[round] and [labial] in Spanish and the “free-form” syllable

John M. Lipski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The present study investigates the relationship between labial consonants and rounded vowels, using data from Spanish. A closer look at the realizations of/f/ in a variety of Spanish dialects provides the backdrop for proposals concerning the interaction between round vowels and a variety of labial and labiodental obstruents. It is claimed that/p/,/b/, and labiodental/f/ are characterized by an exclusively consonantal feature such as [labial] and do not interact with a [round] specification found on rounded vowels. Certain labial continuants, such as [Φ], are characterized by the feature [round], which can therefore interact with [round] values of neighboring vowels. Possible interactions include delinking of [round] due to the action of the obligatory contour principle (e.g. [Φ] > [h]: fue > jue), as well as free reattachment of [round] to any phonological structure in which a possible segment of the language would result. In some Spanish dialects, [Φ], [h], and semivocalic [u] enter into a rich set of bidirectional equivalence patterns, including [Φ] > [hw] (café > cajué, and [hw]>[Φ] (Juan>Fan). In each set of forms the key syllables exhibit a SINGLE [ROUND] specification, attached to a SINGLE SYLLABIC position. The individual manifestations of the “one [round]” constraint result from the freely available option of attaching and detaching [round] in appropriate configurations. More generally, it is claimed that the breaking off of a terminal feature as a floating autosegment, and reattachment of this free autosegment to a neighboring segment, is a freely available option in ANY PHONOLOGICAL system, providing that both the phonological structure from which the terminal feature has been detached and the floating feature itself can be relicensed in an appropriate configuration. The reattachment of the floating autosegment will produce a fully specified simple segment in case the feature structure to which the free autosegment attaches contains no previous specification for the class node in question. The reattached autosegment will produce a contour segment (diphthong, affricate, etc.), in case the structure to which the floating auto segment attaches already contains a feature specification for the class node in question. Synchronically, however, [round] is not underlyingly attached to ANY segment. Instead, a word such as Juan, which may emerge variously as [Φan] or [hwan], is represented as containing a single floating [round] autosegment, together with an underspecified voiceless fricative. This configuration permits [round] to attach either to the first segment, resulting in [Φan], or to the nuclear vowel, yielding [hwan]. In a sociolinguistic matrix in which a strong normative influence emanates from a prestige standard, the free optionality of variant pronunciations permitted by the floating auto-segment runs contrary to the pressure to conform to a single standard. It is not coincidental that the floating autosegment analysis describes a number of sociolinguistically marginalized varieties of Spanish.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)283-304
Number of pages22
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1995

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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