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Phonology Seminar

Course convenor: Bert Vaux

In this seminar we examine the core structures of classic Chomskyan rule-based phonology (RBP; Kenstowicz 1993, Vaux 1998) and classic Optimality Theory (OT; Kager 1999, McCarthy 2002), focusing on identifying the classes of phenomena that each theory claims to be possible and impossible and comparing these predictions to what we know about attested and attestable languages. The main point will be that language arises from the confrontation of the human language acquisition device with the arbitrary linguistic data to which it is exposed; since these data encode layers of historical change, the resulting phonological grammar will be “unnatural” in the words of Anderson 1981 and Hyman 2000, incorporating crazy rules, opaque rule orderings, and the like. Unnatural systems of this type are accounted for most efficiently and insightfully in a Chomskyan rule-driven framework; existing OT implementations can be altered to account for at least some of the relevant phenomena, but only at the cost of abandoning the central theoretical tenets that have been claimed to give them the advantage over derivational theories. 

Goals of the seminar

  • Identify the main predictive differences between RBP and OT.
  • Evaluate the claims of superior descriptive and explanatory adequacy on each side of the debate.
  • Familiarize students with the central facts and concepts informing current and past debates concerning rules and derivations.
  • Learn what constitutes a good phonological argument, and how to develop and present one.
  • Formulate and defend an overarching argument for maintaining RBP and abandoning OT.