Phonology @ CASTL: Revisiting old questions and finding new, complex, but minimalist answers
Current group members: Berit Anne Baal, Bruce Morén-Duolljá, Chantal Lyche, Dragana Šurkalovič, Helene Andreassen, Islam Youssef, Martin Krämer, Ove Lorentz, Patrik Bye, Pavel Iosad, Tore Nesset, Violeta Martinez-Paricio
Language plays a central role in both linguistic and cognitive science research. It influences how we communicate and think, and it gives us valuable information about how the human mind works. Within the field of Generative Linguistics, we have taken for granted that most, if not all, of the building blocks of language are specific to language and given to us by genetics - i.e. they are innate. This includes the assumption that the mental representations of speech sounds are “hardwired” to particular articulatory and/or auditory characteristics. While this way of thinking has led the linguistic research of the past 50 years, there is growing evidence that many of those things that we once thought to be unlearnable and thus necessarily given at birth can, and probably are, learned after all. This, combined with growing awareness of less-commonly-studied languages and phenomena that challenge a direct and universal phonetics-phonology relationship (e.g. sign languages), leads to the conclusion that it is time to reassess much of the “received wisdom” we have inherited from the past and to search for more satisfying and less stipulative explanations.
A unique vision
The main thrust of CASTL phonology research is the exploration of a new view of sound systems in which phonology is distinct from phonetics (i.e. “substance-free”) and where much of segmental and suprasegmental structure traditionally considered to be given by universal grammar is in fact emergent and the result of very general cognitive and grammatical principles (i.e. “minimalist”). Our substance-free, minimalist perspective and our willingness to join forces to address a single set of questions and possible solutions are what set CASTL phonology apart and are our greatest strengths.
While our work is appropriately diverse given the range of backgrounds, interests, philosophies and languages represented by our team, it has concentrated mainly on a single project that looks inside individual speech sounds (i.e. segments) to establish their feature composition and the principles determining their internal organization. Among other things, we have argued for the reintroduction and refining of autosegmental representations in contemporary phonology, focused on unresolved featural issues left unaddressed by the popular constraint-based framework, Optimality Theory, suggested that economy and structural complexity are constraining factors in building language-particular feature specifications, and stressed the importance of whole-language analysis and empiricism. We have also demonstrated the value of micro-variation in testing both empirical and theoretical claims. Our novel approach has resulted in international presentations and publications, seminars, workshops, mini-courses, masters theses and CASTL’s first phonology doctoral dissertation. It has also played a role in innovative phonological theory building that at times dominates European phonology conferences.
Expansions and interfaces
In 2008, we took the lessons we learned from our work on segment-internal issues and expanded our efforts in three directions. We had a seminar, mini-course and workshop focusing on prosody - i.e. looking outside the segment. This work has caused us to seriously question the universality of prosodic categories and their relationships to one another, and it has led to progress toward a more empirically adequate model of prosody that has a direct connection to our segment-internal concerns. We also had two seminars addressing how phonology interfaces with other areas of the grammar - syntax and phonetics. With the templates seminar, we combined forces with our syntax colleagues to look carefully at templatic effects in morphology and phonology. One key theoretical issue this seminar addressed was that of modularity and whether prosody is a module on its own or if it is a part of phonology or syntax. With the phonetics-phonology interface seminar, we looked at some non-trivial challenges that a phonetics-phonology relationship pose for substance-free phonology, and we gained a firm historical and empirical base with which to assess “substance-full” approaches. Both of these interface seminars have provided a stepping off point for our 2009 plans, which include a new syntax-phonology seminar, a Laboratory Phonology mini-course and workshop, and several individual and joint presentations and publications.
In addition to our dedication to phonological theory, we are also committed to careful and responsible language description. This includes systematic phonetic, phonological and morphological work on several varieties of Arabic, Celtic, Saami, Slavic and Spanish.