Stephanie Shih will be giving the oral presentation of her dissertation this Tuesday, Nov. 5, at 9AM in the Greenberg Room. (The format for this open part of the oral exam is a 30-45 minute talk by the PhD candidate followed by questions from those attending, for a total of no more than one hour. Please arrive promptly!)
Towards Optimal Rhythm
This thesis argues that rhythmic well-formedness preferences contribute to conditioning extra-phonological operations, providing evidence from patterns in language use that constraints on phonological constructs are at work in the assessment of competing morphosyntactic variants. The results of the thesis call into question a fundamental assumption in standard models of grammar and of language production, that the (morpho)-syntax has no forward knowledge of low-level metrical or segmental phonology (e.g., “Phonology-free Syntax”). Such a restriction between syntax and phonology arises from two sources in linguistic models: modularity between components of grammar and unidirectionality in information flow between these grammatical modules. The view taken in this thesis maintains that, counter to previous assumptions, information flow is not strictly unidirectional in that constraints operating over phonological information apply in the morphosyntactic component of grammar. Instead, it is the modularity of grammatical components that gives rise to the depth-of-information-access limitations that remain in the interaction between phonology, phonetics, and morphosyntax.
Evidence against unidirectionality is presented from two empirical case studies of rhythm’s role in word choice (i.e., personal name choice) and syntactic construction choice (i.e., genitive alternation) in English. The case studies demonstrate that rhythmic optimization, in addition to other phonological well-formedness preferences such as anti-homophony, are active in word and construction variation in syntagmatic contexts. It is furthermore shown that the effect of rhythm is closely tied to semantic factors such as animacy, which reveals that rhythm must interact with non-phonological constraints in the system.
Allowing bidirectionality in a model of the phonology-syntax interface allows for more interaction, but the relationship between each component of language is still crucially constrained by modularity of the grammatical components. It is argued that in the assessment of morphosyntactic competitors, phonological and phonetic competitors—that is, the potential outputs of phonology and phonetics—are not available. Rhythm offers a natural test case of the availability of underlying versus post-lexically-specified information via the distinction in stress properties of lexical (content) and grammatical (function) words. A large-scale corpus study of content and function word stress in conversational American English is presented. Results of the study point to complex differences between word categories in terms of underlying and surface stress properties. These differences in stress not only trigger differences in rhythmic optimization by word category but they also demonstrate that forward knowledge of surface-assigned phonetic stress is unavailable at the point of rhythmic optimization between morphosyntactic constructions. In contrast, evidence from end weight phenomena suggests that lexically-encoded information about underlying phonological stress is available during morphosyntactic computation.
The view that emerges from the empirical studies in this thesis is one that weakens the claim of Phonology-free Syntax. Phonological well-formedness conditions apply at all levels of grammar, including the syntactic component. Restrictions on phonology-syntax interaction arise from modularity in the system, meaning that morphosyntactic choices are made without competition with phonological or phonetic output candidates. Positing the maintenance of modularity in the grammar explains the relative rarity of phonological influences on extra-phonological operations. Phonological constraints that are most active will necessarily be ones that regulate syntagmatic effects that occur when words combine in the morphosyntactic module, and these phonological constraints—including the propensity towards optimal rhythm—must compete for satisfaction against the other active, non-phonological pressures.
Oral exam committee: Arto Anttila and Sharon Inkelas (Co-advisors), Joan Bresnan, Dan Jurafsky
University oral exam chair: Herb Clark (Psychology)