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Michael Wagner: “The Locality of Allomorph Selection and Production Planning”

March 29, 2011 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm  |  Stanford University


CrISP is proud to present:

Michael Wagner (McGill University): “The Locality of Allomorph Selection and Product Planning”

English -ing varies between two phonologically distinct allomorphs, [iŋ] and [in]. Across different varieties of English this variation has been shown to depend on gender, speaking style, and socio-economic factors (Fischer, 1958; Labov, 1972; Trudgill, 1972). Phonological context has also been shown to be relevant (Houston, 1985): the allomorph [in] is more likely when a coronal segment follows. Strictly localist theories of morphology (e.g., Bobaljik, 2000; Embick, 2010) predict that the phonological context should only be able to affect allomorph selection under syntactic locality conditions. Globalist theories (e.g., theories of allomorph choice formulated within standard optimality theory) predict that in principle any information in a linguistic representation could affect allomorph choice. This paper reports on experimental data involving -ing-allomorphy that seems incompatible with both types of theories.

As illustrated in (1) and (2), we crossed the syntactic environment (local vs. non-local) with the phonological environment (a-[ə] vs. the-[ð]), using a syntactic contrast familiar from studies of prosodic phrasing (e.g., Itzak et al. 2010):

a. Whenever the boy was browsing a book the game would fall off the table.
b. Whenever the boy was browsing the book the game would fall off the table.

a. Whenever the boy was browsing a book would fall off the table.
b. Whenever the boy was browsing the book would fall off the table.

Localist theories predict that the phonological context should be able to affect the choice of allomorph when the word providing the phonological environment is syntactically local as in (1), but not when it is part of the next sentence (2). Globalist theories predict that phonological context should be relevant in both types of cases.

The results show an effect of phonology both in (1) and (2). This is unexpected under the localist account. However, the effect is much smaller in (2), which is unexpected under the globalist account.

The interaction between phonology and syntax suggests that syntactic locality might be relevant after all. However, within the syntactic conditions, there is a quantitative correlation between the strength of the prosodic boundary separating the verb and its complement and the liklihood of a phonological effect of the following word. In other words, whether the phonological form of the following word has an influence on allomorph choice depends gradiently on the strength of the prosodic boundary separating the two words even within the same syntactic condition. Once these quantitative measures of boundary strength are taken into account, the effect of between syntactic conditions vanishes: the difference between (1) and (2) in the size of the phonological effect is completely explicable as a result of the difference in boundary strength between the two structures.

The pattern of phonological conditioning can be accounted for by a model of allomorph selection that is constrained by the locality of production planning. The segmental content of an upcoming word can have an effect on allomorph choice if its phonological form is already available at the time of vocabulary insertion. The strength of a prosodic boundary negatively correlates with the availability of the following word, and can thus serve as a proxy measure for the locality of production planning.

The data suggests that the phonological effect on allomorph choice, at least in this case, can be stated in purely segmental terms. The apparent effect of syntax on the phonologically conditioning of allomorph choice can be explained by its indirect effect on the likelihood that the phonological material of the upcoming word is already planned out at time when allomorph selection happens. This suggests a more modular view of the syntax/morph-phonology interaction across word boundaries than current approaches that assume an interleaving of phonology and syntax.

The account in terms of the locality of production planning provides a potential explanation why individuals in our experiment and the dialects described in the literature only seem to vary in the proportion with which they choose the allomorphs (from almost always [in] to almost always [iŋ]), but none seem to show a complementary distribution according to phonological or syntactic context: the reason is that the conditioning environment is only probabilistically available depending on how much planning is been possible, and this varies depending on the structure of sentence and other factors. In other words, there might be a reason why ing-allomorph selection is consistently a variable process: reliably planning out an entire utterance in all its phonological detail is difficult if not impossible. Other cases of phonologically conditioned allomorphy are considered and their amenability to an account in terms of the locality of production planning is discussed.

Crosslinguistic Investigations in Syntax-Phonology (CrISP) s a collaborative research group within the UC Santa Cruz and Stanford University Linguistics Departments.  Generous support has been provided by the UC Humanities Network, the Tanya Honig Fund for Linguistics Graduate Students, and Stanford University Linguistics research funding.  Staff support provided by the Institution for Humanities Research.


March 29, 2011
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm