13.1190, Review: LingTheories:McCarthy(2001)Thematic Guide to OT

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LINGUIST List:  Vol-13-1190. Tue Apr 30 2002. ISSN: 1068-4875.

Subject: 13.1190, Review: LingTheories:McCarthy(2001)Thematic Guide to OT

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Date:  Sat, 27 Apr 2002 14:53:36 +0000
From:  Marina Tzakosta <M.Tzakosta at let.leidenuniv.nl>
Subject:  McCarthy (2001) A Thematic Guide to Optimality Theory

-------------------------------- Message 1 -------------------------------

Date:  Sat, 27 Apr 2002 14:53:36 +0000
From:  Marina Tzakosta <M.Tzakosta at let.leidenuniv.nl>
Subject:  McCarthy (2001) A Thematic Guide to Optimality Theory

McCarthy, John J. (2001) A Thematic Guide to Optimality Theory.
Cambridge University Press, xiv+317pp, hardback ISBN 0-521-79194-4,
$69.95, paperback ISBN 0-521-79644-X, $21.95,
Research Surveys in Linguistics 1.

Book Announcement on Linguist:

Marina Tzakosta, University of Leiden Center for Linguistics


The Thematic Guide to Optimality Theory (hereafter TGOT) by John
McCarthy is what its author calls it; a guide to OT 'organized
thematically, focusing on concepts rather than phenomena'
(p. xi). Consequently, the TGOT is not a textbook, that is, it is not
the type of book one should start his readings in Phonology and OT
with. It is correctly characterized by its author as 'an adjunct to
the traditional textbook or ... 'a supplement to materials
prepared...' (p. xii). It is a fascinating book written in such a way
that on the one hand difficult notions are simplified, but on the
other a well-established theoretical background is required from the
reader. For that reason I would suggest it to students who already
know how things go in Phonology in general and OT in particular and
are informed on the ongoing debate about the degree to which OT
contributes to theory. It is also intended for researchers who are
interested in OT and its implications not only for Phonology but also
Morphology, Syntax, Learnability and Language variation/ change. The
book is consisted of 4 chapters, each with its conclusions and
suggested further readings.

Chapter 1. The Core of Optimality Theory

The first chapter is an introduction to the general premises and the
basic architecture of OT. It is divided in two parts; in the first
part the fundamental mechanisms, EVAL and GEN, are defined and their
operation is outlined. Core notions such as 'constraint typology',
'constraint schemata', 'comparative tableaux', 'local conjunction',
'constraint interaction' and their implications for faithful and
unfaithful mappings and blocking effects are also exemplified. In the
second part of this chapter the author refers to 'How to do OT'. I
find this part absolutely inspiring and original in the sense that its
content as such is not found in other OT textbooks. McCarthy very
clearly explains the steps that one must take when doing OT, how the
known constraints should be ranked, how the relevant candidates must
be chosen, which problems one can come across, how they can be
overcome by the introduction of new constraints, and how newly
proposed constraints must be formulated. To my knowledge, it is the
first time after the rise or OT that the criteria according to which
new constraints should be proposed are formally recommended.
Suggesting 'correct' constraints is something that has
very important implications for the work factorial typologies do and
the universals that come up from them. The limitations imposed by
these criteria actually put an end to the absurd and endless
introduction of new constraints in the problematic cases we cannot
deal with, something that underestimates OT and makes it look unable
to give specific answers to important issues of Universal Grammar.

Chapter 2. The Context of Optimality Theory

Chapter 2 provides the historical and scientific background within the
bounds of which OT has developed. The author comments on the basic
premises of the models preceding OT, namely SPE (Chomsky and Halle
1968), Natural Phonology (Stampe 1973), Nonlinear Phonology (Goldsmith
1976) and later theories such as the Principles and Parameters model
(see Hayes 1980 for a parametric theory of stress) and Harmony Theory
(cf.). The author's aim is twofold: (a) to point out the drawbacks of
previous approaches and their failure to account for certain
phenomena, something which gave ground to the development of OT and
(b) to demonstrate that traditional notions such as 'processes',
'well-formedness', 'filters', 'principles', 'conditions' are still
valid in OT, though in a different way. In that sense McCarthy
restores the misunderstanding regarding many researchers' belief that
OT actually seeks to do away with basic notions of Generative Grammar
established over the years (cf. Halle 19!  96, in Burzio 1996, Prince
1996, McMahon 2000). This misunderstanding has been also dealt with by
other researchers (Burzio 1996, Prince 1996). The virtue of this
chapter is that it straightforwardly addresses the differences between
OT and other theories of UG, revealing OT's advantages over other
models, which made it the most prominent theory of mid 90's till
today. This is again something very authentic compared to other OT
textbooks, where one cannot really find this kind of direct comparison
between OT and other approaches.

