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Hungarian vowel harmony in Optimality Theory

  • Catherine O. Ringen (a1) and Robert M. Vago (a2)
    • Published online: 18 November 2002

Vowel harmony systems have presented descriptive challenges for virtually every well-articulated theory within the framework of generative phonology. Significantly, no comprehensive and completely satisfactory account in a rule-based theory exists for one of the best studied of these systems, that of Hungarian. The novel approach of Optimality Theory (henceforth OT), as originally developed by Prince & Smolensky (1993) and McCarthy & Prince (1993a, b, 1995), has been shown to offer insightful solutions to vexing problems of prosodic phonology and morphology. This paper seeks to relate the insights of OT to the description of Hungarian vowel harmony: it provides a detailed description of the facts, offers solutions to heretofore unresolved problems, and draws conclusions for general theoretical issues within the OT model.

In §2 we present the facts of backness harmony as the empirical backdrop to the ensuing discussions. In §3 we present an analysis of backness harmony in OT. The ‘spreading’ of the feature [±back] is accounted for by an alignment constraint which is formulated as a constraint prohibiting vowels from intervening between the right edge of a backness feature and the right edge of the word, following proposals of Ellison (1995), Kirchner (1993) and Zoll (1996). We analyse certain roots with floating features, adopting a proposal by Zoll (1996) which ensures that floating features are in fact realised in outputs (unless blocked by satisfaction of higher-ranked constraints). We also assume, following much recent work in OT (Beckman 1995, 1997, 1998, McCarthy & Prince 1995, Steriade 1995, Zoll 1996), that certain prominent positions (e.g. roots) may be subject to more stringent faithfulness constraints than are less prominent positions (e.g. affixes). We further demonstrate that inventory constraints interact with other constraints to determine optimal outputs. In §4 roundness harmony data are presented. We argue that while backness harmony involves alignment constraints, so-called ‘roundness harmony’ does not, and hence that it is a mistake to assume that all cases of vowel harmony involve alignment constraints.

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Earlier versions of parts of this paper were presented at the LSA Meeting in New Orleans, January 1995; University of Stuttgart, October 1994; Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, March 1995; Eötvös Lóránd University, Budapest, May 1995; Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, October 1994; Seminar in Phonology, Fall 1995, and Departmental Colloquium, February 1996, University of Iowa; and the Conference on the Structure of Hungarian, Amsterdam, January 1996. We have benefited from the comments and questions of an anonymous associate editor as well as from discussion following various presentations and wish to thank the members of these audiences as well as the following individuals for their thoughtful comments: Nora Aion, Rob Chametzky, Chris Culy, Bill Davies, Greg Dogil, Takaaki Hashimoto, Harry van der Hulst, Sharon Inkelas, José Mendez, Olga Petrova, Rossina Petrova, Rosemary Plapp, Nancy Ritter, Péter Siptár, Péter Szigetvári, Miklós Törkenczy, Wansu Yan and Thomas Zimmermann. We are especially grateful to Jill Beckman, Jurek Rubach, Szilárd Szentgyörgyi and Cheryl Zoll, who have helped us clarify our thinking on many points. This, of course, does not mean that any of these individuals bear any responsibility for errors or that they agree with what we claim here.
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  • ISSN: 0952-6757
  • EISSN: 1469-8188
  • URL: /core/journals/phonology
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