Segmental Environments of Spanish Diphthongization

by Adam Albright, Argelia Andrade, and Bruce Hayes

Department of Linguistics, UCLA


Spanish diphthongization is a well-known example of an exceptionful phonological alternation. Although many forms do exhibit an alternation (e.g. [sentámos] ~ [snto] ‘we/I sit’, [kontámos] ~ [knto] ‘we/I count’), many others do not (e.g. [rentámos] ~ [rénto] ‘we/I rent’, [montámos] ~ [mónto] ‘we/I mount’). Previous accounts of the alternation have largely accepted this unpredictability at face value, focusing on setting up appropriate lexical representations to distinguish alternating from non-alternating roots. Our interest here is in whether Spanish speakers go beyond this, internalizing rich and detailed knowledge of the ways in which diphthongization is conditioned by the segmental environments.

We employed a machine-implemented algorithm to search a database of 1698 mid-vowel verbs. The algorithm yielded a large stochastic grammar, specifying the degree to which diphthongization is favored or disfavored in particular segmental contexts. We used this grammar to make predictions about the well-formedness of novel roots. The predictions were then checked in a "wug"-testing experiment with 96 native speaker consultants. We found that the consultants’ intuitions (both in volunteered forms and in acceptability ratings) were significantly correlated with the predictions of the algorithmically-learned grammar. Our conclusion is that Spanish speakers can indeed use detailed segmental environments to predict diphthongization. We discuss this conclusion in light of various models of linguistic irregularity.

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Last updated: 7/18/00