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The sonority controversy ed. by Steve Parker (review)

From: Language
Volume 89, Number 4, December 2013
pp. 976-979 | 10.1353/lan.2013.0069

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The sonority controversy is a collection of twelve articles, each touching on sonority in some way. While a few of the articles use sonority simply as a background to explore other issues, most examine issues that have been central to the discussion of sonority, or to the types of phenomena that sonority has been used to address, over the last several years.

Sonority is typically taken to be a scalar feature ordering the various types of segments with respect to loudness or intensity. Vowels are the most sonorous segments, and stops are the least sonorous, with glides, liquids, nasals, and fricatives falling in between.

1.    Sonority scale: vowels > glides > liquids > nasals > fricatives > stops

Sonority has been employed most frequently in the analysis of restrictions on segment sequences within the syllable, being incorporated into two principles: the sonority sequencing principle (Steriade 1982, Selkirk 1984, Clements 1990), which requires that sonority decline from the nucleus of the syllable toward both of its edges, and the sonority dispersion principle (Clements 1990), which requires the decline in sonority from the nucleus through the onset to be relatively steep and the decline from the nucleus through the coda to be relatively shallow. The sonority scale has been utilized in the analysis of segment sequences that straddle syllable boundaries as well. It is the key component of the syllable contact law (Murray & Vennemann 1983, Vennemann 1988), which requires a decline in sonority from the right edge of the first syllable to the left edge of the second. Sonority has also often been employed in the analysis of stress patterns that are sensitive to vowel quality (Kenstowicz 1996, de Lacy 2002, 2004).

Although The sonority controversy is divided into five sections, the contributions are not evenly distributed among them. Half of the contributions are assigned to the first section, ‘Sonority and phonotactics’, and all but one or two of the remaining six might have reasonably been assigned to this section as well. The nearly exclusive focus on phonotactics is perhaps the collection’s most significant shortcoming. As mentioned above, for example, there has been a notable amount of work on the role of vowel sonority in constructing certain types of stress patterns, but only the contribution from Matthew Gordon, Edita Ghushchyan, Bradley Mc Donnell, Daisy Rosenblum, and Patricia A. Shaw , ‘Sonority and central vowels: Across-linguistic phonetic study’, addresses the role of sonority in this context. Three contributions, including the phonetic study just mentioned, are assigned to the second section, ‘Sonority and phonetics’. The remaining three sections, ‘Sonority and language acquisition’, ‘Sonority and sign language’, and ‘Sonority and computational modeling’, each contain a single paper.

As might be expected, given the success of sonority-based accounts in the analysis of phonotactic patterns, most of the contributions in the ‘Sonority and phonotactics’ section present a positive view of sonority’s key role. For example, Karen Baertsch ’s chapter, ‘Sonority and sonority-based relationships within American English monosyllabic words’, presents an approach to syllable structure within the context of optimality theory. The analysis modifies Prince and Smolensky’s (1993) peak-and-margin hierarchies account in a way that takes advantage of Baertsch’s (2002) split-margin approach to syllable structure. The sonority scale is used to formulate a set of universally ranked constraints for each position in the syllable, and the constraints are then locally conjoined to form a hierarchy of preferences for all syllables that might be formed using these positions. The presentation is a little quick, but the key principles are mostly familiar, and Baertsch does a nice job, in a relatively short space, describing how they work together.

András Cser ’s ‘The role of sonority in the phonology of Latin’ and Steve Parker ’s ‘Sonority distance vs. sonority dispersion—a typological survey’ present similarly positive views. Cser’s article is primarily descriptive, illustrating how Latin conforms to the sonority sequencing principle and the syllable contact law with very few exceptions. The exceptions are particularly interesting in that those allowed for nonnasal sonorants and those allowed for other segments seem to have opposing characteristics. Parker’s article shows that...



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