The theory of lexical phonology

Term Paper, 2004

18 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Study of Linguistics

3. Lexical Phonology
3.1 Historical Background
3.2 Lexical Phonology and Generative Phonology
3.3 Lexical Phonology and Morphology
3.3.1 Lexical and Postlexical Rules
3.3.2 The Order of Affixes

4. Phonological Effects of Word Formation Processes
4.1 Vowel Shift Rule
4.2 Vowel Reduction
4.3 Voicing
4.4 Palatalization
4.5 Velar Softening
4.6 Spirantization
4.7 Spirantization and Palatalization

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

The study of linguistics is a large branch of knowledge that deals with language and communication systems. Since a variety of linguists work on different interests concerning this science, there have been a lot of theories and models to describe specific aspects of human language. Since Chomsky and Halle’s Sound Pattern of English (1968), there have been a number of further developments according to linguistics.

The theory of lexical phonology is one part of the study of linguistics which passes through several conceptions since the 1950s. Lexical phonology was developed in the early 1980s by K. P. Mohanan and P. Kiparsky and is the one most similar to classical generative phonology. In the theory of lexical phonology, the lexicon is given a key role and that represents a significant departure from classical models.

In the following paper an outline is given of what is meant by the term lexical phonology, and also a historical background to achieve a general overview.

After having arranged the theory into linguistics and historical developments, there is a distinction between lexical and generative phonology. The relation between lexical phonology and morphology with its sharp distinction between lexical and postlexical rules, is presented afterwards. The interaction of phonology and morphology with the levels of representation will be explained to get to mechanisms of phonological change and the output of phonology. For that reason, information on the arrangement of affixes will be given. Different word formation processes such as vowel shift rule, vowel reduction, voicing or stress placement are mentioned to show the effect on what was elaborated before.

The aim of this paper is to give a general overview of the theory of lexical phonology with its classical roots rather than to go into very specific details.

For further reading Kiparsky’s Explanation in Phonology (1982) or Mohanan’s Theory of Lexical Phonology (1986) are very recommendable.

2. The Study of Linguistics

Linguistics is defined as ‘the science of language’ or ‘the scientific study of language’. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘the branch of knowledge that deals with language’. So linguistics refers to knowledge concerning spoken and written language.

But like any other science there are a lot of other disciplines included in the study of linguistics. The term includes such areas as psychology and sociology as well as biology and physics. The linguistic occupation is to try to characterize a specific language, try to find regularities and work out theories that include the aspects they work on to make some linguistic occurrence clearer and even to solve linguistic problems. Omitting historical developments and debates on theoretical issues that belong to the study of linguistics, the science itself includes the following branches:

The lexicon, which is part of the present discussion and which I refer to later on;

Grammar, a systematic account of the structure of a language;

Phonetics, which attends to the sound of language and

Phonology, which deals with sound patterns;

Morphology, that means the structure of a language;

Syntax, concerning the sentence patterns and the question whether a sentence is grammatical or not; Semantics, the study of meaning;

and a branch that is also included in linguistics and occupies linguists called Language Acquisition.

One part of linguistics called phonology, which is included into the study of linguistics as mentioned above, comprises the theory of lexical phonology.

3. Lexical Phonology

The theory of lexical phonology is a major contemporary theory of phonology developed in the early 1980s by K. P. Mohanan, Paul Kiparsky and Steven Strauss. This theory is the one most similar to classical generative phonology.

With the emphasis on morphophonology, it is a theory in which morphological and phonological rules are brought together within a single framework. It is an approach to phonology that accounts for the interactions of morphology and phonology in the word building process and the approach is based on the insight that much of the phonology operates together with the word formation rules in a cyclic fashion to define the class of lexical items in a language. Word formation rules relate to the formation of words. These rules combine morphemes to form new words and are also called morphological rules.

