SRPP: Does sonority have a phonological basis?

Martin Krämer (UiT The Arctic University of Norway)
21 January 2022, 14h0015h30

Sonority (or segmental strength) is a central concept in phonology. Especially syllable phonotactics, the distribution of consonants and vowels within syllables, is explained elegantly, though incompletely, by the Sonority Hierarchy and the Sonority Sequencing Principle (Selkirk 1984, Zec 1988, Clements 1990 a.o.).

Challenges to Sonority Theory, mostly connected to consonant sequences, have been known for a while and accounted for with theoretical patches such as the assumption of extrasyllabic segment positions. Sibilants can occur as the first member of syllable-initial consonant clusters, resulting in sonority reversals or plateaus if they are followed by other obstruents. In addition to such plateaus, sonority reversals involving sonorants preceding obstruents, as found in Slavic languages, for instance, also violate the Sonority Sequencing Principle. The imperative of high sonority in the nucleus received a blow already from Bell’s (1978) study on
syllabic consonants. Zec (1995) noted that coda inventories can be discontinuous on the sonority scale, e.g., Kiowa bans only fricatives from the coda and allows the other major consonant classes, including stops. She concluded that codas are also subject to general markedness constraints, e.g., *[+continuant])$.

In this talk, we will look at sonority thresholds for syllable nuclei and codas and see that the assumption that admission of the segment class at a certain stratum on the sonority hierarchy implies wellformedness of all higher sonority classes in these positions (e.g., Zec 2007 onsyllabicity) is not necessarily warranted. Some languages present with syllabic sibilants (e.g.,
varieties of Chinese, Duanmu 2007, Shao 2020) but do not allow other higher sonority consonants as syllable nuclei. Others only accept syllabic nasals or nasals and sibilants to the exclusion of the higher sonority liquids. The Bolivian language Chipaya also displays only sibilant nuclei (in addition to vocalic nuclei), as well as complex onsets in which the inner consonant is a velar or post-velar fricative while sonorant consonants are not attested in this position. This restriction on complex onsets is neither predicted by Minimum Sonority Distance (Harris1982, Selkirk 1984) nor Sonority Dispersion (Clements 1990).

On the basis of these and other data, I argue that sonority is only epiphenomenal and the real driving forces creating the impression of sonority sequencing are general system markedness as well as positional markedness. Building on a proposal by Krämer & Zec (2020, in prep.), cross-linguistic as well as language-internal sonority inconsistencies, as attested for nasals, liquids and sibilants are explained by the assumption of language-specific variation inthe use and specification of the features [±continuant] and [±strident]. I propose that Sonority Sequencing is a side effect of syntagmatic contrast maximization, a constraint that ultimately might be derived from the Obligatory Contour Principle (Leben 1973). Adjacent segments within syllables should be maximally different in terms of major class and manner feature specifications. In a sequence of two segments the two maximally different ones in terms of major class features are a stop consonant and a vowel. In a demisyllable with two consonants preceding the vowel, the internal consonant is most suitable if it is maximally different from both the consonant to its left and the vowel to its right, resulting in the dispersion effect noted by Clements (1990). The hypothesis that apparent Sonority Sequencing is a side effect of contrast maximization and sonority-independent markedness is supported not only by SSP violations and sonority threshold paradoxes but also by observations on cross-linguistic variation in consonant inventories and some trends in L1 acquisition.

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