You are on page 1of 14

Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle

1

Optimality Theory: An Overview
NNEJI, OGECHUKWU MIRACLE
ogechukwumiracle@yahoo.com +2348063622121

Department of Linguistics, Igbo and other Nigerian languages
University of Nigeria Nsukka.

Abstract
The purpose of this paper is to present a general overview of Optimality Theory which
was first introduced into phonology in 1993 by Alan Prince and Paul Smolensky but later
modified in the same year by McCarthy and Prince. It points out the reason for OT, and
analyzes the terms and conditions which it employs. In order to exemplify the applicability
of optimality theory, we employed it to account for vowel assimilation, and consonant
homorganicity in Igbo. It was observed that just like the relationship between Chomskys
move- of 1981 and trace, CON acts as a check in the OT system to prevent illegal
operation. The theory which builds on rules which are used at the deep structure to realize
the output at the surface structure believes languages grammars to be a ranking of
constraints. The study establishes the fact that OT is an application of Chomskys
minimalist program to phonology which has been transferred to other areas of linguistics
such as morphology, syntax, pragmatics, and even lexicography. The paper recommends
that this theory of minimalism should be used in language studies in order to find out its
applicability or otherwise especially to other areas of the Igbo language aside phonology.
Introduction
One currently important and increasingly popular framework - Optimality Theory
(henceforth OT) is a modern approach to phonological analysis that has taken the lead all
over the world. Initiated by Prince and Smolensky (1993) and McCarthy and Prince
(1993), the theory concentrates on the application of Chomskys universal grammar in the
analysis of world languages to serve as a new phonological framework that deals with the
interaction of violable constraints. The theory was introduced to be used in phonology, but
it is discovered that recent studies in morphology (Wunderlich, 2004) syntax (Kager,
1999 Ch.8), pragmatics (Blunter and Zeevat, 2004) have also employed its method of
analysis. In recent years, OT has also become the subject of lively interest outside linguistics,
since it is of use today even to the natural and social sciences.

Chomskys universal grammar (UG) as observed by Mey (2009) is based on emically
significant categories in the languages of the world, and suggesting the possible existence
of a universal human reality underlying the particular worlds of diverse cultures. This
model of grammar was introduced having found out that there are basic underlying
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
2

features which cut across languages and some peculiar to particular languages. These,
Chomsky describes as principles and parameters respectively. In fact, linguistic analyses
after the introduction of UG border around these principles. UG is conceptualized as a
system of (inviolable) principles, which are parameterized to demarcate the space of
possible forms. OT was one of such theories which seek to provide a guide as to the
analysis of UG. Blunter and Zeevat (2004) agree to this when they opine that many
representatives of OT adopt the fundamental distinction between Universal Grammar
(UG) and a language-specific part of Grammar. According to them, the aim of UG is dual
to describe the innate knowledge of language that is shared by all normal humans, and to
describe the universal properties of language and the range of possible variations among
languages. The language-specific part of grammar typically consists of the lexicon and a
system reflecting the specific structural properties of the language in question. In fact, UG
consists largely of a set of constraints on representational well-formedness out of which
individual languages are formed. By hypothesis, as observed by Kager (2004:1), the
innateness of UG is what makes grammars so much alike in their basic designs, and what
causes the observed developmental similarities. Rules may differ between languages, but
must always respect a fixed set of universal principles.

This work that presents an overview of optimality theory is divided into sections which
cover the introduction, a brief history of OT, an overview, and applicability of OT to some
aspects of the Igbo language phonology, summary of findings and conclusion.
A Brief History
The history of phonetics and phonology can be traced as back as classical antiquity when
man started making attempts to preserve his speech (which is said to be ephemeral) by
putting it into writing (being more permanent). From the invention of writing systems,
phonology has developed from one stage to the other with each stage introducing its
theories and rules.
The first international congress of linguists which held in The Hague in 1928 is often
viewed as the beginning of phonology set off by the Prague school. Two influential
members of this school are Roman Jakobson (1886-1982) and Prince Nikolay Sergeyevich
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
3

