Underspecification and the Phonology of *NC̥-Effects in Malayalam

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The sequence of a nasal-plus-voiceless-obstruent (plosive) is a less favoured cluster cross-linguistically. Languages adopt various strategies to avoid such a cluster. These include nasal substitution, nasal deletion, post-nasal voicing, denasalization etc. The Dravidian language Malayalam exhibits post-nasal voicing to avoid NC̥. Interestingly, it also allows nasal gemination for the same purpose; and both the processes share identical domains: morpheme internal as well as across morphemes. Presumably this is a pointer towards some subtler facts at work inviting serious critical engagement. In course of the present study, it has been found that: (a) nasal gemination is a marked strategy to avoid NC̥ and is restricted to a limited set of morphemes; and (b) post-nasal voicing is a more productive and hence unmarked strategy in this language. A principled account, in terms of constraint interaction, of these discrete processes and their underlying functional unity emerges if the theory of underspecification is roped in while positing the input form. Additionally, some predictions follow automatically about the direction of language change.


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