A made-up language used for the following examples. Please describe the environment in which the following sounds occur and write a rule (in prose or linguistic notation, whichever you’re more comfortable with) to describe the sound patterns.

The following words show the distribution of nasal consonants [n] and [ŋ] in Malowak: a. [kina] “cat” e. [kiŋk] “mouse” b. [lint] “dog” f. [liŋg] “puppies” c. [ləns] “child” g. [ləŋk] “children” d. [pændg] “friend” h. [pæŋgg “friends”

The following words show the distribution of alveolar consonants [t] and [ɾ] in Malowak: a. [bət] “hug” e. [bəɾə] “test” b. [pit] “kiss” f. [piɾi] “jump” c. [lætp] “twirl” g. [læɾæp] “walk” d. [tot] “French fry” h. [toɾo] “miss”

closed as off-topic by curiousdannii, jknappen, bytebuster, Nardog, Wilson Oct 22 at 13:36

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    The answer seems fairly straightforward. What have you tried? What are you having trouble with? We try not to just answer homework questions here, because hearing "oh it happens at the end of words" tends not to be very much help in the long run. (Btw, that's not the answer for this one.) – Draconis Oct 11 at 5:19
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    Sorry but we don't directly answer homework questions without you explaining what you've tried so far and what you're particularly confused by. – curiousdannii Oct 11 at 7:29
  • Thank you for your comments, this is not a homework, it is more as self-study task a question I came across while trying to understand how to explain a sound pattern. I haven't tried to solve it yet still researching and understanding how to properly solve it. Thanks – MKR Oct 11 at 19:05
up vote 1 down vote accepted

There is a mechanical procedure for answering these questions, which is to partition the data into "cases with A" versus "cases with B". So you put the words with n in one column, and those with ŋ in another, then you replace n,ŋ with a dash and you get {ki_a pæ_dg lə_s li_t} for [n] versus {li_g ki_k pæ_gg lə_k} for [ŋ]. Now you inspect the lists and see of you find the same string in both sets. If you do, you declare that you have a minimal pair and that the two sounds are separate phonemes. If you don't, then you have the contexts, and you present your rule, using whatever makes you feel comfortable. One approach is to arbitrarily pick one list and say "[n] appears in the context {ki_a, pæ_dg, lə_s, li_t} and [ŋ] appears elsewhere" (you could state the rule in terms of the other context and make [n] be "elsewhere"). You can even dispose of the rule for "elsewhere" by saying that the sound in question starts out as specifically being ŋ, or else as n, and write just one rule (if the rule doesn't apply, the basic value is what appears).

This is technically known as "the dumb solution", and the hint is that the instructions say that you can write the answer in prose (if you are able), but in "linguistic notation" (if that's all you can manage). We actually have a theory of linguistic notation which depends on you first being able to describe the rule in prose. The idea of writing the rule in prose is to find some common factor that characterizes the [n] set versus the [ŋ] set, and describe that property in prose. That means, use a general concept, not a list of letters. A typical approach (warning, this will eventually fail but it works for this problem) is to only consider the segment that precedes the nasal, or only the segment that follows the nasal. Again, you are looking to see if there is overlap in the two sets.

So you start by looking at what comes before the nasal and ask "does the same sound precede?", and what comes after the nasal. The ideal is that you should find that the two sounds can be described in terms of either "what comes before" or "what comes after". This will massively simplify your rule, so that you don't need a rule with 13 letters in it. (The dataset is well-cooked, kudos to the instructor – there are 13 letters in both sets). Once you know where to look, you try to figure out "what do these sounds have in common?", and what do those sounds have in common?". That is, you're looking for something higher-level than just a list of letters – seek a phonological property.

The key to solving the problem is selective focus, and the mechanical method of copy and erasure is not necessary, in fact can (as I said) eventually get you in trouble. What you need to do is try to characterize the phonological property of the class of sounds that appear before and after each of the sounds and ask "is there anything in common here, which distinguishes the A set from the B set?".

  • Thank you for the clarification, I will research the "the dumb solution" and see how I can solve it, much appreciated! – MKR Oct 11 at 19:06

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