Trubetzkoy (1890-1938). It was this school of phonology that first defined the phoneme,
noted the importance of binary oppositions, and believed that languages are systems.
Sound Pattern of English by Chomsky and Halle (1968) made a radical improvement in
the study of phonology with its formalization of generative phonology (GP). The SPE was
economical in its basic principle, made use of highly abstract underlying forms, discussed
many major issues in the phonology of English including phonotactics, phonological and
stress management in underived, derived and compound words.
Prior to the publication of SPE in 1968, generative phonology has been on ground to
correct the ills of previous phonological theories like glossematics and stratificational
phonology; and prosodic phonology. Its major proponents Jokobson, Fante, Halle and
Chomsky claim that linguistic description should aim at constructing a grammar that is
capable of generating linguistic forms (see Mbah and Mbah 2000:139 for details).
The problems associated with SPE led to the emergence of Natural Generative Phonology
by Vennemann which was further developed by Hooper in 1976, Natural Phonology by
David Stampe in his doctoral dissertation, Autosegmental Phonology (AP) by John
Goldsmith in 1976 and CV phonology by Khan. Due to the fact that Goldsmiths AP
concentrates on tone alone and it does not cover other suprasegmental features like stress,
Liebermans metrical phonology came as a stress theory to account for languages that are
stress-timed rather than tonal. As at the time of their introduction, each of these theories
solve particular problems but none described languages as a set of constraints hence OT in
the last decade of the 20
th
century.
Why Optimality?
The early half of the 2oth century witnessed a rule-based approach to researches in
phonology. In rule-based phonology (RBP), a derivation consists of 3 things: an
underlying representation, a surface representation, and a set of rules that connect them.
Major publications of the time like Chomsky and Halles (1968) Sound Pattern of English
expressed sound patterns using phonological rules of the form:
1. w x /y z;
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
4

where element w turns into another element x, under the conditions made available by y
and z. That is, a rule takes a particular structural description (SD) as its input, and applies
a structural change (SC) to produce the output. OT was proposed as an alternative to the
rule-based framework.
Discussing the motivation for OT, McCarthy (2007) notes that phonological and syntactic
processes are influenced by constraints on the output of the grammar. According to him,
two different kinds of influence can be identified - processes can be blocked by output
constraints; while others can be triggered by output constraints.
OT reclaims traditional grammar's ability to express surface generalizations (e.g.
syllables must have onsets, no nasal+voiceless obstruent clusters). The mainstream
approach to blocking and triggering is well represented in Chomsky and Lasnik (1977)
with all transformations being optional and meaning preserving.

Phonological rules were considered to be derivational in nature, which means that a good
deal of data was explained by one rule leading to another. This conception of phonology is
focused on inputs or what Chomsky calls underlying form and transformations applied to
them. A study of phonological rules in Yawelmani Yokuta, an extinct language of
California by Kisseberth (1970) resulted in what he calls conspiracy three rules collide
in secret to prevent a specific output. An OT grammar avoids such conspiracies by stating
the generalizations directly, as in Two-Level Morphology (Koskenniemi, 1983) or
Declarative Phonology (Bird, 1995). Conspiracy posed a major problem because within
the existing framework, there was no way to express constraints on a grammars output.
Sensing this problem, Kisseberth proposed a change in framework necessary rules could
be drastically simplified by removing the information expressed in output constraints.

This idea of output constraint is what led to OT now credited to Alan Prince and Paul
Smolensky. In other words, OT was initiated to remedy the shortfalls of the rule-based
framework which was widely in use before the last ten years of the 20
th
century. Prince
and Smolensky approached their studies in language from a different standpoint in 1991
and by 1993 presented it to the world in a manuscript entitled Optimality Theory:
Constraint Interaction in Generative Grammar. This paper was reviewed in book form in
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
5

2004 and published by Blackwell Publishing. Today, this approach has popularly come to
be known as Optimality Theory. Rather than being derivational, where an underlying
representation passes through several stages of change en route the final output, OT is
described as comparative in which output constraints evaluate multiple possible surface
forms simultaneously. Any language can employ OT in the study of its morphology,
phonology, syntax, semantics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics and even historical linguistics.
Though structured in the manner of universal grammar, OT should explain both language-
specific observations and differences between speaking styles, dialects, and different
languages. For a fairly detailed presentation of the history of OT, Nwankwegu (2008) and
Omachonu (2008) are suitable for reference.

