Phonemic analysis is hard, let’s go shopping

Alexis Michaud’s phonology of Laze makes the unusual decision of providing a syllable chart instead of a phoneme inventory.

As it turns out, this is a sensible decision. A phonemic analysis of Laze, an account of its contrastive consonants and vowels (or, in the more applicable Sinitic tradition, onsets and rhymes) is difficult to produce, for the following reasons:

1) There are eleven possible syllables with nasal rhymes, of which eight begin with /h/ and three have a null initial: [hwã hɑ̃ hæ̃ hṽ̩ hũ hwɤ̃ hĩ hĩe æ̃ ṽ̩ ɔ̃]. The first eight can be analyzed as beginning with a nasal glottal fricative /h̃/, but the last three cannot. The rhymes and -ɔ can’t take a null initial, so [æ̃ ɔ̃] could be analyzed as /æ ɔ/—but [ṽ̩] contrasts with [v̩]. Michaud proposes to analyze these as h- or the null initial combined with nasal rhymes -wã -ɑ̃ -æ̃ -ṽ̩ -ũ -wɤ̃ -ĩ -ĩe -ɔ̃, under which analysis Laze would have six rhymes that can only occur after /h/, two that can only occur after /h ∅/ (∅ is the null initial, not to be confused with ø, the letter O WITH STROKE), and one that can only occur after /ø/.

It’s unclear from Michaud’s paper, but these last three syllables may be hapax phonoumena: he gives one example for [æ̃], two for [ṽ̩], and four for [ɔ̃], of which two are “likely Pumi/Prinmi loanwords”.

2) The initial [f] can only appear in native vocabulary before the rhymes [i] and [v̩]. [f] doesn’t contrast with [h] before [v̩], but it does before [i].

3) The alveolopalatal affricates [tɕʰ tɕ dʑ] appear to be allophones of the velars before front vowels or rhymes beginning with -j-; but in one word, [wɤ11mie11tɕɔ11ɭɔ55] ‘cicada’, an alveolopalatal affricate appears before a back vowel, probably due to Laze’s process of sporadic vowel copying. (Cf. [ʂieliemie] ‘seventh month’, from [ʂɯ] ‘seven’ + [ɬiemie] ‘month’.) There is no other -jɔ rhyme anywhere in Laze. Either /tɕ/ or /jɔ/ must be granted phonemicity to deal with this word.

4) The rhyme [e] can only appear after /s z tsʰ ts dz/, and “could actually be said to be in complementary distribution with any of the following rhymes: /ɤ/, /wɤ/, /ɹ̩/, /jæ/, /jɤ/, /jɑ/, /ɔ/, /ie/, /wæ/, /wɑ/, and even /æ/.” This is for diachronic reasons: *-a raised to -e after coronal initials and nowhere else, and there is no other source of -e. Michaud proposes that, since -wɤ is sometimes realized as close to [we], [e] could be an allophone of /ɤ/.

5) The rhyme [ɥe] appears in only two syllables, [ɮɥe] and [tɕɥe], each of which appears in only one word. [ɮɥe11] ‘wood ashes’ is likely a loan.  [tɕɥe55] “may likewise call for a special explanation, but so far we have not been able to clarify this point.” Michaud proposes to treat [ɥe] as an allophone of [wɤ], but [wɤ] can only appear after the null initial, /h/, velars, and retroflexes.

6) The uvular plosive initials [qʰ q] are in complementary distribution with the velars [kʰ k], only occurring before [ɑ wa æ ɔ], where [kʰ k] do not. However, there are syllables [kʰu ku], and [u] and [ɔ] only contrast in the syllable pairs [hu xɔ], [kʰu qʰɔ], [ku qɔ], [ɮu ɭɔ], and [bu bɔ]—and [bɔ] can only appear as a product of vowel harmony. (Possibly only in [bɔ33ɭɔ55] ‘fly’.) In fact, these and [ʁɔ] (and [ɔ̃] and [tɕɔ]) are the only syllables that [ɔ] can appear in.

The uvulars could be analyzed as allophones of the velars before low vowels, but there’s also a uvular fricative [ʁ], which appears in almost-complementary distribution with [g]: [ʁ] can only appear before [ɑ æ wæ wɑ ɔ] (no other velars or uvulars can appear before [wæ]), but, due to vowel harmony, [g] can appear before [ɑ] and [wæ].

7) Retroflex and alveolar plosives only contrast before [v̩].

8) The retroflex lateral [ɭ] only appears before the marginal phoneme [ɔ]. In the closely related Naxi language, the syllable [ɭɔ] is analyzed as /lo/, since retroflexes and alveolars only contrast before /o/; but Laze has no /o/, and [ɔ] is marginal. Michaud proposes to recognize /ɔ/ as a phoneme and analyze this syllable as /lɔ/, creating a final that can only appear after x-, uvulars, b- (due to vowel harmony), and l-.

9) The distribution of most segments is severely restricted. v-, for example, can only appear before three (possibly four) rhymes, and -wɑ can only appear after seven initials.

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One response to “Phonemic analysis is hard, let’s go shopping

  1. Pingback: Phonemic analysis is hard, let’s go shopping | Reaction Times

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