/s/ reduction in four dialects of Spanish

A usage-based account of syllable- and word-final /s/ reduction in four dialects of Spanish. By Earl K. Brown. (LINCOM studies in romance linguistics 62.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2009. Pp. iv, 236. ISBN 9783895865268. $91.28.

Reviewed by Delano Sydney Lamy, University of Florida

Earl K. Brown offers researchers a succinct and comprehensible analysis of one of the most-studied properties in Spanish linguistics, syllable- and word-final /s/ reduction. Utilizing a usage-based approach, he analyzes /s/ reduction in four Spanish-speaking areas: Cali, Colombia; Mérida, Venezuela; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. According to B, this study provides us with evidence that frequency factors significantly condition the reduction of syllable- and word-final /s/ (iv).

In Ch. 1, B discusses the variation of /s/ production in the Spanish-speaking world, identified as follows: (1i) maintenance [s], (ii) aspiration [h], and (iii) deletion [ø] (4). He also discusses the principle factors found in usage-based models and the exemplar theory of phonology, which are token frequency and frequency in a context favorable to reduction. In this model, sounds weaken as token frequency increases. As frequency increases in contexts favorable to reduction, the mental representation of these sounds is more likely to be the reduced variant. The author seeks to answer if the conditioning effects of frequency factors, along with others drawn from previous literature, change as the overall rate of reduction between dialects varies.

In Ch. 2, B describes the production of /s/ in the four dialects. The analysis shows that there is a hierarchy among the varieties in the overall rate of /s/ reduction, with Colombia exhibiting the lowest rate and Puerto Rico and Venezuela the highest. Later, he explains the variationist methodology employed for quantitative analysis, and states that ‘…this methodology can disentangle the influence of competing factors on a phenomenon of linguistic variation and change’ (31).

In Chs. 3–6, B presents the results, which show that the phonetic factors significantly constrain final /s/ reduction in the four dialects, with following phonological segments being the strongest factor group. He also finds that the usage-based factors have a significant influence. Frequency effects in the predicted direction rise in magnitude as overall /s/ reduction increases. However, at extremely high rates of reduction, these effects are lost, which he attributes to a ceiling effect.

In Ch. 7, B discusses the implications of the results, and concludes that the overall rate of /s/ reduction influences the magnitude of effect that the usage-based factors have on final /s/. That is, said factors lose strength as the rate of reduction increases. This supports the exemplar theory, in which we see that frequent reduction entails a stronger mental representation of the reduced variant, therefore minimizing any effect of contextual factors.

Despite using impressionistic coding as opposed to an instrumental analysis, this study succeeds in supporting usage-based models of phonology, and of language in general. The information presented on the theoretical framework is clear and concise and the application of it is complete. B makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the importance of frequency in phonetic production. I recommend this book to anyone interested in language use and variationist sociolinguistics.

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