Book review

by Robert Lagerberg

A computational phonology of Russian
Peter A. Chew

Published by, 2003-03
ISBN 9781581121780

A Computational Phonology of Russian, Peter Chew’s D. Phil. dissertation from the University of Oxford, is an attempt to synthesise three areas of Russian phonology which have been for the most part treated separately, namely syllable structure, morphology and stress assignment. While morphology and stress have to some extent been treated together in morphemic theories of Russian stress such as those of Garde and Zaliznjak, syllable structure has for the most part been sidelined both in general (generative) and Russian linguistics. Chew’s goals for this book are bold: ‘[I]t will cover a number of phonological phenomena (stress assignment, syllabification, vowel-zero alternations, word-final devoicing, voicing assimilation, vowel reduction and consonant-vowel interdependencies) within a single constrained grammar.’ The approach is Chomskyan, based on phrase structure rules, with a context-free framework (rather than context-sensitive) deemed adequate for the task in hand. The computational aspect of the work is a direct and natural consequence of this approach, since by putting the phrase structure rules into computer language (Prolog Definite Clause Grammar), consistency is enforced and, what is particularly attractive, large amounts of data can be processed quickly with the results of the approach instantly available and also able to be compared with the results generated from the approaches of other scholars. As Chew points out, this dissertation is not ‘ “about” computational linguistics; it is a dissertation that uses computation as a tool in linguistics’. The level of expertise and painstaking work in incorporating the complex linguistic theory into computer rules is impressive, though one should also say that on many occasions, through no shortcomings of his own, the author is forced to admit the limitations of his approach for one reason or another.

The book is divided into five chapters with three main subject areas. After a lucid introduction, the author analyses syllable structure (Chapter 2), morphological structure (Chapter 3) and stress assignment in Chapters 4 (Three existing theories) and 5 (A new analysis). A short conclusion follows. The devotion of two chapters to stress assignment is not by chance, as it plays the most prominent role in this book and is clearly the area in which Chew feels that he has made the most significant advances. The style of the book is generally clear, though technical, and more traditional Slavists may find it challenging. Overall there is more engagement with the theoretical framework itself rather than the results of the theory in terms of discussion of specific cases of Russian, but Chew’s work is thorough, resourceful and convincing. Each of these three parts is both a self-contained, detailed examination of some of the key areas of Russian phonology, while at the same time forming an essential part of the integrated, ‘broad-coverage’ approach which this book takes to a large and complex area of Slavic linguistics.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is its conscious attempt to bridge the gap that has existed, particularly in the area of stress assignment, between what one might term linguists and philologists, the former (basically Chomskyans) being interested in a tight theoretical framework that takes in the most salient problems in the most efficient way possible, the latter (Russianists/Slavists) taking a broader view and making more use of examples in an effort to cover even the more exceptional, though often lower frequency, eccentricities of Russian. Chew offers an excellent appraisal of the weaknesses and strengths of both styles of approach (pp. 224–232) and undertakes to provide a synthesis of the two. To the extent that he deals with a large corpus of words, he certainly succeeds, but ultimately he comes down on the side of the generative theorists: with the exception of the morphological inventory in the appendices which gives both morphological and accentual information, this is a book which spends little time discussing the nitty-gritty of the Russian language, but is more concerned in the theoretical framework and its success rate in generating and parsing correct forms.

In concluding the book the author states: ‘I hope that it will no longer be regarded as acceptable to assume a morphological lexicon and word-formation grammar, now that I have produced a grammar which makes this information explicit’. Chew’s wish for a closer bond between more traditional Russian language analysis and more contemporary ‘scientific’ linguistics is an admirable one and something surely shared by most people working in the area. However, while Chew’s book certainly goes further than any previous scholarship in closing this gap, there remain three problems with this hope as it currently stands. Firstly, the morphological grammar which he has produced is not extensive enough for Russianists to conduct independent, detailed (i.e. basically complete) analysis of roots and affixes. Secondly, it seems to me unlikely that many Russianists would be able to extract from this book the framework necessary to continue their own research – in particular, it would be desirable and even necessary to have the framework closer to hand, i.e. seeing that this is a computational approach, computer software which would enable one to visualise or adapt this kind of research would be invaluable. Even those with a good knowledge of linguistic programming would find it daunting to use or modify what one finds in this book for their own purposes: perhaps that is not the point of it. Failing that, one could envisage an extensive word-formational/stress/syllabic dictionary, in which for each lexeme its accentual, morphological and syllabic break-down would be entered. Thirdly, it seems to me that Chew’s research, while clearly providing a tighter framework than that of, say, Zaliznjak, does not offer a significant improvement in terms of its explanatory capability of accentual anomalies. I would suggest that the majority of cases which are covered and accounted for in Chew’s work are precisely the cases which a more traditional morphemic study has no difficulty dealing with either, though in a different way. What is more difficult is accounting for cases of stress, albeit often low-frequency lexical items, like рачо́к (auto-stressed root рак, stressed suffix -ок) which, as far as I can tell, in Chew’s framework would give *ра́чек (cf. поро́жек < поро́г). To account for such numerous anomalies of stress in Russian one often needs to abandon, as it were, one’s approach for a moment, and look at the form from a number of different points of view, in particular semantic or diachronic, and now Chew’s inclusion of syllabic structure gives a promising new angle. Cases of stress variation (alternative stress position), an important part of synchronic stress assignment and quite a widespread sociolinguistic feature in some affixes (though not by any means always recorded in lexicographical sources), is also beyond the scope of this study as it stands. The comments above are not offered as criticism, but as earnest suggestion from someone on the other side of the fence who favours the same change of direction. Chew’s monograph as it stands certainly realises its stated aims admirably.

Peter Chew’s monograph presents scholarship of the highest order and provides significant stimulus to revive debates and strengthen methodology within one of the most complex fields of Slavic linguistics, namely Russian phonology, in particular stress and its relation to morphology (and now, indeed, syllabic structure), and as such it is one of the most important publications in recent years in the area. One looks forward to reading further research from him in the near future.