The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

Colloquium 2/28 - Eva Zimmermann (Leipzig)

Speaker: Eva Zimmermann (Leipzig)
Title: Gradient Symbolic Representations and the Typology of Phonological Exceptions
Time: Friday, February 28th, 3:30pm – 5pm
Location: 32-155

Abstract: The assumption of Gradient Symbolic Representations that phonological elements can have different degrees of activation (Smolensky and Goldrick, 2016; Rosen, 2016; Zimmermann, 2018, 2019) allows a unified explanation for the typology of phonological exceptions. The crucial theoretical mechanism for exceptional behaviour are gradient constraint violations: The activation of a phonological element in an underlying morpheme representation determines 1) how much the element is preserved by faithfulness constraints and 2) how much it is penalized by markedness constraints. I argue that this simple mechanism predicts the attested typology of phonological exceptions. Two cases studies from Molinos Mixtec and Finnish show why such an account should be preferred over alternative analyses of exceptionality.

The assumption that morpheme-specific phonological behaviour within one language arises from gradient differences in the activity of phonological elements makes at least four prediction that set the account apart from alternative approaches to exceptionality based on autosegmental defectivity (=ASD; e.g. Lieber, 1987; Tranel, 1996; Zoll, 1996) or lexically indexed constraints (=LIC; e.g. Pater, 2006; Flack, 2007; Mahanta, 2012). First, it offers a symmetric account for four commonly distinguished types of exceptional morphemes: 1) exceptional triggers for a process that is otherwise not regular, 2) exceptional non-triggers for a general phonological process, 3) exceptional undergoers of a process that is otherwise not regular, and 4) exceptional non-undergoers of a general phonological process. In contrast, an account based on LIC cannot predict the existence of exceptional non-triggers (Smith, 2017) that have indeed be argued to be non-existent (e.g. Finley (2010) for vowel harmony). In this talk, I will strengthen the arguments for the existence of exceptional non-triggers (Smith, 2017; Hout, 2017) and discuss a new pattern in the tonal phonology of Molinos Mixtec where certain tones fail to trigger an otherwise regular tone spreading (Hunter and Pike, 1969). Second, a GSRO account predicts that exceptional elements can be exceptional for multiple processes. Such an instance can also be found in Molinos Mixtec: The tones that are exceptional non-triggers for a spreading process are also exceptional non-undergoers of an otherwise regular tone association process. A representational account where the gradient activity of the tones is the explanation for exceptional behaviour predicts exactly such an accumulation of exceptional behaviour. Third, a GSRO account predicts different degrees of exceptionality. This point is illustrated with a case study of Finnish where an exceptional repair for heteromorphemic /ai/ sequences can be observed (Anttila, 2002; Pater, 2006). Certain /i/-initial suffixes are exceptional triggers for a repair process but the type of repair (assimilation /pala-i/→[paloi], deletion /otta-i/→[otti], or variation between both /taitta-i/→[taittoi]∼[taitti]) depends on the nature of the preceding /a/-final morpheme. Such degrees of exceptionality for /a/-final morphemes are easily captured under GSRO and LIC but are more difficult to predict under ASD. And fourth, it predicts implicational relations between exceptionality classes within a language. If, for example, one morpheme class is an exception and fails to trigger/undergo process P2 but regularly triggers/undergoes process P1, then it is impossible under the gradience account that yet another morpheme class is only exceptional for P1 but not P2 if both refer to the same phonological structure. The typology of exceptions seems to confirm such general restrictions.