Mayak and the Typology of Labial Harmony

Adam McCollum


Mayak (Western Nilotic) exhibits a pattern of regressive labial harmony that is typologically unique in that non-high vowels undergo cross-height harmony while high vowels do not. This pattern is exceptional under contemporary analyses of labial harmony. This paper demonstrates that harmony in Mayak is not exceptional, but rather necessitates a redefinition of contrast in terms of auditory similarity rather than abstract features. Moreover, it is argued herein that harmony is preferentially triggered by perceptually similar contrasts and also preferentially targets perceptually similar contrasts. A formal analysis using phonetically-enriched representations is able to account for the Mayak pattern.  Under this analysis, syntagmatic identity is predicted to predominate the typology of labial harmony. A statistical analysis of harmony from a survey of over sixty languages corroborates this prediction. Thus, the analysis presented herein can account for the seemingly exceptional pattern in Mayak while maintaining key generalizations present in other contemporary analyses of labial harmony.


labial harmony; Mayak; Nilotic; vowel harmony; Dispersion Theory;

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Copyright (c) 2017 Adam McCollum

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