Frequency biases in phonological variation

Andries W. Coetzee, Shigeto Kawahara

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Citations (Scopus)


In the past two decades, variation has received a lot of attention in mainstream generative phonology, and several different models have been developed to account for variable phonological phenomena. However, all existing generative models of phonological variation account for the overall rate at which some process applies in a corpus, and therefore implicitly assume that all words are affected equally by a variable process. In this paper, we show that this is not the case. Many variable phenomena are more likely to apply to frequent than to infrequent words. A model that accounts perfectly for the overall rate of application of some variable process therefore does not necessarily account very well for the actual application of the process to individual words. We illustrate this with two examples, English t/d-deletion and Japanese geminate devoicing. We then augment one existing generative model (noisy Harmonic Grammar) to incorporate the contribution of usage frequency to the application of variable processes. In this model, the influence of frequency is incorporated by scaling the weights of faithfulness constraints up or down for words of different frequencies. This augmented model accounts significantly better for variation than existing generative models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-89
Number of pages43
JournalNatural Language and Linguistic Theory
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2013 Feb
Externally publishedYes


  • Harmonic Grammar
  • Japanese geminate devoicing
  • Usage frequency
  • Variation
  • t/d-deletion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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