The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Phonology Circle - 10/17 Benjamin Storme

Speaker: Benjamin Storme (MIT)
Title: The effect of schwa duration on pre-schwa lowering in French
Date/Time: Monday, October 17, 5:00–6:30pm
Location: 32-D831


In some European French varieties, mid vowels are realized as open-mid before schwa and in closed syllables (e.g. hôtelier [ɔtəlje], optique [ɔptik]), and as close-mid otherwise (e.g. hôtel [otɛl]). Why do syllables followed by schwa pattern with closed syllables? It is often proposed that this is related to schwa being a short vowel (e.g. Durand 1976, Selkirk 1977, Anderson 1982). In this presentation, I report the results of a production experiment with 10 French speakers which support this hypothesis. The probability of pre-schwa lowering is shown to be inversely correlated to schwa duration: as the mean schwa duration of a speaker decreases, the probability that she will lower mid vowels before schwa increases. This relationship is modeled in a stochastic OT grammar with two pairs of conflicting constraints: *LongSchwa vs. *ShortV to regulate schwa duration, and *HighMidV/{_C.C, _.CV[-long]} vs.*LowMidV to regulate mid vowel quality. Schwa duration and mid vowel quality interact because the constraint *HighMidV/{_C.C, _.CV[-long]} bans high mid vowels before short vowels. I propose that this constraint has a perceptual motivation: a consonant preceded by a high vowel and followed by a short vowel or a consonant is particularly hard to perceive, and therefore phonologically marked.