The Role and Representation of Contrast in Phonological Theory (2007)

Daniel Currie Hall


This dissertation deals with the role of phonemic contrast in determining the featural content of phonological relations, and with the relation between phonemic and phonetic contrasts. Chapter one provides an introduction to the contrastivist hypothesis, which holds that phonological computation operates only on those features necessary to distinguish the phonemes of a language from one another, and argues that the Continuous Dichotomy Hypothesis of Dresher, Piggott, and Rice (1994) provides the best means of identifying features as contrastive or redundant. The next two chapters analyze data on voicing assimilation in Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Russian (chapter 2), and on vowel harmony in Yowlumne and Pulaar (chapter 3) that present particular challenges to the contrastivist hypothesis; here it is argued that although redundant features are sometimes crucially present in phonological representations, they do not need to be phonologically active. The data are analyzed using contrastive specifications supplemented by the novel device of prophylactic features, which are redundant features carrying information that is necessary for the phonetic realization of segments, but not for the phonological computation itself. Along the way, comparisons are drawn with analyses that incorporate more detailed phonetic information into the phonological representations, and the advantages of the underspecification approach are revealed. Chapter 4 considers the interaction between phonemic contrast and phonetic distinctness in determining the shapes of phonological inventories. It offers a critical view of some phonetically presents as an alternative a view in which abstract and minimal phonological representations of phonemic contrasts lead to phonetically distinct surface realizations through the synchronic mechanism of phonetic enhancement and the diachronic influence of the acquisition procedure. Finally, chapter 5 explores the degree to which contrastive specification is compatible with Optimality Theory (Prince and Smolensky 1993). Some of the insights of the contrastivist hypothesis can be maintained in Optimality Theory through the translation of a contrastive feature hierarchy into a constraint ranking, but contrastive specification is ultimately at odds with the Optimality Theoretic principle of Richness of the Base and the assumptions that underlie it. The main points of the dissertation are summarized in chapter 6.


Contrast; Contrastive Specification; Voicing Assimilation; Czech; Slovak; Polish; Russian; Vowel Harmony; Optimality Theory; Richness of Base

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