Scheer: Substance-free Phonology and 3x Phonology

The class first introduces Substance-Free Phonology (SFP), i.e. the idea that there is no phonetics in phonology. Thus “labial” being a phonetic category, it cannot exist in phonology: the feature [labial] is not the object that phonology manipulates. Rather, phonology deals with primes whose only purpose is to i) express contrast and ii) allow for computation. Primes are thus colorless placeholders α, β, γ which are related to phonetic categories only when phonological structure is spelt out, i.e. transferred to phonetics. Just like “past tense ↔ ‑ed” is a spell-out instruction at the upper interface with morpho-syntax, “α ↔ labial” is a spell-out instruction at the lower interface with phonetics. Both interfaces have the same workings: they need to map a given domain-specific vocabulary onto another domain-specific vocabulary.

It will be shown how exactly regular phonlogical processes work in Substance-Free Phonology, what the different schools within SFP are, and which consequences for phonological theory arise.

The latter issue is discussed in greater detail in the second part of the class: what does it take to run a full substance-free phonology? Because in classical approaches only items below the skeleton have phonetic properties that, according to SFP, need to be expunged, current work in SFP only ever concerns segmental aspects. If substance is removed from segmental representation and primes and computation are therefore arbitrary, the non-trivial question arises: how can such a system communicate with a system where  primes and computation are not arbitrary (at and above the skeleton)? The two phonologies below and at / above the skeleton that exist in production are complemented with a third phonology that occurs upon lexicalization, that is, when L1 learners or adults transform the acoustic signal into a stored representation. It will be argued that whitin this broad architecture, what is commonly called phonology in fact falls into three distinct computational systems (modules) along the classical feature geometric division: Son(ority) is located at and above the skeleton, while Place and Lar(yngeal) live below the skeleton. The question then is how a multiple-module spell-out works, that is, how ingredients from three distinct vocabularies can be mapped onto a single phonetic item. The skeleton plays a central role in this conversion. 


Chabot, Alex 2022. On substance and substance-free phonology: where we are and where we are going. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 67: 429-443. [pdf]

Dresher, Elan 2014. The arch not the stones: Universal feature theory without universal features. Nordlyd 41: 165-181. [pdf]

Hale, Mark & Charles Reiss 2008. The Phonological Enterprise. Oxford: OUP. [pdf]

Odden, David 2022. Radical Substance Free Phonology and Feature Learning. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 67: 500-551. [pdf]

Scheer, Tobias 2022. 3xPhonology. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 67: 444-499. [pdf]