Volume 20, Issue 1
  • ISSN 2211-6834
  • E-ISSN: 2211-6842
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This paper examines the historical and phonological properties of in Japanese. It shows that, by analysing a specific case of segmental variation, we not only deepen our understanding of the sound which varies but also shed light on some general characteristics of the sound system as a whole. Using an Element Theory approach (Anderson and Jones 1974Kaye . 1985Harris and Lindsey 1995Scheer 1999Nasukawa 2005Cyran 2010Backley 2011), the discussion focuses on the distribution of the element |U|, arguing that |U| is naturally weak in Japanese. This helps explain two idiosyncrasies in Japanese phonology – the restricted distribution of labial consonants and rounded vowels, and the patterning of with labials.

In modern Japanese, labiality is phonologically and phonetically weak. In vowels, and are produced without lip rounding, as unrounded [ɯ] and [ɰ]. And in consonants, the labial stop is banned from certain contexts. These facts point to the inherent weakness of |U| in Japanese, where weakness refers to structural headedness; following Backley and Nasukawa (2009), it is assumed that labials are represented by headed |U| (cf. non-headed |U| in velars). To account for the restricted distribution of labials, it is argued that labiality (headed ||) is only realised in Japanese if a specific structural condition is met: |U| must co-occur with (i.e. be supported by) another element from the same sub-group of ‘dark’ elements. Thus, the paper exploits the natural division between dark elements {|A|, |U|, |L|} and light elements {|I|, |H|, |Ɂ|}.


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