a vexed question in linguistic theory. Unlike most other languages, morphological derivation of complex forms in Semitic does not straightforwardly consist of sequential affixation to a fixed base of derivation. Individual morphemes can be segmented and identified with varying degrees of clarity and ease, but they are often interspersed within other morphemes, and their addition often significantly alters the segmental order and/or larger prosodic organization relative to the corresponding less derived morphological form. In this talk, I argue that the Mirror Alignment Principle approach to morpheme ordering (introduced last week at Ling Lunch; Zukoff 2016) provides the tools for deciphering this system, both from the phonological perspective and the morphosyntactic perspective.

The Mirror Alignment Principle (MAP) is an algorithm which maps c-command relations in the hierarchical morphosyntactic structure into ranking relations among Alignment constraints (McCarthy & Prince 1993) in the phonological component. By implement morpheme ordering in the phonological component using gradient, violable Alignment constraints, ordering preferences can interact with phonological constraints. The interaction between Alignment constraints, syllable well-formedness constraints, and a few morpheme-specific phonotactic constraints, will allow an analysis of the phonological aspects of the nonconcatenative system without any appeal to prosodic templates (McCarthy 1979, 1981).

Since the MAP directly relates the ranking of Alignment constraints to hierarchical morphosyntactic structure, the rankings determined through this phonological analysis inform morphosyntactic structure; the Map thus allows syntactic structure to be reverse engineered from the phonology. In considering the syntax deduced by this reasoning, we will observe larger regularities within the system. Based on these generalizations, I will suggest that certain apparent surface distinctions can be collapsed, such that the overall morphosyntactic verbal system looks generally unremarkable from a typological perspective. In fact, upon careful inspection, it even illustrates Mirror Principle effects (Baker 1985), such as mirror-image ordering that correlates with reversal in semantic interpretation. This approach thus shows that nonconcatenative morphological processes are fully compatible with the Mirror Principle, a result which Baker’s (1985) original proposal was unable to achieve.