Skip to main content

A theory of subfeatural representations: the case of rounding harmony in Laal*

  • Florian Lionnet (a1)

This paper introduces subfeatural representations to capture subphonemic distinctions at work in ‘subphonemic teamwork’. The unusual case of Laal is presented, in which rounding harmony requires two triggers: a round vowel and a labial consonant. The coarticulatory effect of the labial consonant is shown, on the basis of instrumental evidence, to incur a distinctive, but non-contrastive, intermediate level of rounding on the target vowel, analysed as being featurally [−round], but subfeaturally 〚xround〛 (0 < x < 1). 〚xround〛 vowels are shown to form a separate natural class, which can be independently targeted by phonological processes. Subfeatural representations are argued to constitute an advantageous reification of phonetic knowledge, forming a more solid basis for phonetically driven models of phonology. This proposal builds on the insights of previous literature that perceptual representations are needed in phonology, while eschewing the need for direct reference to phonetics.

Corresponding author
Hide All

For their very helpful comments and the many hours they spent reading this paper, I would like to thank Sharon Inkelas, Larry Hyman and William Bennett, and two anonymous reviewers. Many thanks are also due to Natalie DelBusso, Keith Johnson, Douglas Pulleyblank, Stephanie Shih and Donca Steriade, as well as audiences at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, AMP 2013 (UMass), OCP 11 (Leiden, 2014), the 88th and 90th Meetings of the LSA, the ABC-Conference (UC Berkeley, 2014), WCCFL 33, MFM 23 and NELS 46. My research on Laal is funded through a Volkswagen Foundation DoBeS grant. Any error is my own.

The appendices mentioned in the paper are available as online supplementary materials at

