Research Projects

My research focuses on phonology, especially its interface with syntax and morphology. On the theory side, my projects address what I refer to as the ‘actuation of phonology’: morphological exponence, linearization, prosodification, and phonological operation scope. On the data side, I have a commitment to the typology and description of African languages, especially those of Nigeria where I have conducted fieldwork.

Grammatical tone components (Rolle 2018)

Grammatical Tone

My dissertation work examines grammatical tone (GT), defined as a tonological operation which is restricted to the context of a specific morpheme or construction. GT displays patterns which segmental exponence rarely if ever does, e.g. in Kalabari [ijn] (Nigeria) a possessed noun is marked by a high-low (HL) tone melody which overwrites the inherent tone melody of a word (melodies HH, LH, LL, HL all become HL - Harry & Hyman 2014). My dissertation develops a novel typology in terms of dominance effects (Kiparsky & Halle 1977, Inkelas 1998), and divides GT into two types: dominant GT which systematically deletes the underlying tone of the target (with or without revaluation by a grammatical tune) and non-dominant GT which does not.

This typology acts as the empirical base for a complete theory of grammatical tone, the second half of my dissertation. I propose a that there is no representational difference between dominant and non-dominant tone: they both involve floating tonemes undocked in the input. Dominance effects emerge due to a special type of output-output correspondence (Benua 1997) which I call ‘Matrix-Basemap Correspondence’. The central insight distinct from other models is that dominant GT should be characterized as a special type of paradigm uniformity effect, and thus derive dominance through faithfulness constraints rather than markedness (cf. Inkelas 1998).

Another aspect that my model addresses is why dominance is always inward-oriented, what I refer to as the ‘dominant GT asymmetry’ (corroborating Alderete’s 1999 work on accentual systems). I posit an operation ‘hierarchy exchange’ which preserves the inside-out derivational history of syntactic Merge in phonology, and conclude that the real legacy of c-command is not linearization per se (as in Kayne 1994) but rather is delimiting the scope of morphosyntactically-triggered phonological operations such as grammatical tone (supporting McPherson & Heath 2016, a.o.). Read more within the dissertation here:

Paradigm Uniformity

My dissertation reflects one manifestation of a larger enterprise to understand paradigm uniformity effects. I have argued that certain stress patterns in the Bolivian language Ese Ejja [ese] can only be derived through a novel model I call Transparadigmatic Output-Output Correspondence (Tr-OO-C) [AMP proceedings link]. Within Tr-OO-C, a morphologically-related base is defined as sharing identical inflection with an output, unlike in the prototypical cases of Paradigmatic Output-Output Correspondence which involve a shared root or stem.

I model Tr-OO-C via Agreement by Correspondence (ABC - Rose & Walker 2004) which correctly generates the typology of attested OO-Corr cases [NELS proceedings draft]. Although these models were developed for different phenomena, both formalize the insight that linguistic units which are similar are intimately connected, a connection which fosters further similarity.

This work stems from ongoing collaboration with Dr. Marine Vuillermet (CNRS - Dynamique Du Langage) on the Ese Ejja stress system, based on her fieldwork. Publications include the following:

  • Rolle Nicholas & Marine Vuillermet. in press. “Morphologically assigned accent and an initial three syllable window in Ese’eja”. In Jeff Heinz, Harry van der Hulst, & Rob Goedemans (Eds.) The Study of Word Stress and Accent: Theories, methods and data. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [pre-publication draft]

  • Rolle, Nicholas. 2017. “Rhythmic repair of morphological accent assigned outside of a metrical window”. In Karen Jesney, Charlie O’Hara, Caitlin Smith, & Rachel Walker (eds.), Supplemental Proceedings of the 2016 Annual Meeting on Phonology. Washington, DC: Linguistic Society of America. [link]

Simultaneity at spell-out (Rolle 2018)

Optimality Theoretic Distributed Morphology (OT-DM)

I am pursing a research program I term Optimality Theoretic Distributed Morphology (OT-DM) in which DM operations are decomposed into violable OT constraints (Trommer 2001 as predecessor). One corollary of this work is that all DM morphological operations (including Vocabulary Insertion, Dissociated Node Insertion, Local Dislocation, Fusion, etc.) apply in parallel, making strong testable predictions for further research.

