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Underspecification and vowel height transfer in Esimbi*

  • Larry M. Hyman (a1)

Since the advent of distinctive feature theory, few issues have received as many interpretations as the phonological representation of vowel height. Vowel height features have been denned acoustically and articulatorily, have allowed three, four or five distinct heights, have been unary, binary and n-ary, and have been on a single tier, multiple tiers or in various head-dependency relationships. It is fair to say that there is no consensus on how vowel height should be represented. While many generative phonologists have been quite content working for nearly three decades with a pair of binary vowel height features, the literature of this period includes a steady flow of criticisms of this approach as well as suggestions for improvement or radical change. This literature generally addresses itself to two problems inherent in the SPE features [high] and [low] and the three vowel heights they define: First, how does one account for systems with four (five?) vowel heights? Second, how can rules that raise (lower) vowel heights by one step each be accounted for? In the first question we ask what the theory has to say about distinctive oppositions such as /i e ∊ æ/ in the second question we ask what the theory has to say about a rule such as one that would lower /i/ to [e] and /e/ to [∊].

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