Our university is making a crash coarse in phonology for first year students so, while there is a dedicated phono module, there's also this streamlined overview of phonological theory.

My job is to present on autosegmental phonology. Theoretically, no problem -- but most of the examples that illustrate the use of autosegmental approaches have heavy theoretical burdens. African tone, for example, may be a bit too complicated. Are there some good, visual-friendly, examples of how autosegmental phonology provides compelling explanatory power? Perhaps some harmonic process...?

  • Autosegmental phonology has no explanatory power. Your effort is doomed to failure.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 3, 2015 at 17:23
  • @GregLee - why do you say that? Or are you just being provocative?
    – Teusz
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 8:21
  • I'm 100% serious. Look at the answers you got -- do you see any explanations? It's all about notation and how to describe things. Making up notations and illustrating how to use them may be fun, but it doesn't explain anything.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 4, 2015 at 15:39
  • accounting for harmonic processes in language does have explanatory value. yes, as you say, it's about "how to describe things". Testing the predictive value of models is a large part of the science of linguistics!
    – Teusz
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 7:54
  • Could you please give an example of something that autosegmental phonology explains?
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Feb 5, 2015 at 11:02

2 Answers 2


The reason African tone is complicated is because it is difficult for speakers of European languages to visualize tone as a phonological feature on a par with, let's say, manner of articulation of consonants. Vowel height harmony, which you already mention, should be a gentler example, because everyone can intuitively appreciate how a high vowel causes an otherwise non-high vowel to become high. Wikipedia's page on Vowel Harmony has a number of examples that you can use.


I presume that you're not attempting to motivate using such representations, you're simply presenting this as another formalism for handling standard phonological processes, and the point is to show how it works. It depends on how much you are willing to ignore or arbitrarily stipulate. I would advise against vowel harmonies as a first example, because they add the complexities of locality, underspecification, and no-crossing, in crossing consonants. Instead, I would start with strictly adjacent consonant-to-consonant assimilations like voicing and nasal place. However, this also depends on how much else you're willing to add to autosegmental theory, specifically whether you can get away with introducing the notion of feature grouping ("geometry") so as to have a "place" thing that can spread.

If that (grouping) would be too much, then I suggest sticking to single-feature segment-to-segment assimilations. Which would be voicing, basically. You might be able to include nasalization if you've already dealt with incidental feature changes (where voiced oral obstruents like /b/ become voiced nasal sonorants like [m] -- the obstruent change is incidental to nasal spreading). But I think you should simply deal with the question of grouping, since it is bound to come up in the question period and someone asks about spreading two features simultaneously. In which case, you will be set up to talk about nasal place assimilation, and you can have a much more interesting discussion of the predictions of linear vs. non-linear assimilation.

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