The phonology of Japanese. By Laurence Labrune

The phonology of Japanese. By Laurence Labrune. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 320. ISBN 9780199545834. $135 (Hb).

Reviewed by Mark J. Elson, University of Virginia

This book provides a clear and thorough discussion of the segmental and supra-segmental phenomena of Standard Japanese. It comprises seven chapters followed by references and an index. The reader is informed that its purpose is twofold: to describe, and react critically to, existing scholarship in Japanese phonology, taking into account both traditional and Western sources, and to offer new analyses (1). Perhaps most significantly, the book is intended not only for specialists, but also for students, non-specialist linguists, and non-linguist Japanologists.

The author describes her framework as generative ‘in the broad sense’, (3) distinguishing an underlying representation from a surface in the context of a non-derivational approach, frequently that of optimality theory. The discussion begins with a description of the stratification of the lexicon and other background (1–24), followed by four chapters treating segmental phenomena: ‘Vowels’ (25–58), ‘Consonants’ (59–101), ‘The phonology of consonant voicing’ (102–31), and ‘Special segments’ (132–41). In addition to a description of vowel phonemes and their peculiarities, vocalic topics include the processes of vowel insertion, deletion, devoicing, lengthening, shortening, and diphthongs. The chapter on consonants is a phoneme-by-phoneme discussion, with special attention to the velar nasal and to palatalization, while the chapter on consonant voicing considers the occurrence of voiced obstruents in conjunction with the special segments /Q/ (= gemination) and /N/ (= prenasalization).

For many, the greatest interest of this informative book will lie in the final two chapters, which provide the bulk of the author’s original contribution. They treat prosodic units (142–77) and accent (178–266) in both simple and compound words. The discussion of the syllable based on units canonically CVC versus mora based on units canonically CV, and disagreements relating to their relevance in Japanese, is comprehensive and enlightening. The discussion concludes with a section on dialectal and sociological variation, and another on the whether Japanese is properly viewed as a language with tone or accent. With regard to syllable versus mora, the author opts for mora with no relevance for syllable (i.e. rejecting the notion that Japanese is a syllabic mora-counting language). She replaces the standard ternary syllabic model comprising an onset, nucleus, and coda with a binary moraic one comprising an onset and nucleus, arguing that the elements associated with the coda position in the syllabic model are assigned to the immediately following binary moraic unit, which is, as a result, a deficient mora (i.e. one in which either C or V is empty). She establishes a hierarchy of moraic structures according to their ability to receive the accent (169–70) and goes on to describe accentuation within the framework of optimality theory, including Western borrowings.

Useful historical information is provided throughout. The author’s survey of, and critical reaction to, the existing literature is invaluable, and her interweaving of traditional analyses with those reflective of Western models is skillful. In this regard, I would note only her failure to mention Bernard Bloch’s seminal work (‘Studies in colloquial Japanese IV phonemics’, 1950) on the phonology of Japanese, which is notable for its detailed information and exemplification relating to the distribution of segmental units.