Research: Markedness and Universals


One of the earliest and most striking discoveries in linguistics was that there are systematic gaps in sound patterns: the same consonants, vowels, and prosodic structures are consistently avoided in a diverse range of languages.  Further research has revealed the complex nature of such gaps: while languages avoid the same sound patterns they restrict avoidance to specific environments; there are also implicational relations - some sound patterns require (or prevent) others from appearing in the same language.  The issue of how to explain these gaps has been and continues to be one of the most debated in linguistics.  One of the major issues is basically empirical: which consonants, vowels, and prosodic structures are avoided?  The others issues are at the level of theory and explanation: Do all gaps have the same source? (ie, are some due to restrictions in the part of the brain that processes speech sound (the ‘phonology’) and others the result of phonology-external processes like language transmission?).  A third and perhaps the most complex issue has been the nature of phonological restrictions and how they are enforced on language.  My research has focused on these three inter-connected issues, often referred to as 'markedness'.


markedness bookMy most comprehensive work on markedness is in Markedness: Reduction and Preservation in Phonology (2006, Cambridge University Press).  On the empirical side, it identifies many patterns previously thought to not exist in languages.  It discusses ways to tell whether a pattern is due to historical accident or a phonological restriction.  On the theoretical side, it proposes a theory of constraints and feature value form set in Optimality Theory.  The themes behind the constraints are that there are two semi-antagonistic sets of constraints for any prosodically relevant hierarchy: one that seeks to eliminate marked elements in the hierarchy and one that seeks to preserve them.  These interact to allow markedness effects to show through in some situations and not others.



My work has uncovered some interesting asymmetries in place neutralization, assimilation, deletion, coalescence, and vowel reduction.  Some of the most revealing phenomena in studying markedness are tone- and sonority-driven stress.  See this page for details.


Sources of markedness

Some limits on sound patterns are due to limits on historical change (more specifically on language transmission and actuation).  However, some are clearly due to phonological restrictions.  This issue is raised briefly in Markedness (sec.8.2), but discussed in more detail inTransmissibility and the role of the phonological component (2006), and my article with John Kingston Synchronic explanation (2006).  It is also discussed in Phonological evidence (2009), which takes a broader look at what counts as valid evidence for phonological phenomena.


Theory of markedness

The concepts of markedness reduction and preservation can be found in my doctoral dissertation (2002), and are further expanded in Markedness (2006) (chs.2-7).  A mechanism to effect conflation is also introduced in the dissertation, and expanded in Markedness conflation in Optimality Theory (2004); importantly, chapter 5 of Markedness discusses a case of conflation involving a 'simple' hierarchy (ie, not one combined with a prosodic environment).  Some of the ideas about conflation can be traced back to my MA thesis (1997).


Another important theme has been how segmental, sonority, and tonal hierarchies combine with prosodic structures to form constraints.  I argued in Markedness in prominent positions (2001) that prosodic hierarchies like sonority and tone can combine with 'prominent positions' in constraints.  This idea was also advocated by Jen Smith (ROA 570), but we differ in that she seeks to derive the restrictions on constraints by functional pressures.

My dissertation (2002) proposed that the correct element of prosodic reference to use in constraints is the DTE, based on work by Liberman & Prince (1977) but significantly expanded.  The dissertation is the primary source of information on DTEs; I focus on other issues in later work.


dde Lacy, Paul (2009). Phonological evidence. In Steve Parker (ed.). Phonological argumentation: Essays on evidence and motivation. Equinox Publications, pp. 43-78.
[abstract] [chapter] [handout]

de Lacy, Paul (2007). The interaction of tone, sonority, and prosodic structure. In Paul de Lacy (ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, ch.12.
· Provides an overview of several core concepts in markedness theory.

de Lacy, Paul and John Kingston (2013). Synchronic Explanation. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory. 31.2: 287-355.
DOI: 10.1007/s11049-013-9191-y
[pdf (final prepublication version: 22 March 2013)] [NLLT online]
Note: This article has undergone some changes over its long life. Some people have cited the earlier version.

de Lacy, Paul (2006). Markedness: Reduction and Preservation in Phonology.  Cambridge Studies in Linguistics 112.  Cambridge University Press.  
[abstract] [Google books excerpt] [corrections] [handout] [talk]

de Lacy, Paul (2006). Transmissibility and the role of the phonological component. Theoretical Linguistics 32.2: 185-196. [Article] [Target article] [Blevins' reply] [Sources]
· The two articles above argue against the proposal that markedness asymmetries are solely due to side-effects of historical change.

de Lacy, Paul (to appear). Phonological evidence. In Steve Parker (ed.). Phonological argumentation: Essays on evidence and motivation. Equinox Publications, ch.3. [Article]
· Discusses the difference between Competence and Performance, and how it relates to the study of markedness.

de Lacy, Paul (2004). Markedness conflation in Optimality Theory. Phonology 21.2:145-199. [Abstract]  [Article
· Argues for the possibility that distinctions between markedness categories can be ignored in specific languages. Proposes constraint formulations to solve the problem.

de Lacy, Paul (2002).  The formal expression of markedness.  PhD dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst.  ROA 542.

de Lacy, Paul (2002). The interaction of tone and stress in Optimality Theory. Phonology 19.1: 1-32. [Abstract]  [Article
· Examines the tone markedness hierarchy, and its relation to prosodic structure.

de Lacy, Paul (2001). Markedness in prominent positions. In Ora Matushansky, Albert Costa, Javier Martin-Gonzalez, Lance Nathan, and Adam Szczegielniak (eds.) HUMIT 2000, MIT Working Papers in Linguistics 40. Cambridge, MA: MITWPL, pp.53-66. ROA 432. 
· Proposes a theory that accounts for restrictions imposed on prominent positions, such as onsets and stressed syllables.

de Lacy, Paul (1997).  Prosodic categorization.  MA Thesis, University of Auckland.  ROA 236.
· Early work on hierarchies, but main focus is on prosodic structure and its relation to stress.