Hide All
Archangeli, Diana & Pulleyblank, Douglas (1994). Grounded phonology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Bakovi«, Eric (2000). Harmony, dominance and control. PhD dissertation, Rutgers University.
Beckman, Jill N. (1999). Positional faithfulness: an Optimality Theoretic treatment of phonological asymmetries. New York: Garland.
Bennett, William G. (2013). Dissimilation, consonant harmony, and surface correspondence. PhD dissertation, Rutgers University.
Bennett, William G. (2015). The phonology of consonants: harmony, dissimilation, and correspondence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Blaho, Sylvia (2008). The syntax of phonology: a radically substance-free approach. PhD dissertation, University of Tromsø.
Boersma, Paul (1998). Functional phonology: formalizing the interactions between articulatory and perceptual drives. PhD dissertation, University of Amsterdam.
Boersma, Paul & Weenink, David (2014). Praat: doing phonetics by computer (version 5.4).
Boyeldieu, Pascal (1977). Eléments pour une phonologie du laal de Gori (Moyen-Chari). In Caprile, Jean-Pierre (ed.) Études phonologiques tchadiennes. Paris: SELAF. 187198.
Boyeldieu, Pascal (1982). Deux études laal (Moyen-Chari, Tchad) . Berlin: Reimer.
Boyeldieu, Pascal (1987). Déterminations directe/indirecte en laal. In Boyeldieu, Pascal (ed.) La maison du chef et la tête du cabri: des degrés de la détermination nominale dans les langues d'Afrique centrale. Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner. 7787.
Clements, G. N. (1989). On the representation of vowel height. Ms, Cornell University.
Clements, G. N. (1991). Vowel height assimilation in Bantu languages. BLS 17:2. 2564.
Clements, G. N. & Hume, Elizabeth V. (1995). The internal organization of speech sounds. In Goldsmith, John A. (ed.) The handbook of phonological theory. Cambridge, Mass. & Oxford: Blackwell. 245306.
Dinnsen, Daniel & Garcia-Zamor, M. (1971). The three degrees of vowel length in German. Papers in Linguistics 4. 111126.
Donegan, Patricia J. & Stampe, David (1979). The study of natural phonology. In Dinnsen, Daniel A. (ed.) Current approaches to phonological theory. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 126173.
Flemming, Edward (1997). Phonetic detail in phonology: evidence from assimilation and coarticulation. In Suzuki & Elzinga (1997). 39–50.
Flemming, Edward (2001). Scalar and categorical phenomena in a unified model of phonetics and phonology. Phonology 18. 744.
Flemming, Edward (2002). Auditory representations in phonology. London & New York: Routledge.
Flemming, Edward (2008). The realized input. Ms, MIT. Available (August 2017) at
Gallagher, Gillian (2007). Pharyngeal preservation in West Greenlandic. Handout of paper presented at the 81st Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, Anaheim.
Gnanadesikan, Amalia (1997). Phonology with ternary scales. PhD dissertation. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Hall, Kathleen Currie (2013). A typology of intermediate phonological relationships. The Linguistic Review 30. 215275.
Hansson, Gunnar Ólafur (2001). Theoretical and typological issues in consonant harmony. PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
Hansson, Gunnar Ólafur (2010). Consonant harmony: long-distance interaction in phonology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Hansson, Gunnar Ólafur (2014). (Dis)agreement by (non)correspondence: inspecting the foundations. UC Berkeley Phonology Lab Annual Report: ABC Conference Archive. Slides available (August 2017) at
Hansson, Gunnar Ólafur & Moore, Patrick J. (2011). The phonetics of transparency in Kaska vowel harmony. In Tuttle, Siri & Lovick, Olga (eds.) Working Papers in Athabaskan Languages 2010. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language Center.
Hayes, Bruce, Kirchner, Robert & Steriade, Donca (eds.) (2004). Phonetically based phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hayes, Bruce & Steriade, Donca (2004). Introduction: the phonetic bases of phonological markedness. In Hayes et al. (2004). 1–33.
Inkelas, Sharon & Shih, Stephanie S. (2014). Unstable surface correspondence as the source of local conspiracies. NELS 44:1. 191204.
Johnson, C. Douglas (1972). Formal aspects of phonological description. The Hague & Paris: Mouton.
Jun, Jongho (2002). Positional faithfulness, sympathy, and inferred input. Ms, Yeungnam University, Daegu, Korea. Available (August 2017) at
Jurgec, Peter (2011). Feature spreading 2.0: a unified theory of assimilation. PhD dissertation, University of Tromsø.
Jurgec, Peter (2013). Two types of parasitic assimilation. Nordlyd 40. 108135.
Kaun, Abigail R. (1995). The typology of rounding harmony: an optimality theoretic approach. PhD dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.
Kaun, Abigail R. (2004). The typology of rounding harmony. In Hayes et al. (2004). 87–116.
Kavitskaya, Darya (2014). Segmental inventory and the evolution of harmony in Crimean Tatar. Turkic Languages 17. 86114.
Kingston, John & Diehl, Randy L. (1994). Phonetic knowledge. Lg 70. 419454.
Kiparsky, Paul (2013). Phonemic analyses are not data: on the empirical basis of phonological typology. Paper presented at the Phonological Typology conference, Oxford.
Kirchner, Robert (1993). Turkish vowel harmony and disharmony: an Optimality Theoretic account. Ms, UCLA. Available as ROA-4 from the Rutgers Optimality Archive.
Labov, William, Karen, Mark & Miller, Corey (1991). Near-mergers and the suspension of phonemic contrast. Language Variation and Change 3. 3374.
Ladefoged, Peter (1971). Preliminaries to linguistic phonetics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Legendre, Géraldine, Miyata, Yoshiro & Smolensky, Paul (1990). Harmonic Grammar: a formal multi-level connectionist theory of linguistic well-formedness: an application. In Proceedings of the 12th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale: Erlbaum. 884–891.
Lindau, Mona (1978). Vowel features. Lg 54. 541563.
Linker, Wendy (1982). Articulatory and acoustic correlates of labial activity in vowels: a cross-linguistic study. PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.
Lionnet, Florian (2015). Phonological teamwork as quantal markedness. WCCFL 33. 7685.
Lionnet, Florian (2016). Subphonemic teamwork: a typology and theory of cumulative coarticulatory effects in phonology. PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley.
