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Assimilation, dissimilation, and surface correspondence in Sundanese

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Much recent work has approached long-distance agreement effects using the notion of correspondence between surface segments, driven by relative phonological similarity. This theory of correspondence also has consequences for dissimilatory interactions. Sundanese exhibits a complex [r]∼[l] alternation, which may arise by assimilation or dissimilation. This alternation is analyzed as the result of constraints on surface correspondence, which give rise to both assimilation and dissimilation in complementary distribution, with the choice between them determined by the structural configuration of the interacting liquids. Harmony occurs where surface correspondence between liquids is permitted; dissimilation occurs where such correspondence is prohibited. Dissimilation is argued to emerge from the interaction of constraints that require similar consonants to correspond, and constraints that limit this correspondence, rather than being an effect of anti-similarity constraints.

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  1. See also Alderete and Frisch (2007), and Bye (2011) for more detailed overviews of these and other previous approaches to dissimilation.

  2. According to Cohn (1992:fn.1), /ar/ technically has a distributed meaning, but this is irrelevant for the purposes of this paper. I follow Cohn in referring to it as ‘plural’ for convenience.

  3. Examples marked as ‘own data’ were collected by the author. The consultant I worked with was a female, mid-20s in age, in New York City, who lived in Indonesia until the age of 6, and spoke Sundanese in school and at home during that time. Data was collected during an initial meeting in person, and through several follow-up emails.

  4. The tableaux here, and most others in this paper, use a hybrid comparative format. Winning candidates are given in row (a), and other rows represent comparisons between that winner and an alternative, losing, candidate. Integers in parentheses show the constraint violations incurred by the winner, and how they compare to violations incurred by the losing alternative. ‘W’, ‘L’, and ‘e’ indicate a constraint’s preference for the Winner or the Loser, or neither (Prince 2002). To reduce visual clutter, e values are suppressed when both candidates have zero violations; blank cells indicate ‘e (0∼0)’. Liquids in each candidate are in bold for ease of identification.

  5. This differs from transderivational O-O correspondence (Benua 1997), which posits correspondence between the surface segments in different output forms.

  6. This assumption is one of expository convenience. Some work in Agreement By Correspondence has extended the idea of correspondence to other domains, including vowel harmony (Rhodes 2008; Walker 2009, 2011), and tonal patterns (Shih 2013; Inkelas and Shih 2013). While such extensions are interesting, they are tangential to the analysis of liquid alternations in Sundanese.

  7. Note that both the Corr constraints and CC⋅Limiter constraints (including CC⋅Ident) are markedness constraints, not faithfulness constraints. Though they refer to correspondence, they assess only the output end of a candidate, not the input-output relationship. Although Corr constraints can be intuitively characterized as demanding correspondence, they do not exert any preference for faithful preservation of input forms. This is significant because in the proposed analysis of Sundanese, surface correspondence constraints will be seen to prefer unfaithful realization of input segments.

  8. The velarization of /l/ is an impressionistic observation based on the speech of my consultant, and is not reported by Van Syoc, Robins, Cohn, or Müller-Gotama. The variation in the realization of [r] seems free rather than systematic: the trilled realization appears to be more common word-finally and less common intervocalically, but my consultant seemed to use them interchangeably.

  9. Corr-Stem⋅[Rhotic] and Corr-Stem⋅[Lateral] are defined as assessing surface correspondence between liquids only, to avoid conflating phonetically non-lateral liquids like [b] and [k] with the non-lateral liquid [r] or with the non-rhotic liquid [l]. This aspect of the definition isn’t crucial; it can be left out if the feature responsible for the Rhotic/Lateral distinction is dependent on the feature [+liquid].

  10. An anonymous reviewer asks whether R-dissimilation and L-assimilation are specific only to the plural morpheme /ar/. The answer is not entirely clear. Sundanese has no affixes with /l/, and all other affixes with /r/ attach outside the stem domain. Cohn (1992:213) observes a few examples of R-dissimilation in loanwords and complex forms that don’t feature /ar/, but none of these reflect systematic patterns. For instance, Cohn cites an example /baraŋ-/ ‘thing’ + /siar/ ‘seek’ → [balaŋ-siar] ‘seek a livelihood’ (Eringa 1949:95). However, this prefix /baraŋ-/ does not exhibit systematic dissimilation like /ar/, evidenced by forms like (20a) [baraŋ-dahar] ‘eat anything’. There is also a gradient tendency for some [r…r] sequences to be avoided in the lexicon, discussed in more detail in Sect. 3.2.

