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Ambivalence and ambiguity in laterals and nasals

  • Jeff Mielke (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 14 November 2005

Ambivalent segments are speech sounds whose cross-linguistic patterning is especially variable, creating contradictions for theories of universal distinctive features. This paper examines lateral liquids, whose [continuant] specification has been the subject of controversy because of their ability to pattern both with continuants and with non-continuants, and because phonetically they are situated in the contested ground between two different articulatory definitions for the feature [continuant]. Evidence from a survey of sound patterns in 561 languages shows that lateral liquids, like nasals, pattern with continuants about as often as with non-continuants. Ambivalent phonological behaviour is argued to be natural and expected for phonetically ambiguous segments in a theory of emergent distinctive features where features are the result of sound patterns, rather than the other way around.

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Thanks to Mary Beckman, Chris Brew, Robin Dodsworth, Elizabeth Hume, Keith Johnson, Brian Joseph, Ellen Kaisse, Georgios Tserdanelis, three anonymous reviewers, an associate editor and the editors of Phonology, and audience members at MCWOP 9, the 2004 LSA, VarPhon, NELS 35, WECOL 2004, WCCFL 24 and CLS 41 for their comments, to Mike Armstrong for critical database help, and to Angelo Costanzo for help with Catalan transcriptions. This is a revised chapter from a dissertation which was supported by a Presidential Fellowship from The Ohio State University. Excerpts have appeared previously in NELS 35, WECOL 2004, WCCFL 24 and CLS 41.
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  • ISSN: 0952-6757
  • EISSN: 1469-8188
  • URL: /core/journals/phonology
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