Macken, Marlys A. & Barton, David (1980). The acquisition of the voicing contrast in English: a study of voice onset time in word-initial stop consonants. Journal of Child Language 7. 4174.
Maxwell, Edith M. & Weismer, Gary (1982). The contribution of phonological, acoustic, and perceptual techniques to the characterization of a misarticulating child's voice contrast for stops. Applied Psycholinguistics 3. 2943.
Mielke, Jeff (2008). The emergence of distinctive features. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Moore, Brian C. J. & Glasberg, Brian R. (1983). Suggested formulae for calculating auditory-filter bandwidths and excitation patterns. JASA 74. 750753.
Ní Chiosáin, Máire & Padgett, Jaye (1993). Inherent VPlace. Ms, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Padgett, Jaye (1997). Partial class behavior and nasal place assimilation. In Suzuki & Elzinga (1997). 145–183.
Pasquereau, Jérémy C. (2014). Phonological degrees of labiality: evidence from Karata. Poster presented at the 32nd West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, University of Southern California. Available (August 2017) at
Pierrehumbert, Janet (2000). The phonetic grounding of phonology. Les Cahiers de l'ICP: Bulletin de la Communication Parlée 5. 723.
Port, Robert, Mitleb, Fares & O'Dell, Michael (1981). Neutralization of obstruent voicing is incomplete. JASA 70. S13.
Prince, Alan & Smolensky, Paul (1993). Optimality Theory: constraint interaction in generative grammar. Ms, Rutgers University & University of Colorado, Boulder. Published 2004, Malden, Mass. & Oxford: Blackwell.
Pulleyblank, Douglas (2002). Harmony drivers: no disagreement allowed. BLS 28. 249267.
Rhodes, Russell (2012). Vowel harmony as Agreement by Correspondence. Annual Report of the UC Berkeley Phonology Laboratory. 138–168.
Rose, Sharon & Walker, Rachel (2004). A typology of consonant agreement as correspondence. Lg 80. 475531.
Sasa, Tomomasa (2009). Treatment of vowel harmony in Optimality Theory. PhD thesis, University of Iowa.
Scobbie, James M. & Stuart-Smith, Jane (2008). Quasi-phonemic contrast and the fuzzy inventory: examples from Scottish English. In Avery, Peter, Dresher, B. Elan & Rice, Keren (eds.) Contrast in phonology: theory, perception, acquisition. Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 87113.
Shih, Stephanie S. (2013). Consonant–tone interaction as Agreement by Correspondence. Ms, Stanford University & University of California, Berkeley. Available (August 2017) at
Shih, Stephanie S. & Inkelas, Sharon (2014). A subsegmental correspondence approach to contour tone (dis)harmony patterns. In Kingston, John, Moore-Cantwell, Claire, Pater, Joe & Staubs, Robert (eds.) Proceedings of the 2013 Meeting on Phonology. Available (August 2017) at
Slowiaczek, Louisa M. & Dinnsen, Daniel A. (1985). On the neutralizing status of Polish word-final devoicing. JPh 13. 325341.
Smolensky, Paul (1993). Harmony, markedness, and phonological activity. Paper presented at Rutgers Optimality Workshop. Available as ROA-87 from the Rutgers Optimality Archive.
Smolensky, Paul (1995). On the internal structure of the constraint component Con of UG. Ms, Johns Hopkins University. Available as ROA-86 from the Rutgers Optimality Archive.
Smolensky, Paul & Legendre, Géraldine (eds.) (2006). The harmonic mind: from neural computation to optimality-theoretic grammar. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
Sohn, Ho-Min (1971). A-raising in Woleaian. University of Hawaii Working Papers in Linguistics 3:8. 1535.
Sohn, Ho-Min (1975). Woleaian reference grammar. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii.
Stampe, David (1973). A dissertation on Natural Phonology. PhD dissertation, University of Chicago. Published 1979, New York: Garland.
Steriade, Donca (1997). Lexical conservatism and its analysis. Ms, UCLA.
Steriade, Donca (1999). Phonetics in phonology: the case of laryngeal neutralization. UCLA Working Papers in Linguistics: Papers in Phonology 3. 25145.
Steriade, Donca (2000). Paradigm uniformity and the phonetics–phonology boundary. In Broe, Michael B. & Pierrehumbert, Janet B. (eds.) Papers in laboratory phonology V: acquisition and the lexicon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 313334.
Steriade, Donca (2001). Directional asymmetries in place assimilation: a perceptual account. In Hume, Elizabeth & Johnson, Keith (eds.) The role of speech perception in phonology. San Diego: Academic Press. 219250.
Steriade, Donca (2009). The phonology of perceptibility effects: the P-map and its consequences for constraint organization. In Hanson, Kristin & Inkelas, Sharon (eds.) The nature of the word: studies in honor of Paul Kiparsky. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 151179.
Suzuki, Keiichiro (1997). Double-sided effect in OT: sequential grounding and local conjunction. In Suzuki & Elzinga (1997). 209–224.
Suzuki, Keiichiro & Elzinga, Dirk (eds.) (1997). Proceedings of the 1995 Southwestern Workshop on Optimality Theory (SWOT) . Tucson: Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona.
Sylak-Glassman, John (2014). Deriving natural classes: the phonology and typology of post-velar consonants. PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley.
Terbeek, Dale (1977). A cross-language multidimensional scaling study of vowel perception. PhD thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.
Walker, Rachel (1998). Nasalization, neutral segments and opacity effects. PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Cruz.
Walker, Rachel (2000). Nasal reduplication in Mbe affixation. Phonology 17. 65115.
Walker, Rachel (2001). Consonantal correspondence. In Kirchner, Robert, Pater, Joe & Wikeley, Wolf (eds.) Papers in theoretical linguistics 6: workshop on the lexicon in phonetics and phonology. Edmonton: University of Alberta. 7384.
Walker, Rachel (2009). Similarity-sensitive blocking and transparency in Menominee. Paper presented at the 83rd Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, San Francisco.
Wayment, Adam (2009). Assimilation as attraction: computing distance, similarity, and locality in phonology. PhD thesis, Johns Hopkins University.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0952-6757
  • EISSN: 1469-8188
  • URL: /core/journals/phonology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Lionnet supplementary material
Appendices A-D

 PDF (527 KB)
527 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed