Formal Aspects of Element Theory
Florian Breit
September 2013

As one of the main contenders of the theory of distinctive features, Element Theory (ET) has seen much change over the last decades. While this has vastly advanced its capability and accuracy as a theory of subsegmental phonology, on-going development has sometimes come at the price of explicitness in definition of the precise model assumed and consequently there are some unclarities and apparent contradictions in some of the current proposals of ET. This dissertation first gives an outline of the current state of ET in light its historical development, highlighting the ways in which it differs from Feature Theory, Autosegmental Phonology and Government Phonology. The position that it functions as a relatively independent model of subsegmental representation is advanced. On the basis of this, the dissertation proposes a concrete formalisation of ET, ground in basic mathematical set theory. It is argued that, somewhat analogous to the set-representation of syntactic treelets as ordered pairs {α, {α, β}}, segmental representations can be seen as partially ordered sets of the type {{α}, {α, β, γ, ...}}. It is illustrated how such sets can be used as the basis to formalise the model of ET set out here, including aspects such as composition, decomposition, well-formedness, and geometry. Finally, based on the work of Reiss (2012), this model is used to compare the generative capacity and power of ET to that of classical feature theory. It is argued that a distinction needs to be made between generative capacity and generative power, and that the desirability or undesirability of overgeneration/powerfulness is more fine-grained and differs between the individual aspects of subsegmental phonology, specifically the set of all possible segments, the set of all possible inventories and the set of all natural classes. It is shown that ET is, converse to common assumption, actually more powerful than feature theory but its concrete capacity is reduced by the relatively small number of primes assumed.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/001928
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: MRes dissertation, University College London
keywords: element theory, segments, phonology, representations, generative capacity, generative power, formal linguistics, mathematical linguistics, phonology
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