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Probabilistic underspecification in nasal place assimilation*

  • John Coleman (a1), Margaret E. L. Renwick (a2) and Rosalind A. M. Temple (a1)

According to many works on English phonology, word-final alveolar consonants – and only alveolar consonants – assimilate to following word-initial consonants, e.g. ran quicklyra[ŋ] quickly. Some phonologists explain the readiness of alveolar consonants to assimilate (vs. the resistance of velar and labial articulations) by proposing that they have underspecified place of articulation (e.g. Avery & Rice 1989). Labial or dorsal nasals do not undergo assimilation because their place nodes are specified. There are reports that velar and labial consonants sometimes assimilate in English, but these are anecdotal observations, with no available audio and no statistics on their occurrence. We find evidence of assimilation of labial and velar nasals in the Audio British National Corpus, motivating a new, quantitative phonological framework: a statistical model of underspecification and variation which captures typical as well as less common but systematic patterns seen in non-coronal assimilation.

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We thank our co-workers, Ladan Baghai-Ravary, Greg Kochanski and John Pybus, for their invaluable contributions to the creation, forced alignment and curation of the Audio BNC, without which the analyses presented here would not have been possible. We are grateful also to the referees, editors, colleagues, students and conference attendees who have read or heard earlier presentations of this work and have tested our claims and reasoning at each turn, forcing us to strive for maximum clarity. We claim all faults. Financial support for the research presented here was provided by the UK Economic and Social Science Research Council under award number RES-062-23-2566.

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