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Title: Directionality and Locality in Vowel Harmony. With special reference to Vowel Harmony in Assamese
Authors: Mahanta, Shakuntala
Keywords: Indo-European Languages
Indo-Iranian Languages
Issue Date: 2007
Publisher: Utrecht University
Abstract: In phonological systems, it is sometimes observed that a segment requires greater similarity to neighbouring segments with respect to a certain feature. Examples of phonological patterns exhibiting such requirements for vowel processes abound in natural languages and these involve a wide cross-section of phonological features resulting in processes known as vowel harmony, metaphony, umlaut, etc1. This dissertation will concentrate on vowel harmony processes and try to enumerate certain fundamental constraints and characteristics of some vowel harmony languages. In unearthing those constraints, this dissertation will be guided by two goals. The goals are to contribute to an ongoing discussion within a theoretical framework (in this case Optimality Theory, henceforth OT, Prince and Smolensky 1993/2004) of how the notions of ‘directionality’ and ‘locality’ should be handled. What unifies these two goals, among the many other facets of vowel harmony, is the fact that this dissertation leans to a large extent on vowel harmony in Assamese. The various theoretical problems, which were encountered while fleshing out vowel harmony in Assamese, guided this dissertation in the identification of these factors. Therefore the empirical domain receives a lot of attention in many chapters of this dissertation. Assamese is spoken in Assam, which is a North-Eastern state of India. Assamese (also known as Asambe, Asamiya, etc.) and creoles of Assamese like Nagamese are spoken in the different north-eastern states. The variety described here is representative of colloquial Assamese spoken in the eastern districts of the state of Assam in India. With a majority of the total population using the language, Assamese is the major language of the state (with an estimated 20 million native and non-native speakers according to the most recent census in 2001). Among the many empirical observations about Assamese vowel harmony, I will show that Assamese displays iterative regressive vowel harmony, a process a process which was not shown to exist in this language. I will show that the outputs of harmony [e] and [o] are allophonic in the language. The allophonic outputs [e] and [o] are present only in the surface inventory of the language, when harmony is triggered by a following /i/ or /u/. Further, I will explore the phonological status of the vowel /ʊ/ in Assamese, and show that the way /ʊ/ participates in vowel harmony is important to its phonological characterisation. I will also offer an acoustic experiment to establish that /ʊ/ is a [+high][+back][-ATR] vowel in the language, which is juxtaposed to the findings in Ladefoged (1996, 2001). The findings of my experiment endorse the phonological characterisation of all the vowels, including /ʊ/ in Assamese. This much is about the descriptive facts of Assamese vowel harmony. Apart from these details of vowels and vowel-inventory related facts of Assamese vowel harmony, this dissertation demonstrates some of the far-reaching theoretical significance of different aspects of vowel harmony in Assamese (and to a lesser extent, Bengali and Tripura Bengali). It is to this aspect that I now turn, and take up the discussion of theoretical goals that were identified in the beginning of this chapter.
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