Change, Chance, and Optimality

Change, Chance, and Optimality

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This book is about how languages change. It is also a devastating critique of a widespread linguistic orthodoxy. April McMahon argues that to provide a convincing explanation of linguistic change the roles of history and contingency must be accommodated in linguistic theory. She also shows that theoretical work in related disciplines can be used to assess the value of such theories.

Optimality Theory, or OT as it is usually called, dominates contemporary phonology, especially in the USA, and is becoming increasingly influential in syntax and language acquisition. Having set out its basis principles, Professor McMahon assesses their explanatory power in analysing language change and its residues in current phonological systems. Using cross-linguistic data, and drawing comparisons with other theories inside and outside linguistics, she shows that OT is incapable of
accounting for language change, without the addition of rules and an appreciation of chance and historical contingency that would then undermine its theoretical underpinnings.

OT relies on innateness and needs to discuss the origins of allegedly genetically-specified features. The author considers the nature and evolution of the human language capacity, and demonstrates a profound mismatch between the predictions of evolutionary biology and the claims for innateness made in OT.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 212 pages
  • 156 x 234 x 12mm | 323g
  • Oxford, United Kingdom
  • English
  • 0198241259
  • 9780198241256

Table of contents

Chapter 1: Optimality Theory: The Basics ; Chapter 2: Optimality in a Complex World: Additions and Extensions ; Chapter 3: Constraints, Causation, and Change ; Chapter 4: Cognates and Comparisons: Natural Morphology and Neo-Darwinian Evolutionary Biology ; Chapter 5: The Emergence of the Innate: Evolving Optimality ; Chapter 6: Optimality and Optimism: The Panglossian Paradigm
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Review quote

This formidable critique of Optimality Theory (OT) should be required reading for all graduate students in linguistics. Phonologists of every stripe - synchronic and diachronic, regardless of the theories in which they work - ignore it at their peril. Anyone with even a passing interest in linguistic theory would also be well advised to read it, because its implications reach well beyond phonology to involve current hypotheses about the nature and evolution of
human language ... this volume should solidfy McMahon's reputation as one of the most insightful linguistic theorists currently writing. * General Linguistics * A critical contribution to the debate on how Optimality Theory accounts (or cannot account) for historical change ... a hard and prolonged look at the claims and practices of OT. * Years Work in English Studies * A stunning book, elegantly argued and deftly written. A major theoretical critique, confronting Optimality Theory and other formalist innatist paradigms with the realities of evolutionary biology and neuroscience. One of the most important and sophisticated works in phonological theory of the past couple of decades. * Roger Lass, University of Cape Town *
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About April McMahon

Dr April McMahon has been Lecturer in Historical Linguistics and Phonology at the University of Cambridge since 1988. From March 2000 she will be Professor of English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of Understanding Language Change (CUP, 1994) and Lexical Phonology and the History of English (CUP, forthcoming 2000), and has published articles and reviews in many journals. She has
long-standing research interests in the relationship of phonological theory and sound change, and in interdisciplinary issues including connections between evolutionary theory, genetics and historical linguistics.
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