I'm a graduate student from Korea. As a novice in the field of phonology, I've been confused about analysis using Optimality Theory for a long time. Could you guys help me with this question?

In fast and casual speech the words in the left-hand column may be pronounced as transcribed in the right-hand column. Explain the phenomenon within the framework of OT.

handball [ˈhæmbɔːl]
handbag [ˈhæmbæɡ]
hand-made [hæmmeɪd]

(according to the editors, I corrected the previous post) Actually, the main part I cannot deal with is the markedness contraints and faithfulness constraints. I'm not confident about the answers but are following constraints correct? Markedness constraint: [d] is not allowed to appear in front of bilabial voiced sound. Faithfulness constraint: IO-Ifeat: the output should be identical to the input.

  • Sorry for the format which I didn't take notice of. It should be Column A: handball handbag hand-made, Column B: [ˈhæmbɔːl] [ˈhæmbæɡ] [hænmmeɪd]. And left-hand column means Column A, right-handed one means Column B. :)
    – user27687
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 13:09
  • Hello and welcome to the site! We don't mind homework questions as long as you're not asking for a complete solution. Can you please edit this to tell us how far you've gotten, show us the constraints you already have, and tell us what specific part of the analysis you can't handle?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 13:45
  • Another good example: sandwich [sæmwɪt͡ʃ].
    – Moss
    Commented Mar 13, 2020 at 4:51
  • I've never heard [sæmwɪtʃ]. Ok [sændwɪtʃ] and [sæmɪtʃ], but I think [sæmwɪtʃ] invokes a speech-rate contradiction – fast speech to reduce, careful speech to retain [w]. I'd want to see the evidence for /d/ in any speaker who says "samwich".
    – user6726
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 1:32

2 Answers 2


In ("standard") OT, there is a given list of constraints – the problem is nobody knows what the exact set of constraints is. Typically, people intuit the phonetic motivation for a particular change, then write a constraint that does that. For Korean, there is a rampant nasalization pattern where any obstruent becomes nasal before another nasal. So there is a constraint that says you can't have an oral obstruent followed by a nasal – usually this is abbreviated as "*ON" or something like that. Every language has this, it's just ranked high in Korean and low in English. In English, "Ident-Nasal" which says "don't change the nasality of a segment" is ranked higher. Now what you have to do is figure out a system of constraints that say what is forbidden, and order the constraints so that you get the right output.

Your third example [hænmmeɪd] is empirically questionable (one m, not two); what else you have to say is what each of these comes from (hint: not spelling). Then you have to discover some constraint that says "you have to change the input". This is where phonetic intuitions play a role -- do you know the functional explanation for this? There are actually a lot of OT-type analyses, some which merely translate standard rule-type notions into "don't do this" thinking, and some which talk about timing of articulators and acoustic consequences of articulatory overlap. It depends on what degree of explanation you want to encode in your grammatical statements.

In line with my observation that you have to say what the constraints are, you ultimately have to say what all of the constraints are, and their ranking. For example, suppose you have a "Markedness" constraint *db which penalizes that specific phoneme sequence. Ident-IO demands that the input and output be the same, thus any change to /hænd bæg/ violates that constraint. If you only consider these two constraints and the two candidates [hænd bæg, hæm bæg], you will get the right output. But there are many more outputs to consider (infinitely many, possibly uncountably many). You need other constraints to rule out [hænt bæg, hændə bæg, hænd æg, hæn bæg, hæ bæg, hænd gæg]. Once you specify the additional constraints and rankings which rule out those outputs, I can provide you with an additional collection of outputs that you would need to avoid.

In addition, you've stumbled across a problem in the theory of constraints, that there will be a divide among practitioners as to whether "*db is a constraint in the theory. It lacks generality, and falsely predicts that /d/ deleted before [b] when preceded by an obstruent, /l/, /r/, or a vowel. But you don't say *[glæb bæg, glæ bæg] for "glad bag". Nevertheless, there is a sub-trend in OT to disassemble generalizations and re-state them as a series of phoneme-specific constraints. Since constraints are taken to be genetically innate, the objection that this misses a generalization doesn't always carry weight. Likewise, there has been controversy over what the faithfulness constraints are, for instance do they state a demand of identity for each individual feature, or are they stated in terms of each feature plus certain combinations (treating [coronal, anterior, high] together); and can they be context-sensitive ("identical for coronal if [+voice]")?

  • Sorry for the typo of my text, because it should be [hæmmeɪd]. Thank you for your help so much! So for the example in my question, can I list the constraints as follows? Markedness constraint: [d] is not allowed to appear in front of bilabial voiced sound. Faithfulness constraint: IO-Ifeat: the output should be identical to the input. Is this correct?
    – user27687
    Commented Mar 12, 2020 at 12:25

I don't think your markedness constraint can be correct, especially not for English. For one thing, do constraints ever refer to specific sounds, like [d]? I don't think the constraint as you have stated it applies to English anyway, because we have words like oddball, headboard, madman.

I am not up to date on all the constraints that are posited but my intuition is that there is a problem with NOO, at least if the O is voiced. But do markedness constraints ever refer to three segments? It looks like faithfulness of the initial sound of a morpheme is part of the picture. And perhaps something to do with *NO at the end of a syllable. In English there are no words that end in [ŋg], at least in common dialects. So that hints to me that English doesn't care very much for NO in the syllable coda, but tolerates it for bilabial and alveolar positions.

Another constraint to maybe think about is something to do with the Sonority Sequencing Principle. In your examples, the [d] and [b] have the same sonority. How does this interact with the Maximal Onset Principle?

I thought about the word 'tentpole', which I think many people, in American/Canadian English at least, would pronounce [tɛmʔpoʊ̯l]. Something else to think about.

  • Thank you very much for your answer! But what do you think the markedness constraints for my examples will be? (And I have to clarify in advance this is not for my homework or examination, just for self-studying)
    – user27687
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 11:30
  • I mentioned all the ideas I have. Sorry, I don't have more time to think about it or study optimality theory. Good luck.
    – Moss
    Commented Mar 14, 2020 at 21:45
  • Alright, anyway, thanks a lot. :)
    – user27687
    Commented Mar 15, 2020 at 12:46

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