Formal Phonology


  • Dave Odden



phonology, Universal Grammar, meta-theory, modularity, generative grammar


Two problematic trends have dominated modern phonological theorizing: over-reliance on machinery of Universal Grammar, and reification of functional properties in grammar. The former trend leads to arbitrary postulation of grammatical principles because UG “has no cost”, which leads to a welter of contradictory and unresolvable claims. The latter trend amounts to rejection of phonology and indeed grammatical computation, as a legitimate independent area of scientific investigation. This paper outlines Formal Phonology, which is a metatheoretical approach rooted in an inductive epistemology, committed to seriously engaging the fundamental logic of the discipline, one which demands justification of claims and an integrated consideration of what is known about phonological grammars, eschewing ad libitum conjectures and isolated positing of novel claims without evaluating how the claim interacts with other aspects of phonology. Debate over the proper mechanism for apparent segment-transparency in harmony, or the binary vs. privative nature of features, is ultimately doomed if we do not have a clear awareness of what a “grammar” and a “phonology” are. Misconstruing the nature of a phonology as being a model of observed behavior negatively affects theoretical choices, leads to confusion over what could motivate a claim about the nature of grammar, and in general, a lack of developed epistemological foundation leads to confusion over how to approach theory-construction.