The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Phonology Circle 5/15 - Boer Fu (MIT)

Speaker: Boer Fu (MIT)
Title: Contrast Preservation in Mandarin R-suffixation
Time: Wednesday (5/15), 5:00pm-6:30pm
Location: 32-D831

Abstract: The low vowel /a/ has three surface forms in Mandarin, a front [a] when followed by an alveolar nasal, a back [ɑ] before a velar nasal, and a central [ɑ̟] in an open syllable. This variation is called the rhyme harmony. My project looks into how these three stem forms change, respectively, in r-suffixation, where a diminutive suffix /-r/ is attached to the stem. In the two vowel-nasal forms, the nasal stop is dropped before the /-r/ coda. However, the back [ɑ] retains its nasalization, while the front [a] is loses its nasalization. Zhang (2000) suggests that this is to maximize the contrast in degree of nasalization that is already in place in the stem forms. He also argues against a contrast preservation account because the front [a] and central [ɑ̟] are neutralized, now that the nasalization on [a] has disappeared. This is indeed true in the Beijing dialect, which the standard Mandarin is closest to. However, I have found that in the Liaoning dialect, such a neutralization does not happen. And [a] and [ɑ̟] are still distinguished from each other by the difference in the quality of the /-r/ coda. I argue that this is contrast preservation, and can be analyzed using MinDist constraints.