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The prosodic word is not universal, but emergent1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2010

Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
University of Leipzig
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Authors' addresses: (Schiering) Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster, Institut für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Aegidiistr. 5, 48143 Münster,
(Bickel) Institut für Linguistik, Universität Leipzig, Beethovenstrasse 15, 04107 Leipzig,
(Hildebrandt) English Language and Literature, Box 1431, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Edwardsville, IL 62025,


In Prosodic Phonology, domains for the application of phonological patterns are commonly modeled as a Prosodic Hierarchy. The theory predicts, among other things, that (i) prosodic domains cluster on a single universal set of domains (‘Clustering’), and (ii) no level of prosodic structure is skipped in the building of prosodic structure unless this is required by independently motivated higher ranking principles or constraints (‘Strict Succession’). In this paper, we demonstrate that if, as is standardly done, evidence is limited to lexically general phonological processes, some languages systematically violate the Strict Succession Prediction, evidencing no prosodic word domain, and some languages systematically violate the Clustering Prediction, evidencing more than one domain between the phonological phrase and the foot. We substantiate these claims by in-depth studies of phonological rule domains in Vietnamese (Austroasiatic) and Limbu (Sino-Tibetan). As an alternative to the Prosodic Hierarchy framework, we advocate a heuristic for cross-linguistic comparison in which prosodic domains are conceived of as language-particular, intrinsic and highly specific properties of individual phonological rules or constraints. This allows us to explore empirically the actual degree of variation to be encountered across prosodic systems. It turns out that the ‘word’ has no privileged or universal status in phonology, but only emerges through frequent reference of sound patterns to a given construction type in a given language.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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This research was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Grant No. BI 799/2-3). We are indebted to Juliette Blevins, Tracy A. Hall, Larry Hyman, Sharon Inkelas, Jochen Trommer and three anonymous JL referees for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. For ancillary material, including summary reports of individual languages and a downloadable database, see



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