Friday, December 5, 2008

syllabic /s/ in Blackfoot

Recently I've begun reworking a paper I presented the Algonquian conference this year so that it'll be in decent shape when the time comes to submit it for the proceedings in January. The paper is all about analyzing the status of the phoneme /s/ in Blackfoot, mostly in Optimality Theory. So in this post I thought I would present some of the evidence I use to claim that Blackfoot has a syllabic /s/.

This claim was (as far as I know) first seriously taken up by Donald Derrick a few years ago (though Don Frantz mentions that he has always assumed Blackfoot to have a syllabic /s/). I recap much of his evidence in my paper, because I find it very telling. Among the data he presents is the use of [ss] as a clapping unit by some speakers (I say some because this has not been reported by all investigations in the Blackfoot phonology). For instance, if I asked you to divide Minnesota into "units" of some type, you would most likely clap out Min-ne-so-ta. Likewise, if you ask a Blackfoot speaker to clap out a word like moapsspi, they would most likely clap out mo-a-pss-pi. The idea that non-vocalic syllable nuclei are pronounceable is pretty foreign to English speakers, even though we do it all the time: shhhhhh!

Derrick also points out (and I've backed this up with my own analysis) that the Blackfoot syllable is maximally simple if we assume syllabic /s/. This is desirable because it would be exceedingly odd for a language with as few sounds as Blackfoot to have syllable structure as complex as Blackfoot does without positing syllabic /s/. Once we treat [ss] as a syllable nucleus, however, the Blackfoot syllable template becomes maximally simple.

In my paper I also point to the fact that Blackfoot does not allow onset geminates (i.e., long consonants are divided between 2 syllables, e.g.,, yet [ss] appears in many places where it cannot be ambisyllabic. I need to look into this more, since until recently I was unaware that onset geminates had even been posited for certain languages (I assumed they were a phonological impossibility, and this may change some of my analysis).

The final small piece of evidence is that fact that /s/ acts weird in many other contexts, so why not syllable nuclei? It's the only phoneme that can form complex onsets, and Blackfoot has several Cs affricates (at least /ts/ and /ks/, and possibly also /ps/). So /s/ clearly has a special status in Blackfoot even without the claim of syllabicity.

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