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Towards a bottom-up approach to phonological typology

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The set of combinatoric possibilities of even simple formal systems explodes quickly. Adopting (perhaps overly) simple assumptions about phonological representation and computation, we show that, with just a handful of featural primitives, the number of possible segments, the number of possible inventories and the number of possible rule targets quickly reaches shockingly high levels. Not only is this result inevitable for pretty much any feature system, but it is also desirable. The crucial point is to define sets (of segments, inventories, or rule targets) intensionally, and see that we can account for a vast range of phenomena using a minimal toolkit, in parallel to recent <i>evo-devo</i> work in biology. Understanding the combinatorics is a step towards a biolinguistic approach to phonology.

  • Affiliations: 1: Concordia University

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