The University of Manchester

Ricardo Bermúdez-Otero

Linguistics and English Language, University of Manchester



The life cycle of constraint rankings:

studies in early English morphophonology


The John Rylands University LibraryLinguistics and English language at ManchesterE-mail me


Ita imperium semper ad optumum quemque a minus bono transfertur.

Sallustius, Catilina, II.6




A long research tradition has shown that, in their historical evolution, phonological patterns follow a characteristic life cycle, in the latter stages of which they tend to develop morphological and lexical conditioning. Phonological theory must determine how these changes are implemented in the grammar and what language acquisition factors play a rôle in driving the process. This project addresses these issues from the viewpoint of Stratal Optimality Theory (Bermúdez-Otero 1999, forthcoming; Kiparsky forthcoming), a developing model of phonology that combines the insights of Lexical Phonology (henceforth LP) and Optimality Theory (henceforth OT). In particular, I shall test the following hypotheses:

  • The life cycle of phonological patterns involves the percolation of constraint rankings from lower to higher phonological levels in the grammar.

  • The percolation of a ranking from a level n to a higher level n-1 is caused by the restructuring of input representations at level n.

  • Input restructuring is driven by an input-optimizing acquisition strategy that seeks to minimize the violation of faithfulness constraints.

These proposals will be evaluated by means of empirical evidence bearing on one of the central and most intensively studied problems in Old and early Middle English phonology: the interaction and diachronic evolution of processes of vowel epenthesis and rhythmic vowel deletion (so-called 'High Vowel Deletion'). The life cycle of these processes can be traced in minute detail through the complex patterns of allomorphic alternation that they created, particularly in neuter a-stem nouns. Although these phenomena have attracted an enormous amount of attention from theoretically informed scholars, all currently available treatments have proved to be fundamentally flawed in their empirical coverage (Hogg 1997, 2000). This project will address the problems identified by Hogg and, in so doing, serve the interests not only of phonologists and historical linguists in general, but also of specialists in Old and Middle English.  


The aims of this project are:

  • to provide a detailed description of the morphophonology of a-stem nouns (specially neuters) in Early and Late West Saxon, redressing the faults of previous accounts informed by linguistic theory;

  • to trace the diachronic evolution of processes of vowel insertion and deletion in Old and early Middle English through a comparison of the West Saxon data with evidence from other Old and early Middle English dialects;

  • to produce a fully formalized analysis of the relevant phenomena within the framework of Stratal OT;

  • to use these results to evaluate the adequacy of Stratal OT in accounting for (i) phonology-morphology interactions, (ii) phonological opacity, (iii) analogical change, and (iv) the life cycle of phonological patterns;

  • to determine the extent to which limits to opacity in phonological systems emerge diachronically from the acquisition strategies which drive the life cycle of constraint rankings.



During the 1980s and 1990s, research in LP showed that, diachronically, phonological rules move from lower to higher grammatical levels (e.g. Zec 1993, McMahon 2000). This result constituted a major advance in the formal interpretation of the life cycle of phonological patterns. With the advent of OT, however, the ascendancy of models of the morphology-phonology interface based on level segregation and cyclicity has come under question (see e.g. Benua 1997). In consequence, LP's approach to the life cycle of phonological patterns must be re-evaluated.

An emergent line of enquiry, however, suggests that the strengths of LP and OT may be fruitfully combined. Work such as Bermúdez-Otero (1999) and Kiparsky (forthcoming) has revealed the inadequacies of strictly parallel models of the morphology-phonology interface, thereby providing support for cyclicity and stratification. In this framework, analogical change can be analysed as involving the restructuring of the input to some grammatical level, driven by an acquisition strategy geared towards minimizing the violation of faithfulness constraints (Bermúdez-Otero 1999, 2003). This idea opens up the possibility of improving and developing LP's approach to the life cycle of phonological patterns, obviating the difficulties attendant on the need for underspecification in rule-based models (Bermúdez-Otero & Hogg 2003).

At the same time, research into the life cycle of phonological patterns throws light upon the problem of opacity, which poses a severe challenge to OT. Strictly parallel solutions, such as Sympathy Theory (McCarthy 1999), seek to curb the complexity of opaque interactions by imposing ad hoc synchronic constraints on grammars. However, these formal devices are beset with conceptual and empirical perplexities. In the framework of Stratal OT, in contrast, restrictions upon opacity need not be stipulated, but emerge diachronically from the child's acquisition strategy, which, through phonological change, limits divergence in the ranking of constraints across levels (Bermúdez-Otero 1999).