  11. This approach differs somewhat from Rose and Walker (2004), who separate CCIdent constraints by directionality of application—i.e. distinguishing specific Left-to-Right and Right-to-Left versions of each agreement constraint. That approach requires a significantly more complex formulation of the schema for CC⋅Ident constraints, while the positional CC⋅Ident constraint in (23) does not. See Sect. 5.3 for discussion.

  12. The Ndonga and Lamba cases are identified by Rose and Walker (2004), and Koyra by Hansson (2001, 2010). For primary data, see Fivaz and Shikomba (1986), Doke (1938), and Hayward (1982), respectively. Further potential support for CC⋅SyllAdj is found in harmony systems of various other languages, but it’s not clear in all cases that syllable-adjacency is the right characterization (Hansson 2010:175; Bennett 2013:63).

  13. The notion of heads in onsets also has precedents in previous work on voicing assimilation and positional faithfulness (Beckman 1998; Lombardi 1999), and also in much work in Government Phonology; see also Baertsch (2002), Baertsch and Davis (2003) for parallels between codas and the second member of an onset cluster. The definition of onset heads assumed here differs somewhat from previous work, but this is not central to the theory, nor to the analysis of Sundanese. What is crucial is just that the [r]s in [.bra.] and [.ra.] have different syllable roles; it does not matter what exactly those roles are.

  14. There are a small number of lexical exceptions, where [al] occurs spuriously. An example is [ɡəde] ‘to be big’, which has the exceptional plural form [ɡ=al=əde]—with an [l] in the affix despite the lack of any /l/ or /r/ in the root. Robins (1959:344) suggests this form is due to analogy with [litik] ‘to be small’, which has the completely regular infixed plural form [l=al=itik]. There are a very small number of exceptions that have a prefix [ra-] instead of [=ar=]; little is known about this variant (Shiohara and Furihata 2011:93). There is also an apparently doubled intensifier affix, /arar/, which is presumably historically related to plural /ar/ (my thanks to Chris Golston for pointing this out to me). This affix doesn’t exhibit the same [r]∼[l] alternations as /ar/, though: [am.prok] ‘meet’, [a.ra.r-am.prok] ‘everybody meeting together’ (own data). A possible explanation for the lack of dissimilation here is that /arar/ attaches outside the stem.

  15. Following this interpretation, we would expect that R-dissimilation would not occur when two /r/s are both codas, e.g. in the configuration /C=ar=CVrCV/. Unfortunately, I have yet to find any roots that give rise to this situation. Based on a survey of Rigg’s (1862) dictionary, Sundanese has very few roots with initial /Cr/ or /Cl/ clusters; my consultant was unfamiliar with many of the ones Rigg gives, and identified nearly all of the rest as incompatible with the /ar/ plural affix. I elicited only one form with an initial /Cr/ cluster and /ar/: [bararesin] ‘to sneeze’ (pl.) (cf. [bresin] ‘to sneeze’). This form had an additional [a] inserted, which leaves the affix /r/ as an onset. So, it remains unclear what would happen if the affix /r/ were syllabified in other ways.

  16. Cohn (1992:213) notes two exceptions: dalektur ‘director’, a variant of (39c), and rapor ∼ lapor ∼ rapot ‘report’. It’s not clear what, if anything, this variation says about R-dissimilation: some native roots also show variation between [lVrV] and [rVrV] sequences, e.g. loris ∼ roris ‘check’ (Cohn 1992:214), a configuration where R-dissimilation is not expected to occur.

  17. The relevant constraints are Corr-Stem⋅[Rhotic], CC⋅Srole, CC⋅SyllAdj, and Ident-Root-[lateral]. The ranking of the same four constraints also determines what the analysis predicts for /ar/ infixation in roots with two /r/s. I was not able to elicit any forms like this; for my consultant, ‘radar’ and all other roots like it were simply incompatible with the /ar/ affix. See Sect. 4.2 for further discussion.

  18. /ar/+/liren/ also doesn’t surface as *[l=al=ilen]. Changing the root /r/ to [l] is ruled out by root faithfulness, considered in the next tableau.

