Abstract:  "Syllable weight"

by Matthew Gordon

In Bruce Hayes, Robert Kirchner, and Donca Steriade, eds., Phonetically Based Phonology, Cambridge University Press.

This chapter explores the hypothesis that syllable weight is driven by phonetic considerations. As a starting point in the investigation, I summarize results of a survey of syllable weight in approximately 400 languages. This survey suggests that weight is not a property of languages, as predicted by most contemporary phonological theories, but rather is more closely linked to the particular phonological phenomenon involved. To illustrate the process-driven nature of syllable weight, I focus on two weight sensitive phenomena: weight-sensitive tone and weight-sensitive stress. I argue that stress and tone systems respect different criteria of weight because of the differences found in the phonetic implementation of stress and tone. In addition, I show that phonetics can play a role in accounting for cross-linguistic variation in weight criteria for a given process: such variation can be attributed to independent phonetic properties of these languages, which are in turn grounded in other phonological properties such as the inventory of coda consonants.

I argue in addition that the influence of phonetics in phonology is not direct, but rather is mediated by structural considerations. In particular, languages employ weight distinctions that operate over phonologically symmetrical classes of syllables, even if this means not exploiting the phonetically most effective weight distinction(s).

Finally, I show that the ingredients of process-specificity of weight criteria, phonetic effectiveness, and phonological simplicity together play a crucial role in the ranking of a set of formal Optimality-theoretic constraints governing weight-sensitive phenomena. The divergent phonetic motivations behind different weight-sensitive processes are reflected in process-specific sets of constraints. Within individual phenomena, constraints referring to the phonetically most effective of the simple weight distinctions are ranked on a language-specific basis above constraints referring to phonetically less effective or more complex distinctions.

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