Gradient Well-Formedness in Optimality Theory

Bruce Hayes

Published in Joost Dekkers, Frank van der Leeuw and Jeroen van de Weijer, eds., (2000) Optimality Theory: Phonology, Syntax, and Acquisition, Oxford University Press, pp. 88-120.


A minor modification in the framework of Optimality Theory (Prince and Smolensky 1993) is suggested which enables it to model phenomena where consultant intuitions are gradient, falling somewhere between complete well-formedness and complete ill-formedness. The proposal consists of assigning to certain constraints bands of values along a reified continuum of constraint strictness. When a particular form can be generated only by assigning a constraint a strictness value within a designated “fringe” of the strictness band, the grammar generates the form marked with an intermediate degree of well-formedness.

The proposal is tested against data involving light and dark /l/ in American English, using a set of gradient intuitions obtained from ten native speaker consultants. A rationale from language learning is then posited for why well-formedness intuitions are so frequently gradient.


Downloadable files


Supplementary Materials

Raw Data

1. Judgments on a 1-7 scale of light and dark /l/ in 17 words by 10 native speakers.  Excel spreadsheet.


2. 240 tableaux intended to show that the analysis really does derive what I say it does.  See section 3.7 of the paper for interpretation.  Format:  ASCII text, generic symbols.  These should be readable with any word processor, provided you use a constant-width font like Courier.


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