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Can phonotactic constraints inhibit segmental change? Arguments from lenition and syncope

  • Patrick Honeybone EMAIL logo
From the journal Folia Linguistica


This article considers the interaction of phonotactics and diachrony. I argue two things: (i) language-specific phonotactic constraints on phonological forms can inhibit otherwise regular innovations, and (ii) the fact that such phonotactically-motivated process inhibition occurs in historical phonology is itself evidence for the reality of phonotactic constraints. I assume that there is a difference between those gaps in a language’s lexicon which are due to chance (‘A-gaps’) and those which are ruled out by the grammar (‘S-gaps’) and I consider some evidence in favour of this view. I consider two case studies where an understanding of phonotactics is necessary to analyse the patterning of change: Mid-Scots θ-debuccalisation and a late Middle English syncope. I ground the discussion in arguments about what phonotactic constraints are, and how they can be involved in diachrony. This involves a consideration of a number of examples from English, including onset-OCP-related constraints, the OCP (sibilance) constraint, and the constraint which imposes the defective distribution of [h].


A version of this paper was presented at the Diachronic Phonotactics Workshop at the University of Vienna in September 2017. I am very grateful to the workshop’s organisers and its other participants for the chance to reflect on the issues discussed here, and for the comments and questions that I received there. The paper has grown in conception since then and I am grateful for the comments of two anonymous reviewers, and especially to Niki Ritt for his detailed and insightful consideration of the piece and for many suggestions for clarification. All of this has considerably improved the article, and I am sorry that it still perhaps tries to say too much. I alone am responsible for this (and also, of course, for all the arguments that I put forth in it).


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Received: 2018-07-04
Revised: 2019-01-02
Accepted: 2019-01-16
Published Online: 2019-07-28
Published in Print: 2019-07-26

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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