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Move in the Right Direction: What phonetic variation can tell us about phonological representations

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Alison Biggs.

Empirically, this talk will present new data on variation and ongoing change in Standard Southern British English (SSBE), where one finds a profound vowel shift, involving the counter-clockwise rotation of the majority of monophthongs, causing several near-mergers in the most advanced speakers and giving rise to novel phonological alternations. The data will feed into several questions that are central to phonological theory, and for which the data provide a fresh angle. The questions are the following:

• What is the nature of phonological representations, here, distinctive features? The focus on phonological operations (especially the rules vs constraints debate) has led to a relative neglect of the question what kinds of representations rules or constraints operate on. Of special interest here is also the question how the phonetic variation found in the data can translate into a small number of featural categories, or how near mergers can be represented.

• This leads to more fundamental questions about the phonetics-phonology interface. What is the relation between observable phonetic variation and the discrete units of phonology? An increasing number of scholars is suggesting to incorporate phonetic detail into phonology, or argues against formal phonology per se in light of actual phonetic data. In contrast, we will explore the possibility of reduced phonological representations and a more autonomous phonetic implementation module, which is more than the mechanistic transducer as which it is seen in classic generative phonology.

• Finally, the observable variation raises the question when and how phonetically gradual variation and change becomes phonological change, and how we can find out. Variationist sociolinguistics has uncovered a bewildering array of variation, raising the question of when two systems are phonologically equivalent and when they are not (especially in the absence of splits and mergers).

In this talk, I will make the case for a theory of impoverished (contrastive) specifications with privative features that only define the main articulatory targets. Underspecification opens the possibility of phonologically irrelevant variation, which can ultimately lead to phonological restructuring, though. I will show how SSBE is currently undergoing such restructuring, developing from a system with a two-way backness/rounding distinction to a ‘more Germanic’ system with a three-way distinction, with subsequent effects on the system of phonological alternations. I will argue that a theory of minimal specification can explain this restructuring better than theories assuming full (binary) feature specifications.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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