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Dr Karen Jesney (University of Southern California) talk in LING dept

  • Ross S 562 (across from the main office) 4700 Keele Street Toronto, ON, M3J 1P3 Canada (map)

Positive Interactions in Variable Systems: Evidence for Constraint Scaling Factors in Phonology


Language systems characterized by high levels of variability offer unique possibilities for probing the structure of the phonological grammar.  This talk draws on data from developing L1 phonologies and loanword adaptation patterns to argue that marked structures within words interact in a positive fashion.  As the probability of accurate realization for one marked structure increases, so too does the probability of accurate realization for additional marked structures within the word.

Two case studies are presented.  The first case study looks at words that contain multiple sources of syllable-structure markedness, focusing on data from the twelve Dutch-acquiring children in the CLPF corpus (Fikkert 1994, Levelt 1994).  The overall finding is that accurate realization of marked coda structures increases the probability that marked onset structures will be accurately realized by the child.  These effects cannot be reduced to either age or the frequency with which the marked structures are attempted.  The second case study examines the realization of marginal segments in a corpus of Québec French borrowings from English (Roy 1992), and finds evidence for similar positive interactions at the level of segmental realization.

I argue these positive interactions are best modeled through scaling of constraint values within a probabilistic weighted constraint grammar – either Noisy Harmonic Grammar (Boersma & Pater 2008) or Maximum Entropy OT (Goldwater & Johnson 2003). Constraint scaling factors co-exist with basic constraints weights, and can be keyed both to grammatical factors like prosodic position, and to non-phonological factors like word frequency and attention.  The result is a model that captures the attested interactions between marked structures within words while avoiding the pitfalls of previous accounts that are too restrictive to accurately model the full range of variation.


Boersma, Paul & Joe Pater.  2008.  Convergence properties of a gradual learning algorithm for Harmonic Grammar.  Ms., University of Amsterdam & University of Massachusetts Amherst.  [ROA-970].

Fikkert, Paula. 1994.  On the Acquisition of Prosodic Structure.  PhD dissertation.  University of Amsterdam.

Goldwater, Sharon & Mark Johnson. 2003. Learning OT constraint rankings using a Maximum Entropy model. In Proceedings of the Workshop on Variation within Optimality Theory, 111-120. Stockholm University.

Levelt, Clara C. 1994.  On the Acquisition of Place.  PhD dissertation.  Leiden University.

Roy, Marie-Josée. 1992. Le rôle des contraintes phonologiques dans l’adaptation d'emprunts anglais en français québécois.  MA thesis.  Université Laval.


Later Event: April 6
Talk by Iryna Lenchuk