The lexicon plays a central, productive role in the theory of lexical phonology. It consists of ordered levels, which are the domain for certain phonological or morphological processes. In addition, the lexicon is a term whose scope varies enormously from one theory to another. The lexicon is that aspect of language or of a linguist’s account of a language that is centred on individual words or units. The term lexicon means simply ‘dictionary’, but in linguistic meaning the lexicon also represents information about pronunciation, meaning, morphological and syntactic properties so that it could be called a ‘mental lexicon’. In lexical phonology, the lexicon is seen as being more than just an appendix to the grammar, containing unpredictable idiosyncratic phonological, grammatical, semantic and lexical information about morphemes and lexical items. The inner structure of the lexicon is assumed to be hierarchical. This aspect is discussed in detail in 3.3, Lexical Phonology and Morphology.

3.1 Historical Background

As mentioned in 3., the theory was developed in the early 1980s by Kiparsky (1982, 1985), Halle and Mohanan (1985), Mohanan (1985), Kaisse and Shaw (1985) and further linguists. Before the theory of lexical phonology was developed, another theory was current in the study of linguistics called generative phonology.

Chomsky and Halle´s Sound Pattern of English (1968), also abbreviated as SPE[1], established the basis of a phonological theory that recapitulates the syntactic model.

The theory has its roots in the tradition of both SPE phonology and classical phonemics. The classical account of Chomsky and Halle was criticized from the early 1970s, because this theory was not seen as a theory to solve particular phonological problems and seemed not to be sufficient for several linguistic issues.

From the 1970s on, the mainstream of phonological work shifted to more formal analytic considerations. The linguists Goldsmith (1976), Siegel (1974) and Pulleyblank (1983) worked out this theory and particular dimensions were added to generative phonology and they restructurated the old fashioned theory.

Mohanan (1982) and Kiparsky (1982) led to the theory of lexical phonology which has been followed by several studies proposing applications, modifications and extensions.

The early stages of generative linguistics had no provision for morphology and that is the central distinction between generative and lexical phonology. The current theory also contents morphology and the lexicon, whereas the term “lexicon” is understood in its linguistic way, that means not only the dictionary but the mental lexicon in the head of a human.

3.2 Lexical Phonology and Generative Phonology

As seen in two paragraphs before, lexical phonology is the continued study of what was developed by Chomsky and Halle (1968) in classical generative phonology. The theory of generative phonology was first developed by Chomsky and Halle in 1968. It is the basis for further work in this study.

The theory developed by Kiparsky in 1985 draws a connection between phonology and morphology. To explain the relationship between phonology and morphology, generative and lexical phonology, Kiparsky found the following words:

“It is tempting but unfair merely to dismiss lexical phonology as the generativists’ rediscovery of phonemics. Lexical Phonology is clearly generative in its style of theoretical modelling and its commitment to rule- based description including even the principle of cyclic rule application […]. Lexical Phonology continues to grapple with the problems of describing English morphology and morphophonemics […]”[2]

3.3 Lexical Phonology and Morphology

In this connection features of both approaches are combined so that lexical phonology includes morphological issues.

Under assumption that the lexicon is a component of grammar which also contains regular word formation rules and phonological rules it is assumed that word formation rules of morphology are paired with phonological rules.

So there is a relationship between the rules that build the morphological structure of a word and the phonological rules which are responsible for how a word is pronounced.

These rules which can be found in the lexicon appear in blocks which are called levels or layer or strata[3]. This is figured in the following diagram by Kiparsky (1982a):

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Lexical phonology model

The diagram shows that the different stages of morphology and phonology are organized in levels, they are level- ordered, so the derivational and inflectional processes of a language appear in a series of levels (or strata).


[1] This is the standard way of referring to Chomsky and Halle’s 1968 book, called The Sound Pattern of English → SPE

[2] Kiparsky 1986: 412-413.

[3] Stratum: terminology commonly used by Mohanan, also called level or layer.

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The theory of lexical phonology
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
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Stefanie Udema (Author), 2004, The theory of lexical phonology, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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