Chapter 3. The Results of Optimality Theory

This chapter might be considered to constitute the main bulk the book,
since the formal consequences directly related to OT are presented
here. The author goes back to the premises of OT, which were
illustrated and explained in chapter 1, but this time he includes many
examples and theoretical analyses. As a result, this chapter is again
divided into subchapters; the first one deals with the consequences of
Faithfulness/Markedness Interactions, the second subchapter examines
the consequences of constraint violability, and finally the third
subchapter explores the consequences of Globality and Parallelism.

In more detail, the first part goes through the details regarding
basic concepts and relations, such as the one between 'OT inventories'
and 'Richness of the Base' (hereafter ROTB), or the one between
'Lexicon', 'ROTB' and 'Lexicon Optimization'. It is explained why
thanks to ROTB and OT the 'duplication problem' does not constitute a
problem anymore for phonological theory. The above ideas and
argumentation are supported by additional evidence from Syntax. Other
notions that are investigated in relation to the faithfulness and
markedness interactions are the 'distributional restrictions' of
linguistic items (of constraints in the case of OT), the notions of
'factorial typology', 'contextual neutralization', 'conspiracies', and
'harmonic ascent'.

In the second subchapter the combination of OT constraints is
discussed with the exemplification of cases influencing both separate
modules of grammar and the interface of grammatical components. This
part once again gives to the author the chance to compare OT with the
P&P and SPE models. The flexibility that OT demonstrates is one of the
things that characterize the first but not the latter approaches. I
wouldn't characterize his examples anything else, but
convincing. McCarthy explains all the cases he presents in depth and a
very analytical way.

Finally, in the third subchapter the consequences of Globality and
Parallelism are explored by means of examples from both phonology and
Syntax. The author goes into challenging problems of OT such as
Opacity. He presents the analyses of opacity within OT, namely
harmonic serialism (hereafter HS), the PARSE/FILL implementation of
faithfulness in OT, correspondence theory, and sympathy. He argues
that HS and the other approaches to opacity better account for opacity
compared to SPE and Lexical Phonology (hereafter LP). I must say that
I am not absolutely convinced as far as this view is concerned. On the
one hand, it is obvious that violable constraints better explain
opacity compared to rules. Still, HS has clearly inherited the
property of derivation from LP. This property definitely contradicts
with the OT premises of Parallelism and Globality, though.
Consequently, it would be important to see if OT could deal
with opacity with its own tools. But since OT needs kind of derivational
steps to deal with opacity, I do not understand the reason
why OT is a better model than LP. This is certainly not a problem of
this book in particular, but OT in general. It is true what McCarthy
says, that a lot of further research is needed, in order to solve the
opacity problems. We are certainly looking forward to the results of
this ongoing research.

Chapter 4. The Connections of Optimality Theory

As we saw, chapter 3 explores phonological, morphological and
syntactic issues. Chapter 4 puts forward the 'relations' of OT with
other areas of study, and it is not strictly related to theory. It is
rather general and aims at providing the reader with basic issues
concerning the connection of OT with these other areas. The chapter is
roughly divided in 5 parts. In the first part McCarthy tries to find
out how the core principles of OT apply in Syntax, since there is not
as much research going on in Syntax compared to Phonology and
researchers have literally not made up their minds regarding how the
core notions of OT work in Syntax.

In the second part, Learnability and acquisition issues are dealt
with. The author underlines the fact that OT was immediately related
with the study of Learnability issues, something that on the one hand,
immediately differentiated OT form other generative frameworks, and on
the other hand, gave rise to the learning algorithms that have been
proposed by various researchers (among others Tesar and Smolensky
1993, 1998, 2000, Turkel 1994, Boersma 1998). The pioneering work on
learning algorithms is another advantage of OT over other
frameworks. And I totally agree. The developments of OT in issues of
language acquisition are far beyond those suggested by any other
theoretical model.

What I find a weak point in this part of this chapter though, is that
McCarthy gives emphasis mostly on the R(ecursive) C(onstraint)
D(emotion) algorithm. The author highlights the fact that he refers to
the RCD even though he is very well aware of the alternative
algorithms proposed. Since he realizes that the RCD fails to account
for cases of variation in language development, he should have
provided information about the algorithms that manage to 'solve' the
problem (cf. Boersma 1998, Boersma and Hayes 2001). By not doing that
he leaves space for one to assume that OT does not have a solution to
the problem. The G(radual) L(earning) A(lgorithm), for example, deals
very well with it. Referring to these works only in the suggested
readings is kind of unfortunate, I think. For the rest, the remainder
of this part nicely relates the predictions of OT with language
acquisition. In the short third part, the author demonstrates in a
simple but comprehensive way the relation of OT to computation,
giving the example of Tesar's work.