The set of empirical phenomena on which I shall rely to evaluate my hypotheses has long been used as a touchstone for proposals in diachronic and theoretical phonology. Yet, alarmingly, Hogg (1997, 2000) observes that previous analyses depend on flawed evidence (in that they conflate data from different dialects) or neglect the rôle of morphological conditioning: in Ælfric's dialect, for example, the strong neuter nominative and accusative plural ending -a is subject to rhythmic apocope like its high predecessor -u, whilst genitive plural -a is not. Thus, by providing a reliable description and formalization of a-stem noun alternations in West Saxon, I shall be creating a platform for more penetrating explorations of Old English morphophonology and will enable scholars to test the multiple claims that have been -and continue to be- staked upon the evidence of 'High Vowel Deletion'.



The project comprises three stages:

Stage One involves data collection and classification. My description of a-stem noun morphophonology in West Saxon relies on an exhaustive collection of tokens from the following texts: the Alfredian translations of Orosius and the Cura Pastoralis, and a selection of Ælfrician homilies. Contrastive evidence is provided by the Mercian dialect of the Vespasian Psalter (9th century) and the so-called 'South Northumbrian' dialect of Rushworth2 (10th century); the former is relevant because of its antiquity, the latter because of its conservative character (Hogg 1997: §6). Insights into the state of affairs in Middle English are drawn from the Ormulum, which I have shown to provide crucial evidence concerning the reanalysis of epenthetic vowels (Bermúdez-Otero 1999: §4.2.3).

Stage Two consists of the formal analysis of the data. First, synchronic descriptions for each of the dialects under consideration are produced within the framework of Stratal OT. Particular attention is paid to the modelling of morphological conditioning effects in stratal terms and to the identification of opaque interactions. Subsequently, diachronic developments are identified: the stratal affiliation of constraint rankings is tracked across time, noting the direction in which rankings percolate. Instances of constraint reranking are related to input restructuring, and causal factors are sought for in the paradigmatic information available to the language learner.

Stage Three involves using the results of this formal analysis to test the hypotheses formulated above and, more generally, to evaluate the performance of Stratal OT by comparison with strictly parallel models of the morphology-phonology interface.



The results of the project will be disseminated in a monograph currently in preparation.

For PDF drafts of key sections, click on the blue links below:



      Abbreviations and symbols


1.   Introduction

2.   Stratal OT

3.   The life cycle of phonological patterns

4.   A-stems in West Saxon: synchrony

5.   A-stems in West Saxon: diachrony

6.   Phonological stratification in Early Middle English: the Ormulum

7.   Conclusion

      Appendix A: A-stem nouns in Alfred

      Appendix B: Neuter a-stem nouns in Rushworth 2

      Appendix C: Anaptyxis in Old English nouns

      Appendix D: Synoptic tableaux for Old English a-stem nouns

      Appendix E: Closed syllable shortening in the Ormulum

      Note on sources


      Index of constraints




Benua, L. (1997). Transderivational identity: phonological relations between words. PhD dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  

Bermúdez-Otero, R. (1999). Constraint interaction in language change [Opacity and globality in phonological change]. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Manchester & Universidad de Santiago de Compostela. [Warning: 11 MB file.]  

Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (forthcoming). Stratal Optimality Theory. (Oxford Studies in Theoretical Linguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo (2003). The acquisition of phonological opacity. In Jennifer Spenader, Anders Eriksson & Östen Dahl (eds), Variation within Optimality Theory: Proceedings of the Stockholm Workshop on `Variation within Optimality Theory´, 25-36. Stockholm: Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University.[A long version of this article is available from the Rutgers Optimality Archive: ROA-593-0403. For the volume in which the short version was published, click here.]

Bermúdez-Otero, Ricardo & Richard M. Hogg (2003). The actuation problem in Optimality Theory: phonologization, rule inversion, and rule loss. In D. Eric Holt (ed), Optimality Theory and language change (Studies in Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 56), 91-119. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

Hogg, R. M. (1997). The morphology and dialect of Old English disyllabic nouns. In R. Hickey & Stanislaw Puppel (eds). Language history and linguistic modelling: a Festschrift for Jacek Fisiak on his 60th birthday. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 113-126.

Hogg, R. M. (2000). On the (non-)existence of High Vowel Deletion. In A. Lahiri (ed). Analogy, levelling, markedness. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 353-376.

Kiparsky, P. (forthcoming). Paradigm effects and opacity. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

McCarthy, J. J. (1999). Sympathy and phonological opacity. Phonology 16: 331-399.

McMahon, A. (2000). Lexical phonology and the history of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zec, D. (1993). Rule domains and phonological change. In S. Hargus & E. M. Kaisse (eds). Studies in Lexical Phonology. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. 365-405.