The aims of this squib are threefold.
Distinctive feature values attributed to the phonological segments of a language are normally based, in the unmarked case, on their phonetic properties (height, backness, rounding, length, etc in the case of vowels); this is sometimes referred to as their phonetic ‘grounding’ (see Archangeli & Pulleyblank 1994). Some phonetic properties may on occasion turn out to be phonologically irrelevant, hence the corresponding feature values may remain unspecified (with the specification of the properties concerned left for ‘phonetic implementation’). For instance, the Hungarian nonhigh unrounded front vowels [ɛ] and [eː] exhibit regular length alternation with one another, despite the difference in height (low vs mid). One possibility for keeping the (description of the) length alternation regular is to leave the value for the feature [low] unspecified, and correspondingly symbolize these segments as
One thing that would be expected to be quite impossible, however, is that the phonological behaviour and phonetic character of a vowel be downright irreconcilable, rather than the two sets of properties being in a proper subset relation, as in the above cases. Interestingly, Hungarian provides an intriguing example of this supposedly impossible situation, too. The long counterpart of
The present paper is structured as follows. In §2, the vowel system of Hungarian is introduced. Then, in §3, we very briefly review the results of an acoustic-phonetic investigation of Hungarian
Hungarian has seven short and seven long vowels. The following table shows their conventional classification in terms of frontness/backness, rounding, and vowel height.
|front unrounded||front rounded||back|
|low||e [ɛ]||a [ɔ]||aː|
As was implied in §1 above, all seven pairs exhibit regular length alternations, despite the phonetic dissimilarity of the pairs
The members of the first four of these pairs, (2a–d), only differ in backness. ((2d) is actually part of a triplet ø ~ o ~ e, but this is not at issue here.) Those in (2e) additionally differ in rounding; but we have already suggested that the rounding of
Gósy & Siptár (2015) carefully demonstrate by measurements of formant values on a large body of spontaneous speech material that young female speakers’ second formants of
The facts of Hungarian vowel harmony are notoriously complex (of the immense literature on the subject, see especially Hayes et al 2009; Törkenczy 2011; Törkenczy et al 2013; Rebrus & Törkenczy 2015). It is not simply the case that alternating suffixes show up as their front alternants in front-vowel contexts and as their back alternants in back-vowel contexts – the way the examples listed in (2) might have suggested.
First of all, vowels fall into three, rather than two, classes: along with front-harmonic and back-harmonic vowels, there is also a class of neutral vowels. The complexities begin when we want to define the class of neutral vowels (Siptár 2015; cf. also Rebrus & Törkenczy 2017). In one sense, all front unrounded vowels belong to the neutral class, but in another sense, the neutrality of these vowels (or their transparency as it is also called) changes with their height: the high vowels
Another gradual property is known as the count effect and concerns the items whose behaviour in harmony is variable. Note that variability itself is a factor that makes the system complex and difficult to account for. The count effect means that several neutral vowels in a row count as less neutral than a single instance of the same vowel. In addition, a lexically specified subclass of stems that exclusively contain neutral vowels governs back harmony rather than front harmony: this class is known as that of antiharmonic stems (for a systematic discussion of harmony, disharmony, antiharmony, neutrality, transparency, opacity, and variability in Hungarian and across languages, see Rebrus & Törkenczy 2015).
Without going into further details concerning the “dark secrets” (Rebrus et al 2012) of Hungarian vowel harmony, let us simply note here that the existing complexities would be further aggravated if we assumed that
Consider now the alternative solution. If we carry on analysing the vowel
The question, then, is what we would prefer to have: increased complexity or increased abstractness. Neither option appears to be attractive at first sight. The following table shows what the vowel system of Hungarian would look like if we took the first option and wanted to stick to the phonetic facts as much as possible.
|front unrounded||front rounded||back|
As can be seen, length alternations would be fairly straightforward except for the familiar height distinction between
We would have to claim that the low vs mid distinction between these two vowels, front vowels as they are both of them, accounts for their harmonic behaviour such that the mid alternant occurs in front contexts and the low alternant occurs in back contexts. This would make our account of Hungarian vowel harmony not only complex and obscure but also unmotivated and ad hoc.
Therefore we had better go back to the other possibility and rest content with the claim that the distinctive feature values of this language should be allowed to become more abstract than they used to be in that the ‘low front unrounded long vowel’ [aː] should simply go on to be phonologically classified as ‘low back unrounded’.
Until and unless the ongoing change in terms of phonetic properties should, at some point in the future, actually overthrow the system of harmonic alternations, a possible but not very likely outcome, the best thing we can do is pretend that the vowel
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