The fourth part refers to another accomplishment of OT, namely the
bridging of the gap between functionalism and formal grammars. It is
convincingly shown how violable OT constraints combine the above
competing approaches and can account for 'functional insights about
ease of articulation, clarity of perception, and the tension between
them into a formal grammar (p. 227)'. Finally, the last part is
dedicated to language variation and language change from both a
synchronic and diachronic point of view. I would have preferred to see
this part after the part on variation in language acquisition. Since
the author gives evidence about how scientists have historically
accounted for language change and variation and he ends up with the
algorithm that Cho (1998) and Antilla and Cho (1998) have proposed,
the references on variation in language acquisition and adult
languages would nicely constitute a whole. The way it is now, it looks
a little bit discontinuous. Nevertheless and all in all, the
chapter is very informative and the issues are nicely presented.


In the Epilogue the general goals of the book are summarized and the
issues remaining for further research are referred. McCarthy clearly
indicates the fact that OT has not found the answer to everything, but
research is ongoing.


One of the virtues of the TGOT is that it is a very well structured
and well-organized book. The chapters are divided further in
subchapters and its ideas are clearly pointed out. Consequently, it's
difficult for the reader to be left with questions, and even if he is,
appendix A (FAQ) clarifies many things in an eligible and elegant
way. Another characteristic is that all chapters can be read
individually, still all of them manage to make a unified whole in the

Still another unique accomplishment of this book is that it brings
together the past and the present of Phonological theory, even if the
ultimate goal is to give the credit to OT. As a result, in most of the
phenomena examined the author brings up the contributions of the old
and new theories and he openly challenges the comparison between
them. This helps the reader a lot, I assume, to understand the strong
points of past theories that are not overcome and are still valid in
new approaches and the weak points that have been considered by new
accounts in order for the latter ones to be fully fledged. The author
convincingly shows not only "how to do OT" but also "why do OT".

Furthermore, McCarthy covers as many phenomena as possible from all
modules of Generative Grammar. Of course, references on phonological
phenomena are more extensive, since OT has started out as a model of
Phonology. Research in other fields, such as semantics, has started
relatively recently. Finally, the book has an extensive, if not
exhaustive, bibliography on probably all the issues raised in OT up to

I wish to thank J.J. McCarthy for providing me with a list of known
errata. You can find this list in the following webpage:


Antilla, A. and Y-M. Y. Cho. 1998. Variation and Change in Optimality
Theory. Lingua 104. 31-56.

Boersma, P. 1998. Functional Phonology: Formalizing the Interaction
between Articulatory and Perceptual Drives. The Hague: Holland
Academic Graphics.

Boersma, P. and B. Hayes. 2001. Empirical Tests of the Gradual
Learning Algorithm. Linguistic Inquiry 32. 45-86.

Burzio, L. 1996/2000. The Rise of Optimality Theory. In Cheng, L. and
R. Sybesma (eds.). The First Glot International State-of-the-Article
Book. The Latest in Linguistics. Mouton de Gruyter. 199-220.

Burzio, L. 1996. A Reply to Prof. Halle. Glot International 2.6.

Cho, Y-M. Y. 1998. Language Change as Reranking of Constraints. In
Hogg, R. M. and L. van Bergen (eds.). Historical Linguistics
1995. vol.2. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins. 45-62.

Chomsky, N. and M. Halle. 1968. The Sound Pattern of English. New
York: Harper and Row.

Goldsmith, J. 1976. Autosegmental Phonology. Doctoral
Dissertation. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Hayes, B. 1980. A Metrical Theory of Stress Rules. Doctoral
Dissertation. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

McMahon, A. 2000. Change, Chance and Optimality. Cambrdige: Cambridge
University Press.

Prince, A. 1996. A Letter from Alan Prince. Glot International 2.6.

Smolensky, P. 1984. Harmony Theory: Thermal Parallel Models in a
Computational Context. In Smolensky, P. and M. S. Riley
(eds.). Harmony Theory: Problem Solving, Parallel Cognitive Models,
and Thermal Physics. La Jolla: Institute for Cognitive Science,
University of California at San Diego.

Stampe, D. 1973. A Dissertation on Natural Processes. Doctoral
Dissertation. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Tesar, B. and P. Smolensky. 1993. The Learnability of Optimality
Theory. In Aranovich, R., W. Byrne, S. Preuss and M. Senturia
(eds.). Proceedings of the Thirteenth West Coast Conference on Formal
Linguistics. Stanford, CA: CSLI. 122-137.

Tesar, B. and P. Smolensky. 1998. Learnability in Optimality
Theory. Linguistics Inquiry 29. 229-268.

Tesar, B. and P. Smolesky. 2000. Learnability in Optimality
Theory. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Turkel, W. 1994. The Acquisition of Optimality Theoretic
Systems. Unpublished Manuscript. Vancouver: University of British


Marina Tzakosta is a Ph.D. student in the University of Leiden Center
for Linguistics. Her project is focused on the acquisition of Stress
in Greek in an Optimality Theory framework. Her interests also include
child and adult second language acquisition and bilingualism and SLI.


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