Definition of Terms and symbols used in OT
In this section, we present a functional definition of terms usually associated with OT.
Candidates: refer to possible outputs or combinations which are optimal at a particular
time. For example of candidates see tableaux 1-3 below. What necessitates the optimality
of a particular candidate is the context of its use. A candidate is optimal when it satisfies
the whole constraint set or violates a minimal number of constraints and declares any
analysis qualified to be at the top list.

Constraints: The universality of grammar discussed above informs the need to narrow
down the class of universally possible grammars by imposing restrictions on the notions of
possible grammatical process and possible interaction of processes, hence constraints.
Constraints are a set of underlying principles that govern transformations. They serve as
checks and balances to transformational analysis. Prince and Smolensky (2004:3) identify
two fundamental classes of constraints: those that assess output configurations per se and
those responsible for maintaining the faithful preservation of underlying structures in the
output. These are commonly called faithfulness constraint and markedness constraint. It
should be noted that the type of constraint that apply in one language may not work in
another language. Constraints are violable. (Kager, 2004) and Oyebade (1998) quoted in
Omachonu reiterate the fact that constraints are essentially universal and of very general
formulation, with great potential for disagreement over the well-formedness of analysis.
Constraints are ranked from left to right (highest to lowest). OT bemoans the widely-held
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
6

and age-long view that constraints are language specific. Each language has its own
constraint ranking. The strongest hypothesis, as observed by McCarthy, is that constraint
ranking is the only thing in the grammar that is language-particular: GEN, EVAL, and
even the constraints themselves are universal. What however marks individual grammar in
this model is the order in which these constraints apply.

Input (Lexicon): The lexicon contains the lexical representations (underlying forms) of
the morphemes and supplies the Input for the Generator. Phonological forms of
morphemes are language-specific. There are two levels of representation in OT the
underlying structure and the surface structure. Input refers to the raw materials used in
OT at the underlying structure while output stands for what the possible outcome would
be at the structural change. According to McCarthy (2007:2) the deep structure is the
input to the grammar.

Output: If two candidates both comply with several constraints, there must be further
(lower-order) constraints which differentiate between the two and select one candidate. If
two candidates cannot be differentiated, they are identical.
The pointing finger identifies the winning or optimal candidate at the output level.
! indicates a fatal violation for the candidate (so the winning candidate should not have
a ! in its violation profile).
* The asterisk indicates other forms of violation i.e., it marks violation.

Components of OT
OT has three major components GEN, CON and EVAL each of which performs a
singular function.

GEN: is the abridged form of GENERATOR. which generates candidates for
comparison. It produces a potentially infinite number of output candidates. For example,
Gen (Input) {K1, K2, K3, . . . , Kn} and passes them to the EVAL.

CON: which is the short of CONSTRAINT has been discussed above. What CON does is
to run these candidates generated by GEN through a list of violable ranked constraints. A
Constraint is a structural condition, which can either be satisfied by an Output-Form or it
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
7

can be violated. There are three types of constraints: markedness constraints, faithfulness
constraints, and alignment constraints.

Markedness constraints are similar to the surface-structure constraints or filters of the
1970s. The inventory of markedness constraints in CON is a substantive theory of
linguistic well-formedness e.g., complex consonant clusters or that-trace sequences are
bad. Markedness constraints may be positively or negatively influenced. It may be positive
when we have such structures as sonorants must be voiced (SONVOICE), syllables must
have an onset (ONSET), or syllables must have a peak (PEAK); and negative when
vowels are not nasalized (*VNASAL), syllables have no coda (NOCODA or *CODA), or
coda obstruents are not voiced (*VOICECODA).

