Syllable Weight:  Phonetics, Phonology, and Typology

Matthew Gordon
Doctor of Philosophy in Linguistics
University of California, Los Angeles, 1999
Professor Bruce Hayes, Chair

Phonologists have long known that many prosodic phenomena are sensitive to the inherent “weight” of syllables. For example, Latin preferentially stresses closed syllablesand syllables containing long vowels over open syllables containing a short vowel (Allen 1973). Closed syllables and syllables containing long vowels are thus heavy in the Latin stress system. In addition to stress, many other prosodic phenomena have been argued to instantiate weight: poetic metrics, tone, compensatory lengthening, etc.

This thesis explores the idea that syllable weight is driven by phonetic considerations. As a starting point in the investigation, results of an extensive typological survey of syllable weight in approximately 400 languages are presented. This survey suggests that weight is not a property of languages, as predicted by most contemporary theories, but rather is more closely linked to the particular phonological phenomenon involved. It is argued that the primarily process-specific nature of weight is attributed to differences in the phonetic demands imposed by different processes. To illustrate the process-driven nature of syllable weight, focus is on phonetic studies of two weight sensitive phenomena with divergent phonetic underpinnings: weight-sensitive tone and weight-sensitive stress. Weight-sensitive tone is shown to be guided by the requirement that tonal contrasts be realized on a sufficiently sonorous backdrop to allow for auditory recovery of tonal information. Weight-sensitive stress, on the other hand, is argued to be sensitive to a syllable’s auditory loudness, which captures the auditory system’s net response to an acoustic stimulus over time. Phonetic considerations are demonstrated to both constrain the range of cross-linguistic variation in weight criteria and also to predict the language specific choice of weight criteria for a given phenomenon.

In addition to being phonetically motivated, it is also shown that the phonology of weight is guided by the requirement that the phonological processes manipulate structurally simple classes of segments. Weight distinctions which are too complex phonologically are eschewed, even if they provide a better fit to the phonetic map than other simpler criteria. The result is a compromise between phonetic sensibility and phonological simplicity.

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