  19. The blocking effect seen in (51b) would be an example of the ‘preferential correspondence’ interaction identified by Hansson (2007)—the affix /r/ ‘prefers’ to correspond with the other /r/ rather than with /l/.

  20. Though see Zuraw (2002:433) for an alternative view of why dissimilation fails in some roots.

  21. The agreement-based CC⋅Limiter constraints, the CC⋅Ident family, do not penalize [r]∼[r] correspondence, so they cannot favor dissimilation of this sort (cf. MacEachern 1999; Gallagher and Coon 2009). By virtue of being identical, it follows that two [r]s agree in all features, so they necessarily do not violate any CC⋅Ident constraints by corresponding with each other. See Sect. 5.2 for further discussion.

  22. An anonymous reviewer asks about the behavior of the /ar/ affix in roots with non-dissimilated /r…r/ sequences that are not adjacent-syllable onsets, like /radar/ and /restoran/. Unfortunately, I don’t have the data to answer this; my consultant rejected the /ar/ affix on roots like these, and used other plural-marking strategies instead. What the analysis predicts is straightforward to test, however. Using OTWorkplace, I tested all possible rankings consistent with the known data, for the input /ar/+/radar/, with the same range of candidates considered for the other inputs—[r] or [l] in the infix, and all possibilities of surface correspondence among liquids. The result is that this input has four possible optima that are consistent with the rest of the pattern: two faithful candidates [r1=ar1=adar1] and [r1=ar1=adar2], and two dissimilated ones [r1=al2=adar1] and [r1=al1=adar2]. The choice among them depends on the ranking of Corr-Stem⋅[Rhotic], CC⋅Srole, and CC⋅SyllAdj in ways that are not otherwise crucial for explaining the data.

  23. There are a few other minor issues with the adequacy of Holton’s (1995) and Suzuki’s (1999) accounts. Suzuki’s approach leaves the result of agreement to be determined by general markedness constraints *r and *l; as such, his analysis incorrectly predicts that agreeing liquids should always default to [l], and forms like /ar/+/rahit/ should surface as *[l=al=ahit], with dissimilation and agreement. This prediction is readily averted by adding a root-specific faithfulness constraint to Suzuki’s proposal, though. Holton’s OCP is a traditional autosegmental interpretation rather than an anti-similarity constraint; it predicts dissimilation only in tandem with another constraint, NoGap, that rules out candidates which fuse two [–lateral] specifications together into a single multiply-linked one that skips over an intermediate consonant. Suzuki (1999:8) claims that this makes the wrong prediction for forms with the structure [C=a.r=VC.rVC]: NoGap would prevent the two [r]s from sharing the same [–lateral] feature, so dissimilation should occur. It’s not clear from the data whether this prediction is actually wrong, though. Forms like [m=al=otret] actually do show dissimilation. Suzuki’s claim appears to be based on the assumption, implicit in Cohn’s (1992:206) original description, that R-dissimilation will not occur between adjacent-syllable onsets, even if there is an intervening coda consonant. Cohn does not give any examples of this shape, however, and I was not able to elicit any plural forms where a medial [Cr] cluster is unambiguously a coda followed by [r] as a simple onset.

  24. See also Rigg (1862:viii) for a much earlier explication of the idea that /ar/ is somehow connected to reduplication.

  25. This raises the question of how limits on dissimilation can be explained in the surface correspondence approach. One possibility is that they result from limits on the domain of the Corr constraints. If there are Corr constraints that require correspondence only between segments in adjacent syllables (Odden 1994), or those in CVC sequences (Rose 2000), then dissimilation can be restricted to hold only in this domain.


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This paper has benefited immensely due to input from and discussion with many individuals. In particular, thanks are owed to Alan Prince, Bruce Tesar, Akin Akinlabi, Daniel Kaufman, Evi Tanjunk, Abby Cohn, Sharon Rose, Rachel Walker, Seunghun Lee, Paula Houghton, three anonymous NLLT reviewers, and audiences at Rutgers and Santa Cruz. Any errors are my own.

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Bennett, W.G. Assimilation, dissimilation, and surface correspondence in Sundanese. Nat Lang Linguist Theory 33, 371–415 (2015).

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