Challenging Sonority - Cross-linguistic Evidence - Martin J. Ball

Challenging Sonority - Cross-linguistic Evidence - Martin J. Ball

Sonority in Some Languages of the Cameroon Grassfields

Challenging Sonority - Cross-linguistic Evidence - Martin J. Ball

Matthew Faytak [+-]
University of California, Berkeley
Matthew Faytak is a doctoral candidate in Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. His research centres on the complex relationships between phonological encoding, phonetic implementation, and sound change, with a particular focus on the actuation of intracategorical change and its possible outcomes. He has written on phonotactics and cross-linguistically unusual vowel articulations of languages of Cameroon and China.


Syllabification and sequencing phonotactics are thought to reference the sonority of the segments in an input string. The Sonority Sequencing Principle (SSP) holds such that a syllable nucleus will exceed its margins in sonority (Clements 1990, Zec 1995). Additionally, it has been observed that syllabification of a given segment class implies syllabification of all more sonorous classes (Blevins 1995). Both generalizations, first formulated in abstract phonological terms, are easily adapted to a model of sonority grounded in acoustic characteristics of segment classes (Parker 2008, Clements 2009). I suggest that the above two generalizations do not extend to two languages of the Cameroon Grassfields, Kom and Limbum. Two fricative vowels present in each of these languages are produced (respectively) with labiodental and strident coronal frication—that is, they are produced as obstruents (cf. also Connell 2007). As such, syllabification in these languages is problematic: the obstruent fricative vowels are syllabified where several types of non-obstruents are not, counter to previous predictions. Furthermore, several permitted onset-nucleus sequences violate the SSH, as a fall in sonority may be observed between the onset and the nucleus. Virtually identical phonotactics can be found in numerous unrelated languages outside the Grassfields (Faytak, in press), suggesting that the fricative vowel problem is not confined to one linguistic area. The SSH and implicational statements on syllabification can both be salvaged if the sonority hierarchy is removed from a substantive basis in acoustics. In the case of Kom and Limbum, the fricative vowels derive historically from more typical high vowels *i and *u, such that they could be counted as non-obstruents in some abstract sense. However, if sonority is removed from phonetic substance to broaden empirical coverage, the concept becomes circular. I consider modifications or alternatives to the typical substantively grounded account of sonority and find that segment modulation in a number of acoustic dimensions (Ohala and Kawasaki-Fukumori 1997), rather than segment sonority, provides the greatest explanatory power for Kom’s phonotactics.

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Faytak, Matthew. Sonority in Some Languages of the Cameroon Grassfields. Challenging Sonority - Cross-linguistic Evidence. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. p. 76-96 Oct 2016. ISBN 9781781792278. Date accessed: 21 Jan 2018 doi: 10.1558/equinox.25670. Oct 2016

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