In contrast to markedness constraints which only refer to output forms, faithfulness
constraints are inherently conservative, requiring the output of the grammar to resemble or
even be identical with its input. To be in conformity with the faithfulness constraints, the
output must preserve all segments and preserve their linear order in the output, output
segments must have counterparts in the input, both input and output segments must share
values for voicing. In other words, there should be no elision, metathesis, epenthesis or
even assimilation. Because markedness constraints favour some linguistic structures over
others, they are often in tension with faithfulness constraints, which resist changes to input
structures. This tension is called constraint conflict, and it is resolved in OT by ranking.
Conflict between two markedness constraints or between two faithfulness constraints is
also possible, of course.

The third type of constraint alignment which is not widely discussed stems from the
suggestion of Prince and Smolensky that Lardil forms like /kaq/ augment to /kaqka/ to
achieve a minimal size while aligning the stem that is root + suffixes with a syllable
boundary.

EVAL: Being the short form of EVALUATOR, EVAL selects one function as the
grammars output based on its performance in CON. The Evaluator consists of a set of
ordered constraints: {B1 >> B2 >> . . . Bn} and evaluates the output candidates with
regard to their harmony values that is the extent to which they comply with the constraints.
EVAL selects the optimal of all the candidates generated.
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
8


The Architecture of an OT Grammar
The OT grammar is an input-output model that pairs an output form to an input form. To
achieve this, the grammar contains the division of labour between its components. These
components are usually presented on what is called OT architecture as follows as
presented by de Lacy (2007:9) in Nwankwegu (2008:5).


Figure 1: OT architecture









By way of explaining the above diagram, the GEN derives its input either directly from
the lexicon or from the output of separate syntax module. This is to say that the lexicon
contains the lexical representations of the morphemes and supplies them to GEN which
in turn produces a potentially infinite number of output candidates and still passes them
to EVAL. The EVAL consists of a set of ordered constraints which evaluates the output
candidates with regard to their harmony values that is the degree to which they comply
with the constraints. It is the EVAL that determines the optimal candidate. To work out
or apply the OT architecture discussed above, the tableau (pluralized as tableaux) is often
used. There are two types of tableau classic tableau and comparative tableau.

Doing OT
Having hypothesized that constraint ranking is the only possible way in which grammars
may differ, it would be more reasonable to agree that the collection of rankings would be
the only justifiable means to a core OT analysis. The optimal candidate is actually the
observed output for any input in the language under analysis. The non-optimal candidate
GEN
EVAL
Interpretive Modules
LEXICON
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
9

which is the loser is GEN-derived from that same input, but it is not the most harmonic
candidate according to EVAL. For EVAL to select the correct candidate as winner,
certain constraints that favour the winner over the loser must dominate every other
constraint that favours the loser over the winner. The logic of this statement follows from
the properties of EVAL. Constraint ranking arguments depend on this logic. There are
three essential elements to a valid ranking argument. First, the constraints to be ranked
must conflict; that is, they must disagree in their assessment of a pair of competing
output candidates derived from the same input. Using vowel assimilation in Igbo as an
instance, the order of ranking for constraints will be:
2. NO HIATUS>>MAX-IO>>DEP-IO>>IDENT-IO
We shall exemplify this using the Igbo compound noun for intestine af qanx .
Tableau 1
Afq + anx NO HIATUS IDENT-I.O. DEP-I.O. MAX-I.O.
Af qanx * *
Ef qanx * *
af aanx
*
Af anx * *
Ephqanx * *
The order of constraints in 4 proves that OT is not haphazard because it adheres strictly to
ranking of constraints. The constraints used in tableau 1 are detailed below.
NO HIATUS: Adjacent vowels must have the same features.
MAX-I.O: Every element in the input must have a corresponding output.
DEP-I.O: Every element in the output must have a corresponding segment in the
input. On no account should there be insertion.
IDENT-I.O: Every element in the output must have the same feature with its
corresponding input.
When we say that these constraints are in conflict, it is evident in tableau 1 in the sense
that NO HAITUS claims that adjacent vowels must have the same features and IDENT-
I.O claims that every element in the output must have the same features with its
corresponding input, then they are in conflict because for adjacent vowels to have the
same features, output segment and its corresponding input cannot have the same feature.
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
10

The type of constraints used depends on the type of analysis involved. Remember that the
symbol * is used to denote violation. This means that the third candidate which has the
least number of violations is the optimal of the five having incurred the least violation and
satisfies the higher ranked constraints. Its optimality is indicated by the pointing finger.
Again, let us use the Igbo word for ash ntu` to see how OT can be applied in consonant
homorganicity in tableau 2.

Tableau 2
ntx
ART-I.O MAX-I.O DEP-I.O. IDENT-I.O.
tx
* * !*
ntx
*
mtx
* *
tx
* *
In tableau 2, the second candidate ntx` is optimal having no violations of the constraints
listed. What it means is that consonant homorganicity insists on the agreement between
places of articulation of adjacent speech sounds. Since t is alveolar, it suffices to say
that the most suitable nasal to select for it would be the alveolar nasal n not bilabial m
or velar k. Insertion of m by the first candidate is a fatal violation of the IDENT-IO
constraint. The order of constraint here shall be ART-I.O>>MAX-I.O>>DEP-
I.O>>IDENT-I.O where ART-I.O stipulates that a segment must agree in place of
articulation with its adjacent segment.

Problems with OT
Every theory presents its analysts with special challenges; OT is not an exception at all. In
fact, if the health of an academic theory lies in the liveliness of its controversies, then the
current phonological theory is healthy and clearly in good shape. The present researcher
agrees with Wikipedia (2011) that many criticisms of OT are based on fundamental
misunderstanding of how it works. An example of this is Chomskys (1995) claim that
the theory would predict every lexical input to be reduced to a single optimal syllable.
Although McCarthy (being one of the major brains behind the theory intervenes in 1997
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
11

when he explains that universal neutralization of this type (as pointed out by Chomsky
1995) would only be predicted if there were no faithfulness constraints.

Halle (1995) did not mince words in voicing out his observation of OT. According to
him, ...the existence of phonology in every language shows that faithfulness is at best an
ineffective principle that might well be done without. What he means by phonology is
inputs and outputs. It was Prince (2007) who intervened here arguing that markedness
constraint is there to take care of this kind of disparity. Input-output disparity is usually
the result of markedness constraints being ranked above faithfulness constraints (M>>F).
Terminology raises another issue in OT. It is claimed that OT is not technically a theory
in the sense that it does not make falsifiable predictions. The term theory as used here is
different from the way it is used in the physical sciences like physics and chemistry
because OT makes falsifiable predictions the same way as other phonological
frameworks. So rather than call it a theory, OT as a framework should better be described
as a scientific paradigm.

One of the shortfalls of OT was its initial sole introduction to phonology although recent
OT studies in other areas such as syntax, morphology, etc have been useful in taking care
of this problem. Selecting or determining the range of possible candidates happens to be
another. Since there are competing candidates, an analyst may have difficulties deciding
which candidate to use and which not to. Owing to the fact that constraints area a
universal phenomenon which languages draw from, Again, introduction of constraints is
another problem which even the present researcher encountered.

Summary and Conclusion
OT posits that language involves constraints, not rules; the constraints are violable, often
the constraints are in conflict; each language ranks the constraints in importance; a
surface form is optimal if it incurs the least serious violations. Grammars must be able to
regulate conflicts between universal constraints, in order to select the most harmonic or
optimal output form. The main innovations of OT can be summarized as follows:
(i) Grammatical constraints can conflict with each other and are violable under
certain conditions.
(ii) Constraints are ranked according to their respective weight.
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
12

(iii) Different rankings of constraints are responsible for differences between
individual grammars or languages.
(iv) A construction is grammatical (not only by virtue of its own properties, or by
virtue of its generative history, but rather) if it wins the competition in a candidate
set, because it satisfies best the higher-ranked constraints.
Summarily, we shall adopt Nwankwegus (2008:3) view of OT. According to him OT can be seen
as a linguistic expression of the practical life situation where man is faced with lots of competing
demands being hindered with certain constraints either financial, religious, social, etc. He cannot
achieve anything without violating these constraints. OT is an approach to linguistic analysis that
involves constraints which must be violated to achieve a desired goal.

