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The problematic distribution of the Irish past tense marker d’: development of a case of phonologically conditioned allomorphy

Irish, like other Insular Celtic languages, possesses an idiosyncratic system of initial consonant mutations, which has been the subject of a variety of competing phonological and morphological analyses. These initial mutations interact with the verbal system in an apparently paradoxical way for a small set of verbs with an initial fC- consonant cluster, such that there is no straightforward way to order the operation of mutation and the allomorphy of the initial past tense marker d’ (Armstrong, 1975). A further complication is that, while the allomorphy of d’ is phonologically ‘optimising’ in most cases (deleting before a consonant), its persistence before fC-initial verbs is phonologically ‘non-optimising’, presenting a challenge for Optimality-Theoretic models of phonologically-conditioned allomorphy (e.g., McCarthy & Prince, 1993).
In this study I present the paradox of fC-initial verbs and show that there is no simple rule ordering to account for them. I argue also that the pattern should be treated as a case of Phonologically-Conditioned Suppletive Allomorphy (PCSA), and moreover one which satisfies Paster (2006, 2009)’s four key conditions for an analysis in terms of subcategorisation, rather than constraint satisfaction. This leads to a consideration of Pyatt (1997)’s Distributed Morphology (DM) model of initial mutations, which I build upon in order to account for this pattern. Specifically, I make use of the DM principles of cyclicity and rewriting in Vocabulary Insertion (Bobaljik, 2000) to formulate an analysis in terms of staggered insertion, in which the elements of the verb complex are inserted cyclically from the root outwards in such a way that the phonological form of the root may subcategorise for the correct allomorph of the past tense marker. Looking beyond Irish, I also compare this pattern to a similarly paradoxical interaction of the mutation system and definite article allomorphy in Welsh (Hannahs & Tallerman, 2006), which may also be accounted for by staggered insertion.
In general, these phenomena suggest that the flexibility of DM in allowing for phonological subcategorisation may render it the best choice for modelling Celtic initial mutations. Furthermore, they add to existing literature arguing for the appropriateness of subcategorisation models over constraint-satisfaction models in cases of non-optimising PCSA. In this case, DM is a very powerful model of the former type, and this Irish data supports Bobaljik (2000) and others’ predictions about the types of PCSA which DM is able to account for. However, the phonological unnaturalness of the Irish pattern raises questions about its historical development, namely how an irregular rule could develop out of an apparently regular one. I tentatively suggest two historical explanations: one in terms of abductive reanalysis of a previous regular pattern, and another in which orthographic norms could have influenced the spoken language. Further investigation of historical spoken and written records may shed light on which analysis, if any, is more appropriate.

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