"Finish what you start." That’s what the old men always told us when I was little. I feel compelled to check off Challenge IV in this Quixotic quest:
4. The benefits of OT over SPE “don’t look all that great”.This one triggered the first nastiness, the quip that it “requires a lot of (willful) ignorance of a huge amount of important work”.
As far as I know, everyone, even outsiders to the theory wars like me, agrees that phonology in the late 1980s needed major reworking, and everyone agrees that constraint-based work has provided real insights. Of the list that Eric gives, conspiracies stand out as the big example for me.
But the complaint you can hear from people who've grown disillusioned with OT (or never accepted it) is that a huge amount of the work in the framework has tended to theory-internal tinkering, rather than research aimed at more general progress on how sounds work. The failure to deal adequately with opacity, for such people, is symptomatic of that. I've been surprised at how many people say such things. One of the best-known phonologists around has apparently bemoaned the failure of OT to produce “deep descriptions of languages”. And others (though not all) have the sense — again, this is reporting something I've heard — that while OT works well for higher-level prosodic stuff, like reduplication, it stumbles too often on issues of segmental phonology that traditional approaches handled easily. So, I think every non-OTer I know sees OT as having brought valuable discussion and progress, but the question of just how much has remained virtually untouched.
Now we get to the image above: Many of us outsiders smelled a troubling air of triumphalism in OT's salad days. I remember vividly hearing young phonologists — people who had and probably still have contributed little or nothing to the field — mocking Kiparsky for pursuing stratal OT.
But we are finally seeing a change. It's good to see Eric sounding so positive about Kiparsky's and Bermúdez-Otero's stratal work (see Challenge I). McCarthy's embrace of Harmonic Serialism will be a positive move to many. Eric's own Phonology piece grapples directly with comparing traditional approaches to opacity with OT approaches, acknowledging some strengths of the former. Maybe we're seeing some rapprochement, and with it more discussion of the grounding of phonological theory, instead of talking-heads-style yelling and posturing. The shocking part, of course, is how rare this has been of late — or so it seems to me. Hell, if it continues, I might do a little phonology some day.
Anyway, I'll post again later to clear up some lingering questions.
Frankly, this one’s a real puzzler to me. In my view, it requires a lot of (willful) ignorance of a huge amount of important work in the 70s and 80s to think that OT doesn’t make significant progress in many areas (duplication, conspiracies, top-down and bottom-up effects, the emergence of the unmarked, …) where SPE essentially foundered. Yes, one significant consequence of all this progress was at the very least a re-evaluation of the ubiquity, diversity, and explanatory analysis of opacity — and this re-evaluation has led to a lot of interesting work and new developments. Some of it may involve what some consider to be “lots of gymnastics”, but as I’ve noted above, similar (and well-accepted) developments in SPE are arguably no different in this regard.