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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