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How rarities like gold came to exist: on co-evolutionary interactions between morphology and lexical phonotactics1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2015

Department of English and American Studies, Uni-Campus AAKH, Hof 8, University of Vienna, Spitalgasse 2-4, A-1090 Vienna,
Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University Poznańal. Niepodległości 4, 61-874 Poznań,


We address the question of when, how and why highly marked rhymes of the structure VVCC (as in gold, false or bind) came to be established in the lexical phonotactics of English. Specifically, we discuss two hypotheses. The first is that lexical VVCC clusters owe their existence to the fact that similar rhyme structures are produced routinely in verbal past tenses and third-person singular present tense forms (fails, fined), and in nominal plurals (goals, signs), The other is based on the insight emerging in morphonotactic research (Dressler & Dziubalska-Kołaczyk 2006) that languages tend to avoid homophonies between lexical and morphotactically produced structures. We hold both hypotheses against a body of OED and corpus data, reconstruct the phases in which the lexical VVCC rhymes that are still attested in Present-day English emerged, and relate them to the phases in which productive inflectional rules came to produce rhymes of the same type. We show that the emergence of morphotactic models is indeed likely to have played a role in establishing VVCC rhymes in the English lexicon, since VVCC rhymes of the types VV[sonorant]/d|z/ began to establish themselves in lexical phonotactics at the same period in which they also started to be produced in inflection, and clearly before similar types that had no inflectionally produced analogues (i.e. VV[sonorant]/t|s/ as in fault, dance). At the same time, we show that this does not necessarily contradict the hypothesis that homophonies between lexical and morphotactic rhymes are dispreferred. We argue that under the specific historical circumstances that obtained in English, natural ways of eliminating the resulting ambiguities failed to be available. Finally, we show that, once the phonotactically and semiotically dispreferred VV[sonorant]/d|z/ rhymes had been established, the emergence of morphotactically unambiguous rhymes of the types VV[sonorant]/t|s/ was to be expected, since they filled what was an accidental rather than natural gap in the phonotactic system of English (see Hayes & White 2013).

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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We are grateful to Rhona Alcorn, Wolfgang Dressler, Margaret Laing, Roger Lass, Norval Smith, Eva Zehentner, two anonymous reviewers and Patrick Honeybone for insightful and constructive comments on earlier versions. Particular thanks go to Andreas Baumann for helping us with the statistics. Any errors are of course ours.


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