In conclusion, we regret to say that despite the wide currency of researches in OT, it is yet to be
used extensively in the analysis of corpus in the Igbo language. Even though the present study has
not made any new observation or finding, we recommend that studies in Igbo phonology,
morphology, syntax and other areas of linguistics should adopt an optimality account in order to
find out the applicability or otherwise of the theory to the language.
References
Bird, S. (1995). Computational Phonology: A Constraint-Based Approach. Cambridge
University Press.
Blutner, R. & Zeevat, H. (2004). Editors Introduction: Pragmatics in Optimality
Theory. In R. Blutner and H. Zeevat (Eds.). Optimality Theory and Pragmatics. Pp
1-24. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.

Chomsky, N. (1995). The Minimalist Program. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Chomsky, N. (1981). Lectures on Government and Binding. Dordrecht: Foris.
Chomsky, N. and Lasnik, H. (1977). Filters and Controls. Linguistic Enquiry, 8(3). Pp
425-504.
Chomsky, N. and Halle, M. (1968). The Sound Pattern of English. New York: Harper
and Row.
Halle, M. (1995). Feature Geometry and Feature Spreading. Linguistic Enquiry 26, 1-46.
Hooper, J.B. (1976). An Introduction of to Natural Generative Phonology. New York:
Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
13

Academic Press.
Kager, R. (1999). Optimality Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kager, R. (2004). Optimality Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kisseberth, C. (1970). On the Functional Unity of Phonological Rules. Linguistic
Inquiry 1, 291306.
Koskenniemi, K. (1983). Two-level morphology: A general computational model for
word-form recognition and production. Publication 11, Department of General
Linguistics, University of Helsinki.

McCarthy, John J., (2007)."What is Optimality Theory?" Linguistics Department Faculty
Publication Series. Paper 93. Retrieved on 25/10/2011 from
http://scholarworks.umass.edu/linguist_faculty_pubs/93

McCarthy, J. (1997).

McCarthy, J. & Prince, A. (1993). Prosodic Morphology I: Constraint Interaction and
Satisfaction. University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Rutgers University, New
Brunswick.
Mey, J.L. (2009). Concise Encyclopedia of Pragmatics. Oxford: Elsevier Ltd.
Nwankwegu, J. (2008). Optimality Theory: An Overview. Being a PG Seminar Paper
Presented for the Course Phonology.
Omachonu, G.S. (2008). Optimality Theory: An Overview. In History of Language and
Communication. Pp 50-68. Nsukka: Paschal Communications.
Optimality Theory: The Basics. Retrieved from
fds.oup.com/www.oup.com/pdf/13/9780198241256.pdf on 25/10/2011
Oyebade, (1998).
Prince, A. & Smolensky, P (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in
Generative Grammar. MIT Press, ROA-537
Prince, A. & Smolensky, P (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in
Generative Grammar. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Optimality Theory: An Overview Nneji, Ogechukwu Miracle
14

Prince, A. (2007). The Pursuit of Theory. In Paul de Lacy (Ed.), Cambridge Handbook
of Phonology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

William, Bennett (2006). Evaluating Optimality Theory as a Method of Language
Description. Retrieved from http/ eden.rutgers.edu/~bennettw/papers/Comps%20-
%20final%202.pdf on 25/10/2010.

Wunderlich, D. (2004). Optimality theory in morphology and syntax. In Encyclopedia of
Language & Linguistics 2nd edition, Oxford: Elsevier