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CUNY Phonology Forum

CUNY Phonology Forum || Intro.php


Chuck Cairns, August 19, 2006

This introduction has two parts: first, an introduction to the approach to phonological theory adopted by the CUNY Phonology Forum, and, second, an introduction to the forum itself.


It is the responsibility of a theory of phonology to explain observable generalizations largely within the following four domains. First, phonologists wish to explain laws governing the structure of the phoneme inventories of the world�s languages. It is well known, for example, that many languages have /i, e, a, o, u/ as their vowels, whereas none have only /i, �, �, �, �/. A second goal is to propose a formal theory to account for the stress patterns of the world�s languages. Third, phonological theory tries to elucidate the nature of morphemic alternations, such as vowel harmony and other phenomena. Finally, the patterns governing the distribution of phonemic and phonetic elements lie well within the domain of phonological theory.

The phenomena referred to above have been at the center of intensive research over the last several decades. Nevertheless, the field of phonology has not agreed on two important theoretical questions: How should phonological objects be represented? What is the optimal architecture for phonological theory? Clearly, answers to these questions are crucial for making progress toward understanding the key explananda.

Since the early 1990�s, many phonologists have focused their energies on the research paradigm known as Optimality Theory (OT), an attempt to explain all phonological generalizations in terms of phonetic constraints. Many phonologists feel, however, that this program has drawn valuable research energy from the crucial questions of the field. It is the goal of this {volume, website} to make a contribution toward correcting this misdirection of energies. It is hoped that this exploration of foundational questions will cut across schools of thought within phonology and be of benefit to all phonologists.

This website is organized around the proposal that it is key to determine what components are necessary within phonology, how these components interact with each other and with other components of linguistic theory, and what the representational and computational resources of each module are. Computation and representation are inherently linked; John McCarthy once sagely remarked that if phonologists get the representations right, an understanding of the rules (or, more generally, computational capacity) will follow; that is the reason for the focus on representations as opposed to rules or constraints. The range of possible answers to the questions to be addressed in this website will provide evidence and arguments that will narrow the theoretical space to be considered by contemporary phonologists. This is the chief way that the website attempts to make a contribution to research in phonological theory.

There is no a priori reason why the domains of explananda sketched above should group together as within the scope of a single theory; it is an empirical question, for example, whether or how a theory of stress and a theory intended to explain phoneme inventories (i.e., feature theory, as we will see below) belong within the rubric of a single, overarching theory. The facts that many languages allow larger privileges of occurrence in stressed positions than in unstressed positions and that that the opposite pattern of distribution is at best rare show clearly that the theory of stress and feature theory must articulate with each other in some fashion within the same overarching theory. This is just one of many phenomena that show the importance of, on the one hand, proposing formal mechanisms for explaining such domains as phoneme inventories and stress, and, on the other hand, studying the overall architecture that reveals how these mechanisms interact with one other.

It is useful to think of phonological theory as a collection of smaller theories, where each such theory is an account of one of the ranges of phenomena mentioned above; for example, there must be a theory of features, another theory of syllables, and so on. One of the tasks of phonologists, then, must be to propose formal models for each component as well as an overarching theory of how these components interact with one another. Two major aspects of all these theories are, one, a theory of the representations in which these theories traffic and, two, a theory of the computations that take place within each component.

Phonologists generally agree that phonological theory is interpretative, in the sense that it has an input consisting of morphosyntactic representations and an output that is somehow interpreted by the auditory and articulation mechanisms. The nature of these interfaces is also within the scope of phonological theory.

The preceding discussion is intended to motivate the organization of this website. There are pages devoted to the various components that constitute phonological theory, as well as pages devoted to the interfaces mentioned in the preceding paragraph.


Despite recent renewals of intense interest in foundational questions of phonology, the field has not agreed upon at least two fundamental questions: How should phonological objects be represented? What is the optimal architecture for phonological theory? Clearly, answers to these questions are crucial for making progress toward understanding the phonology of human languages. It is the purpose of the CUNY PHONOLOGY FORUM to promote basic research around these foundational questions.
Topics addressed by the Forum include the nature of features and their status in phonological theory; theories of stress and how the algorithms for calculating stress interact with other components of phonological theory; the characters of the syllable and of prosodic structure and their role in phonology as a whole; the interfaces between phonology and phonetics and morphology; and the overall architecture of phonological theory.
The Forum engages in two types of activities in pursuit of the goal mentioned in the preceding paragraph. We cosponsor, with the CUNY Graduate Program in Linguistics, annual events such as last year’s CUNY Symposium on Phonological Theory. MIT Press will be publishing a collection of essays based on last year’s symposium: Contemporary Views on Architecture and Representations in Phonological Theory, to be edited by Eric Raimy and Charles Cairns.
The Program and the Forum also cosponsored the CUNY Workshop on Phonological Features, March 10 and 11, 2005, where Nick Clements and Elan Dresher presented the results of some of their recent work. Nick and Elan's research programs into feature theory have been converging in interesting ways, and the Feature Workshop was intended to promote a productive dialog between them. Links to the preworkshop versions of their papers can be found at the old sites page.
This website is the second Forum-sponsored activity. Our first order of business in developing this website will be to publish the fruits of the Workshop mentioned above; the papers on features at last year’s Symposium are pertinent to research discussed at the Workshop, so they will also be among the first pages to be published here. By early summer, there will be a page for each of the other topics addressed by the forum; each page will have a link to papers, some of which are now in preparation for the volume Raimy and Cairns are coediting for MIT Press. Early versions of some of these papers are currently available at the old sites. We anticipate that this collection will grow as more scholars contribute articles, and as we include links to other scholarly sites. Eventually, we will include facilities for an interactive public discussion; this will invite both short commentaries, as well as longer submissions that may be posted as regular papers.
In the meantime, please feel free to explore the old sites, and be sure to come back here soon! If you have any ideas for this website, please feel free to contact me (just click on my name, below).

Charles Cairns
Professor Emeritus of Linguistics
Queens College and
The Graduate Center of the City University of New York

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