What a difference 30 years makes: take 2

A paper given at Stanford on the 29th: “Pronouncing the Z’s: Epenthesis in English plural possessives” by Simon Todd (a Ph.D. student in linguistics). The beginning of the abstract:

The interaction between the English regular plural affix (PL) and possessive clitic (POSS) presents a theoretical puzzle (Zwicky, 1975). Both have the form /z/, and so the OCP [AZ: Obligatory Contour Principle] (Yip, 1998) predicts their combination (PL+POSS) should trigger epenthesis. Yet, in cases like my friends’ /fɹenz/ car, only PL is overtly realized. Why does the OCP fail to apply?

Two previous theories address this non-application of the OCP in PL+POSS constructions. The POSS-suppression theory (Stemberger, 1981; Zwicky, 1987) claims that POSS essentially inspects the morphological composition of its host and is actively suppressed by adjacent PL /z/, without exception. The alternative POSS-allomorphy theory (Bernstein & Tortora, 2005; Nevins, 2011) claims that POSS has a phonologically null allomorph, which is chosen when the possessor has the plural feature. Either POSS allomorph may be chosen for a singular possessor with embedded PL; thus, contra the suppression theory, epenthesis may be triggered in cases like the son of my friends’s /fɹenz ~ fɹenzəz/ car.

(Some of this is seriously technical, but try to get the drift.)

The crucial paper of mine comes from about 30 years ago, and the question can now be examined with tools that weren’t available then.

Another visit to 30 years ago, as in my first “What a difference 30 years makes” posting, about the language of restaurant menus, seen now in light of Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food. What I said then:

I’m focusing on chapter 1, “How to Read a Menu”, because it takes up a topic than Ann Zwicky and I wrote on in 1980 (“America’s National Dish: The Style of Restaurant Menus”, in American Speech 55.83-92; available on-line here). A lot has changed in 30+ years.

Ann and I did a qualitative study of a fortuitous sample, while Dan did a quantitative study of a carefully assembled sample.

In the case of PL + POSS, my 1987 data were primarily from my own judgments of ascceptability, plus some fortuitously collected examples from printed texts. At the time I was aware (from having talked about these phenomena in public papers) that there was considerable variability in people’s judgments, but I had no way of examining this variability systematically. Now Todd has tools for studying this variability in a more substantial sample — in particular, tools for examining interactions between a large number of factors. His abstract continues:

To address the contrasting claims of variability in PL+POSS constructions, we conducted a split-rating experiment (following Bresnan, 2007) in which participants compared the naturalness of written PL+POSS pronunciations with and without epenthesis. The results show that the inclination to realize POSS is variable across individuals and is gradient, depending on multiple factors. Crucially, participants rated the epenthesis strategy higher with all embedded possessors, regardless of their number feature: /bɔɪzəz/ was judged equally natural in both [one of [the boys]]’s dog and [two of [the boys]]’s dog, and more natural in both cases than in [the boys]’s dog.

The fact that epenthesis was not judged differently for singular and plural possessors is inconsistent with the POSS-allomorphy theory. By contrast, the POSS-suppression theory can successfully account for the results, if extended with a locality constraint. Under this extension, the ability of POSS to inspect the morphological composition of its host is hampered by the presence of an intervening constituent boundary. In instances like [one of [the boys]]’s dog, the structure of the internal constituent [the boys] may be invisible, meaning that the final /z/ is not registered as PL and does not enforce POSS-suppression. POSS can thus be realized as /z/ and trigger epenthesis, following the OCP. The observed structured variability implies that this is one among many interacting soft constraints.

This analysis has implications for the interleaving of phonology with morphology and syntax. To enact POSS-suppression, phonological processing at the attachment of POSS must not be blind to existing morphological structure, as is expected from Bracketing Erasure (Pesetsky, 1979). However, existing structure cannot remain equally available at all levels of derivation, as is assumed in standard Optimality Theory (Prince & Smolensky, 2004). The present results suggest that, at least at the phrasal level of phonology, an element attaching at the nth derivational cycle must have access to structure from the (n-1)th level, but may not have access to structures from previous levels.

In any case, good news for me, after all these years.

One Response to “What a difference 30 years makes: take 2”

  1. rwojcik Says:

    It seems to me that the term “epenthesis” is misleading from the perspective of David Stampe’s theory of Natural Phonology (See http://phonology.wordpress.com). That theory makes a fundamental distinction between the phonemic/phonetic targets that one tries to pronounce (Morphophonology or so-called Rules) and how one pronounces them (Phonology or so-called Processes). So one can have a process of epenthesis, which has nothing at all to do with morphology. It just affects the pronunciation of consonant clusters in any syllable that you happen to try to pronounce, regardless of lexical context. But the term “epenthesis” in the case of possessives merely looks like a phonological process. It is really an intentional insertion of a vowel–i.e. a substitution of the default phonemic target /z/ with the phonemic allomorph /əz/. As Trubetzkoy put it, we are talking about an entirely different area of grammatical description when we talk about morphophonology.

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