Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Constraints in Latin phonology

In phonology we're moving away from rules, which seem to be language-specific, and towards constraints. I've got my objections to constraint-based phonology, but it also seems elegant. Or at least clean.

So here's a rule in Latin. It's not a hard rule, but it seems to be frequent enough that it works. And good enough to get to modern Spanish. Maybe some more tinkering would make it solid, but then the number of rules multiplies. Anyway, the rule. Or something really close to it. There's probably a morpheme boundary involved, but let's ignore that for now, shall we?
/w+ɪ/ ➝ Ø / Vː__
It is at least productive enough to yield parāstī from parāvistī. So that's the constraint table I'll put up. I'm going to focus on just a few forms to keep things under control.

Clearly there is a *VVV constraint in Latin. There are long vowels and diphthongs, which are effectively VV. There are short vowels, which are V. But no VVV—extra long vowels or long vowel diphthongs. Ever. So that's an easy constraint. It even seems fatal in all situations—unless you can somehow kludge in hiatus. That would violate DepIO (the constraint that says not to add things in), so I feel pretty safe in ignoring that possibility here.

There also seems to be a constraint against eliminating the conjugation's theme vowel going on. I can't put my finger on any scientific reason you'd want to do this, but it seems like a way to avoid creating ambiguity. In any case, syncopated forms in Latin preserve the conjugation's theme vowel in the perfect. If there's no theme vowel in the perfect stem, there's no syncopation.

On to the tableau.

*theme vowel deletion


An ugly problem turns up. The tableau predicts the wrong winner. We want to get [pɑrɑːstiː] as the clear winner so that it is the favored colloquial form to get passed to Spanish. The problem is that we need to violate MaxIO by deleting [] and still get the win. Meanwhile the full form [pɑrɑːwɪstiː] violates no constraints in the above tableau, but needs to lose. 

Or maybe no such problem existed in 1st century BCE Latin. You could use either form. The MaxIO violation must have been so weak that something like [pɑrɑːstiː] could start competing with the winner [pɑrɑːstiː]. After all, [pɑrɑːstiː] doesn't take information out of the verb: in fact, it eliminates redundancy. The -istī ending is unique to the perfect tense, so dropping the perfective -v- couldn't create ambiguity. From there all you've got to do is push the first i in -istī over to the stem and get an underlying second person perfect morpheme of -stī. Then there's no good reason to keep the first i. (Sounds simple when I put it that way.) But that's beyond phonology, no?

EDIT: I think there's something to all of this. Some goodies about SR in Latin orthography that may provide a springboard for further investigation. Some evidence for *VVV.

Double EDIT: Nemo Oudeis tells me that the v-deletion can also occur in other places (divitior > ditior; divitissimus > ditissimus), but not remembering these for sure I understated the matter.

Note about the table: Support for tables in Blogger poor. Nay, non-existent.