Linguistics Colloquium 05/25/12 – Eric Henke, Ellen Kaisse, and Richard Wright

Is the Sonority Sequencing Principle an Epiphenomenon?

Eric Henke, Ellen Kaisse, and Richard Wright
University of Washington

Friday, May 25, 2012
3:30-5:00 p.m.
MGH 241

Ellen KaisseThe behavior of clusters of obstruent consonants and of clusters of sonorant consonants is not well explained by the Sonority Sequencing Principle or the Syllable Contact Law. Their phonotactics find more comprehensive explanations in the predictions of a theory of perceptual acoustic cue robustness. We explain this theory, review and refine the results of cross-linguistic surveys of all-obstruent or all-sonorant sequences, and add specific case studies of Korean and Modern Greek. We conclude that the correct predictions of the Sonority Sequencing Principle and the Syllable Contact Law are subsumed under the cue approach, which makes fewer incorrect predictions, avoids stipulations concerning sibilants, and covers a wider range of phonotactic generalizations.  We argue that the Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP) and the related Syllable Contact Law are not fundamental explanatory principles; rather, they are apparent generalizations that are better explained through the intersection of perception-based factors. The SSP (ex. Clements 1990) states that a string of tautosyllabic segments should rise in sonority to the syllable nucleus and fall in sonority thereafter. The Syllable Contact Law (ex. Vennemann 1988) militates against rising sonority over a syllable boundary. Are either of these principles really the best way to view phonotactic generalizations? In this talk we tackle the issue head-on by looking in detail at two languages, Korean and Modern Greek, that display a wide range of consonant clusters and of processes affecting them. We also look at languages like Arrernte and Tsou, whose unusual phonotactics present an apparent challenge to either theory.

Richard WrightWe conclude that a perception-based account is more explanatory in all these cases, since it covers the commonly observed strings that observe the SSP and Syllable Contact Law, as well as frequently encountered exceptions such as prevocalic strident + obstruent plateaus (or reversals, depending on the sonority scale one adopts) Using the same set of tools, the perception-based account also deals with matters about which the SSP says nothing, such as changes in place of articulation of adjacent consonants (as in Korean); and with changes in all-sonorant (Korean) or all-obstruent (Modern Greek) clusters, about which Syllable Contact or the SSP may also say nothing or the quite the wrong thing. Moreover, the perception-based account covers several other universals without additional principles, including the unmarked status of CV syllables and the dispreference for codas (all noted by Clements 1990 but requiring a stipulative set of sonority dispersion principles that differ between CV and VC).

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