A lateral theory of phonology

A lateral theory of phonology: What is CVCV, and why should it be? By Tobias Scheer. (Studies in generative grammar 68.1.) Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 2004. Pp. lix, 854. ISBN 9783110178715. $152 (Hb).

Reviewed by Przemysław Czarnecki, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland

This book is the long awaited product of Tobias Scheer’s fruitful research on various phonological phenomena examined within the framework of the CVCV theory (or, as the title of the book indicates, the lateral theory of phonology [LTP]). Although many of S’s ideas have already been presented in conference talks and published articles, this book will be enthusiastically received, as the phonological community has long needed and looked forward to a compact presentation of the tenets of LTP.

In the theoretical section of this book, S devotes himself entirely to the presentation and defence of the central ideas of LTP. This theory, a direct offshoot of government phonology, breaks dramatically with what are normally considered the cornerstones of most phonological theories. LTP stipulates that phonological organization is in fact extremely simple because it can be reduced to sequences of consonantal and vocalic positions arranged along two theoretical devices: government and licensing. Due to a lack of sufficient space to present even a fraction of the theory’s foundations, and given that part of the book is intended merely as a guide to LTP, the specifics of this theory will not be examined here.

This volume is divided into two main parts: the first clarifies the nature of CVCV, the second attempts to justify the theory and support the premise that CVCV is preferable to other phonological approaches. To this end, S analyzes an impressive amount of data, gathered from such disparate and often unrelated languages as English, German, Czech, Polish, Moroccan Arabic, French, Icelandic, Somali, Italian, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, and Tiberian Hebrew, among others. The sheer magnitude of data facilitates a lively discussion of, and solutions to, a wide range of traditional dilemmas within the field of phonology, such as word-initial consonant clusters, vowel and consonant length, syllabification, vowel-zero alternations, empty nuclei as well as weak and strong phonological positions within the syllable. Interestingly, the core of the discussion is framed at every point in reference to broader phonological controversies. With a keen eye as well as persuasive argumentation, S elucidates both the theoretical and empirical weakness of some pivotal positions held within traditional generative phonology (in the spirit of Sound pattern of English, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle, New York: Harper and Row, 1968), government phonology or optimality theory (criticized for its alleged arbitrariness and tendency to overgeneralize). In widening the scope of discussion, S generates interest and accessibility not only for students of LTP but for every practicing phonologist.

In sum, S has offered an interesting read. As this volume is only the initial installment of a larger book project, vol. 2 will be eagerly anticipated.