Edward Flemming

Department of Linguistics and Philosophy
77 Massachusetts Avenue, 32-D808
Cambridge, MA 02139

(617) 452-4183


I take the central task of phonetic and phonological theory to be the development of a theory that delimits the set of possible phonological-phonetic systems, and explains why languages use sound in the way that they do. I am exploring the hypothesis that phonological-phonetic systems are shaped by the communicative function of language, so the basis for most cross-linguistic generalizations about phonology and phonetics is that all languages have developed to serve rapid, robust communication, and that all language-users share essentially the same sound production and perception capabilities, and similar cognitive capacities. Since speech production and perception are considered the domain of phonetics, this theory implies that phonetics shapes phonological systems.
This research program is not motivated by an a priori assumption that phonology is functionally grounded, rather it is motivated by a basic goal of linguistic theory, to 'achieve greater empirical coverage and deeper explanation with fewer resources' (McCarthy and Prince 1999). Many phonological constraints that have been proposed in the literature have been argued to have some basis in ease of articulation or ease of perception. Explicitly formalizing these motivations within phonological theory allows us to replace many parochial constraints with a small number of very general constraint families, and results in better empirical coverage.
For example, many researchers have proposed a constraint against front rounded vowels to account for the cross-linguistic preference for front vowels to be unrounded. It has been argued that this constraint is motivated by the fact that the front unrounded vowels are perceptually more distinct from back vowels. Directly implementing this analysis in terms of constraints favoring more distinct contrasts replaces a highly specific constraint with much more general ones, and provides a better account of the facts since it correctly predicts that the preference for front unrounded vowels disappears where there are no contrasts between front and back vowels (Flemming 2004a).
In Optimality Theoretic terms, this research program seeks to answer the vexed question 'what kinds of constraints are there?', but working towards an answer to this question turns out to have implications for most aspects of phonology.
More specifically, most of my research centers around two related topics: (i) the Dispersion Theory of Contrast, and (ii) phonetic realization as an optimization problem. These two lines of research come together in work on a unified model of phonetics and phonology. An additional research interest is the relationship between discourse function and intonation.

The Dispersion Theory of Contrast


Phonetic realization as an optimization problem


A unified model of phonetics and phonology


Other work

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Nathaniel Flemming, last updated 9/21/2020