There are several different overarching models of phonology, with different strengths and weaknesses. For example, optimality theory is good at explaining the "conspiracies of rules" that show up in linear/SPE-style phonology, but has trouble with opacity.

Autosegmental phonology, from what I've seen so far, is better than the rest at handling tonal things and Semitic consonantal roots. But what are its main weaknesses? What are some phenomena that autosegmental theory has trouble with, that the other theories can explain more easily?

  • 3
    "the other theories can explain more easily" Is autosegmental phonology actually a theory? What does it explain? I see it as a notational proposal which describes some things, but fails to explain anything.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:42
  • @GregLee Maybe "model" is a better word than "theory". I would say, for example, floating tones are more easily explained in an autosegmental model (with the tones and vowels on separate layers) than in a linear/SPE-style model.
    – Draconis
    Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 20:45
  • 1
    I think 'model' is not such a great term either, because it doesn't make predictions by itself (you have to write up a description using it; then you can make predictions of what new forms will look like). I'd tend to agree with @GregLee in calling it a set of notational conventions, more than anything. Commented Mar 2, 2020 at 22:53
  • 1
    By removing an unmotivated constraint of Generative phonology, the appearance of the autonomy of global patterns goes away. It's like magic. That bad assumption is that only the input to phonological rules is significant. For instance, suppose that the rule that a sonorant is nasalized after a nasal sonorant is applied transparently, with respect to the output of the rule, rather than the input. Then a string of sonorants, no matter how long, will be nasalized after a nasal sonorant, as though the nasality property were applying to a pattern of segments rather that just a single segment.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 3, 2020 at 3:47

1 Answer 1


It depends on what you consider to be an essential, defining feature of the theory. Your question about “explanation” points to the biggest problem: the theory attempted to encapsulate an explanation for all of the facts of phonetics and phonology in the theory of representations. This was a tragic mistake, which we are still trying to eradicate. The slogan of the day – get the representations right and the rules will follow – is simply not true. There has to be a theory of computations, as well as a theory of representations. The general problem with the theory of grammar assumed in ASP is that it became increasingly dependent on a massive list of complex conditions as part of UG. The OCP debacle is an exemplar of the problem, that the OCP can be invoked as an “explanation” for pretty much everything, and as a presumed part of UG is always available “for free”.

However, I don’t consider this to be a problem with ASP as a computational and representational theory, this is a methodological problem that was encouraged by certain ways of thinking that were encouraged in the autosegmental era. The plethora of representational devices (so many competing theories of representation) are not an indictment of the essential claim(s) of autosegmental theory, they are the result of bad methodological practices – which originated in pre-autosegmental practice. The technical weakness that I see is a lack of attention to the theory of computation necessary given the theory of representations, that is, we really do not have a fully fleshed out theory of rules in ASP (or at least, do not yet have one). That’s a real weakness of the theory.

However... the competitors aren't actually in a better position, so it's not a comparative weakness.

  • 1
    Mind expounding on what the "OCP debacle" was and why it was a debacle?
    – Nardog
    Commented Mar 7, 2020 at 0:38
  • It's an old problem, and not limited to phonology. McCawley referred to it in the title of his syntax paper collection Thirty Million Theories of Syntax. It's his estimate (at the time) of the number of possible combinations of reasonable positions one could take on 35 unsettled empirical issues in syntax. He reached this value ‘by computing 2³⁵ and rounding downwards’. No doubt the sound helped, too.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 31, 2020 at 19:13

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.