Strength and weakness at the interface

Strength and weakness at the interface: Positional neutralization in phonetics and phonology. By Jonathan Barnes. (Phonology & phonetics.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2006. Pp. ix, 292. ISBN 9783110185218. $137 (Hb).

Reviewed by Anna Balas, Adam Mickiewicz University

The book is a revision of the author’s doctoral dissertation completed at the University of California, Berkeley in 2002. The study investigates the typology and implementation of positional contrast in the world’s vowel systems with the purpose of accounting for regularities in this typology and explaining the relationship between phonetics and phonology. The study adopts a diachronically oriented phonologization approach.

The ‘Introduction’, the first of five chapters, clearly defines positional neutralization, presents phonetic and phonological considerations in the treatment of positional neutralization, defines the relationship between phonetics and phonology in the phonologization approach, and sets the goals for the study: to probe the controversies concerning the positional neutralization and the role of phonetics in phonology more generally. Chs. 2 through 4 examine the operation of phonetic principles in phonologization on the bases of diverse empirical findings. Ch. 2 presents the licensing asymmetries between stressed and unstressed syllables, and demonstrates that unstressed vowel-reduction patterns are mostly based on the neutralization of vowel-height contrasts in duration-dependent undershoot. Ch. 3 presents positional neutralization effects in final syllables. They vary crosslinguistically, and they are, on the one hand, limited by domain-final lengthening and articulatory strengthening of preboundary elements, and on the other hand, enhanced by radical drops in subglottal pressure, drop in F0, lower intensity, and devoicing. This line of argumentation leads to a conclusion that the approach, in which the inherent strength or weakness of structural positions is encoded in universal grammar, gives less precise predictions than the approach that derives the typology of positional neutralization from the phonologization of phonetic patterns and that can thus account for the effects of opposing phonetic tendencies. Ch. 4 offers an analysis of positional neutralization in domain-initial syllables, arguing that, although positional neutralization affecting initial syllables is rare and in fact limited to vowel harmony, it is not a consequence of the initial position itself, but rather the effect of the crosslinguistic phonetic characteristics of initial syllables. Ch. 5 offers a discussion of the enterprise of phonological typology and the phonetics-phonology interface. The conclusion is that the synchronic connection between the phonological regularities and the phonetic patterns is not enough to account for the positional neutralization. Typological patterns are argued to be best explained by phonetic factors, whereas categorical positional neutralization in synchrony is best explained by phonetics-free phonological approaches.

A question a reader might want to consider is whether it would be possible to find a framework which incorporates and sees phonetic motivation for changes, phonologization. and a synchronic state as a continuum.

Following the main text, the book concludes with notes, references and an index.

The discussion in this work of phonological neutralization is very clear, thorough, engaging and informative. The book is worthwhile not only for those working on positional neutralization but also, as a phonological-phonetic venture to those interested in the phonetics-phonology interface.