In an upcoming publication in NLLT, I argue that despite its unorthodoxy an OT-DM model is supported by a morphological conspiracy in Degema [deg], a Nigerian language I have worked on in collaboration with Prof. Ethelbert E. Kari (University of Botswana). Degema exhibits two distinct clitic patterns in serial verb constructions whose distribution is conditioned by the presence of a prosodically heavy object. I argue that this distribution results from a single morphological well-formedness constraint, which traditional rule-based DM approaches fail to adequately capture. Read more about this here:

  • Rolle, Nicholas. accepted. “In support of an OT-DM model: Evidence from clitic distribution in Degema serial verb constructions”. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory (NLLT). [lingbuzz] [pre-publication draft] [appendices]

  • Rolle, Nicholas & Ethelbert E. Kari. 2016. “Degema clitics and serial verb constructions at the syntax/phonology interface”. In Doris L. Payne, Sara Pacchiarotti & Mokaya Bosire (eds.), Diversity in African languages: Selected papers from the 46th Annual Conference on African Linguistics. Berlin: Language Science Press. [link] [pre-publication draft]

Phrase-level Prosodic Subcategorization in Makonde

Together with Prof. Larry Hyman (UC Berkeley), we are examining prosodic idiosyncrasies in the mapping of syntax to phonology phrases in the Bantu language Makonde [kde]. Morphological words form phonological phrases diagnosed by presence of penultimate lengthening, e.g. /sílólo/ —> φ(sílóólo) ‘mirror’. Whether a post-nominal modifier forms one phonological phrase φ with the noun or forms a separate phrase is an idiosyncratic property of the modifier (data below on Zanzibar Makonde from Manus 2003, 2018):

  • 2 φ  φ( n )  φ( adj )   (língéela) (líkúmeêne)   ‘big mango’

  • 1 φ  φ( n dem )   (vílóngó  avii)  ‘those pots’

We argue that such idiosyncrasies are due to vertical subcategorization (supporting Bennett, Harizanov, & Henderson 2018), and that subcategorization frames are satisfied at spell-out after which default prosodification applies in the phonological module. Email us for updates on this project.

  • Nicholas Rolle & Larry Hyman. “Phrase-level Prosodic Smothering: Evidence from Makonde”. Poster at the 2018 Annual Meeting on Phonology. UCSD: San Diego, CA. [poster]

with Jumbo Gift, a maestro of the Izon language (Port Harcourt, 2017)

Typology and Description of African Languages

I have a commitment to the typology and description of African languages. One current project involves examining the distribution of the famous Advanced Tongue Root (ATR) harmony across African languages based on a sample of 681 African lects. In a recent manuscript (Rolle, Lionnet, & Faytak submitted), we show that ATR occurs in unconnected West African and East African ATR zones, between which lies a zone where languages systematically lack ATR but disproportionately contain interior vowels [ɨ ɯ ɜ ə ʌ …]. We illustrate that ATR and interiority bear an antagonistic relationship, showing that elaboration of ATR distinctions along the acoustic dimension F1 limits elaboration of interiority distinctions along F2, and vice-versa.

  • Rolle, Nicholas, Florian Lionnet, & Matthew Faytak. Accepted at Linguistic Typology. “Areal patterns in the vowel systems of the Macro-Sudan Belt”. [draft]

I have done extensive fieldwork in Nigeria, largely on Edoid and Ijoid languages. One project involves a description of Esan [ish] an Edoid language of Nigeria, in collaboration with native speaker Ireh Iyioha and Prof. Keren Rice at the University of Toronto. Esan is spoken by approximately 500,000 people, though is under significant threat from Nigerian English varieties and no comprehensive grammar exists to date. This project seeks to describe all major components of the grammar including segmental phonology, lexical and grammatical tone, noun and verb systems, and clause structure, as well as provide a small lexicon and set of texts. Contact me for updates on this grammar project.

Further, in 2017 I traveled to Port Harcourt, Nigeria to work with speakers of Izon [ijc], Kalabari [ijn], and Degema [deg] with the goal of documenting grammatical tone patterns as part of my dissertation work. See my CV for more information, including the locations in the California Language Archive (CLA) where I archive my materials.