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Laura Downing, Professor of African Languages at the University of Gothenburg and currently NIAS research fellow, is the guest speaker at this ACLC seminar. The title of her talk is 'Testing typologies of consonant inventories: the view from Africa'.

Detail Summary
Date 27 November 2020
Time 16:15 -17:30


In this talk, I will present my NIAS project, the theoretical background to the project and preliminary results.

The general theoretical motivation for the project is that theory building in the fields of phonetics and phonology depends on being able to compare phonetically accurate information about the sound systems of a broad range of the world’s languages. Laryngeal contrasts, such as the contrast between /p/ and /b/ in English, are a central parameter defining consonant inventories, and accounting for the contextual neutralization of laryngeal contrasts is a perennial concern of phonology.

There are currently two views regarding how laryngeal contrasts are expected to be realized in particular languages. The traditional view, put forward by Lisker & Abramson (1964; L&A) and subsequent work, is that languages with a two-way laryngeal contrast split into two types, which define the contrast by using different neighboring positions on a VOT scale. In “voice” languages, like Hungarian, Russian, French and Dutch, the contrast is between stops that are voiced during closure (D) and voiceless unaspirated stops (T). In “aspiration” languages, like English and German, the contrast is between voiceless unaspirated stops (T) and voiceless aspirated stops (Th). (See Abramson & Whalen 2017, Beckman et al. 2013 and Jansen 2004 for detailed discussion.) Languages with a three-way contrast would choose all three positions. According to Maddieson’s (2013) survey, languages with no laryngeal contrast – about 1/3 of the world’s languages – have only voiceless unaspirated stops (T). Vaux & Samuels (2005; V&S) call this traditional view into question and provide detailed arguments that the least marked laryngeal setting for voiceless stops is with aspiration: Th, rather than T. Therefore, the two unmarked types of laryngeal contrasts should be T:Th (“aspirating”) and D:Th (contrasting true voice with aspirated voiceless stops). Note that the D:Th contrast is between the endpoints of the laryngeal scale, rather than neighboring positions, as this makes the contrast most perceptually distinct (Boersma 1998, Flemming 2005).

My NIAS project aims to test these two theories of the typology of laryngeal contrasts in stop consonants by surveying the phoneme systems of African languages. There are a number of reasons for choosing to focus on African languages. Most relevant to the project is that, as Clements & Rialland (2005) demonstrate, implosive (hyper-voiced) consonants are very common in the inventories of African languages compared to other language areas. The African language area is thus the perfect domain to test theories which make different predictions about the type of voiceless stop (aspirated or unaspirated) true voiced consonants contrast with. Further, it has been claimed (Givón 1974, Herbert 1985) that aspiration is the default setting for voiceless consonants in many African languages.

I had hoped to conduct phonetic studies of selected languages as a main source of data to test the two theories. COVID has made this goal unrealistic. However, I have found that there is actually a fair amount of detailed phonetic information available for a large number of African languages in dissertations and other published sources, many of which are available online. In the talk, I will give an overview of the results so far of my survey of this material, which includes 150+ languages from a diverse set of language families. As we will see, the attested laryngeal contrast systems and processes of laryngeal neutralization are often more complex than the ones that the typological literature in phonetics and phonology has focused on. Preliminary implications of the results for theories of laryngeal representation will be discussed.

Selected references

Abramson, Arthur S. & D. H. Whalen. 2017. Voice Onset Time (VOT) at 50: Theoretical and practical issues in measuring voicing distinctions. Journal of Phonetics 63, 75-86.

Beckman, Jill, Michael Jessen & Catherine O. Ringen. 2013. Empirical evidence for laryngeal features: aspirating vs. true voice languages. Journal of Linguistics 49:2, 259-284.

Boersma, Paul. 1998. Functional phonology: Formalizing the interactions between articulatory and perceptual drives. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Amsterdam.

Clements, G. N. & Annie Rialland. 2008. Africa as a phonological area. In Bernd Heine & Derek Nurse (eds.), A Linguistic Geography of Africa. Cambridge University Press, 36-85.

Downing, Laura J. & Silke Hamann. 2018. The phonetics of NCh in Tumbuka and its implications for diachronic change. Papers in Historical Phonology 3, 77-95.

Flemming, Edward. 2005. Contrast and perceptual distinctiveness. In Bruce Hayes, Robert Kirchner & Donca Steriade (eds.), Phonetically based phonology. Cambridge University Press, 232–276.

Givón, Talmy. 1974. Rule un-ordering: generalization and de-generalization in Phonology. CLS Papers from the Parasession on Natural Phonology. Chicago Linguistics Society, 103-115.

Hamann, Silke & Laura J. Downing. 2017. *NT Revisited Again: a perceptual cue constraint approach to postnasal laryngeal alternations. Journal of Linguistics 53, 85-112.

Herbert, Robert K. 1985. Articulatory modes and typological universals: The puzzle of Bantu ejectives and aspirates. In: Jacek Fisiak (ed.), 6th International Conference on Historical Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 251–265.

Honeybone, Patrick. 2005. Diachronic evidence in segmental phonology: the case of laryngeal specifications. In: Marc van Oostendorp & Jeroen van de Weijer (eds.), The internal organization of phonological segments. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 319–354.

Honeybone, Patrick. 2012. Lenition in English. In: Terttu Nevalainen & Elizabeth Closs Traugott (eds), The Oxford Handbook of the History of English. Oxford Handbooks Online.

Iverson, Gregory K. & Joseph C. Salmons. 1995. Aspiration and laryngeal representation in Germanic. Phonology 12, 369–396.

Jansen, Wouter. 2004. Laryngeal contrast and phonetic voicing. PhD dissertation, University of Groningen.

Lisker, Leigh & Arthur S. Abramson. 1964. A cross-language study of voicing in initial stops: acoustical measurements. Word 20, 384–422.

Maddieson, Ian. 2013. Voicing in Plosives and Fricatives. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Vaux, Bert & Bridget Samuels. 2005. Laryngeal markedness and aspiration. Phonology 22, 395-436

About the ACLC seminar series

The ACLC seminar series is a two weekly lecture series organized by the ACLC, research school for linguistics of the Faculty of Humanities.