Variation and phonological theory

William Thomas Reynolds, University of Pennsylvania


This work proceeds from two fundamental assumptions which have nevertheless not always received wide acceptance in the fields of phonology and sociolinguistics: (1) that the empirical, quantitative study of variation in language may have important implications for theories of phonology; and (2) that a thorough understanding of current phonological theory can be of great importance in interpreting and explaining sociolinguistic data. To aid in bridging the gap between these two fields, I present a case for the study of phonological varition within a current formal framework. The theoretical model I utilize is Optimality Theory, which I argue is, in principle, particularly well suited not only for modeling variable phenomena but also for explaining why such phenomena should exist. However, previous attempts to adapt the theory to specific instances of linguistic variation have run into problems due to the basic tenet of Optimality Theory that every hierarchy of constraint rankings constitutes a grammar; this in turn implies that a speaker must possess multiple grammars of his/her dialect, one in fact for every variant that exists in that dialect. To avoid the multiple grammars problem, I introduce the concept of the Floating Constraint: That is, a particular constraint(s) may be classified simply as being ranked somewhere within a range of anchored constraints, without specifying its exact ranking relative to those constraints. I show, through examples of variable processes from several languages, how such an approach can account not only for the facts of variation, but also for the relative frequencies of occurrence of the variants themselves, without the need to resort to positing a separate grammar for each possible outcome. By demonstrating that this approach may be successfully applied to the analysis of a wide range of cross-linguistic variation, I provide phonologists with a model for studying variability, and sociolinguists with a firm and coherent foundation in current phonological theory.

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Recommended Citation

Reynolds, William Thomas, "Variation and phonological theory" (1994). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9521109.