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Phonetics vs. phonology in Huave consonant-vowel interactions

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This talk explores phonetic and phonological aspects of diphthongization in Huave (a language isolate of southern Mexico), based on fieldwork with the moribund San Francisco del Mar variety. Huave consonants are contrastively either plain or palatalized, and in coda position this distinction is cued principally on the preceding vowel; the focus here will be on the realization of back vowels /a o u/ as [aj oj uj] before palatalized consonants. Acoustic evidence converges on the idea that this diphthongization is phonological before non-coronals, inserting a segmental offglide and creating long vowel nuclei, but coarticulatory before coronals, where nuclei remain phonologically unaltered and short. In the non-coronal environment, F2 trajectories generally show a transition between two steady states, and vowel duration is comparable to that of aspirated long-vowel nuclei [ah oh uh]. However, when these codas are resyllabified as onsets to suffixes, the F2 rises disappear completely, and durations cluster with short (rather than with long) open-syllable vowels; there thus appears to be a categorical alternation conditioned by syllable structure. In contrast, back vowels before palatalized coronals do not show such alternations in either quality or length. F2 trajectories have a single steady state and a smaller degree of rise at the end, before onsets as well as codas. Similarly, duration patterns with short vowels in both closed and open syllables. Finally, back-vowel nuclei before voiceless coronals and non-coronals behave differently with respect to truncation of intonational pitch accents, although the categoricity of this effect can be questioned. On the basis of the representations inferred from the phonetic results, a phonological analysis is developed in terms of feature-realization strategies for the consonantal palatalization contrast. Time permitting, some methodological and ethical issues that arise in phonetic work on endangered unwritten languages will also be discussed.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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