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The Italian 'Mobile Diphthongs': A Test Case for Experimental Phonetics and Phonological Theory

This thesis investigates durational aspects of the Italian mobile diphthongs with respect to other rising diphthongs and monophthongs and it shows to what extent the monophthong/diphthong alternation still occurs in contemporary Italian.

Bart van der Veer
17 January 2006
Full text in Leiden Repository

With the term ‘mobile diphthongs’ Italian linguists refer to the stressed rising diphthongs [jE] and [wO] which alternate with the unstressed monopthongs [e] and [o], respectively, within a limited group of inflectional and derivational paradigms in Italian. After having shown that this alternation is the consequence of a pan-Romance diphthongization process that affected the Late-Latin stressed low mid vowels, the dissertation reports on two different phonetic experiments. The first experiment scrutinizes durational aspects of the mobile diphthongs with respect to other rising diphthongs and monophthongs. It is shown that the durational values, once they are converted to relative durations (percentage of word duration), converge remarkably for both monophthongs and rising diphthongs, whether ‘mobile’ or not. The second experiment is a variation experiment which investigates to what extent the monophthong/diphthong alternation still occurs in contemporary Italian. Speech data were elicited through a phoneme restoration task using the speech shadowing technique, which is presented as a new, valuable tool in language-variation research. The data reveal that the diphthongs are analogically extended to the unstressed syllables, a process which seems virtually complete for front vowels and almost complete for back vowels.

The results of the duration experiment and the variation experiment serve as the basis for the phonological analyses presented in the second part of the dissertation. These analyses are couched within the framework of Optimality Theory. The duration experiment allows us to propose an analysis of the phonological structure of Italian rising diphthongs, in which glides are syllabified into the nucleus.  The results of the variation experiments are presented as a test case for recent phonological approaches to allomorphy and paradigm uniformity effects. Multiple input allomorphs are posited for opaque morphophonological alternations such as the monophthong/diphthong alternation. Opaque alternations are often subject to analogical levelling. The new proposal is an analysis in term of Lexicon Optimization, a mechanism which allows learners to simplify the lexicon by reanalyzing multiple inputs as a single input. This proposal also explains the direction of the change (why the extension of diphthongs and not of monophthongs throughout the paradigm?) The asymmetry between front and back vowels is accounted for from a phonetic point of view. 


Errata for the LOT edition

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