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Sociophonetically-based phonology: An Optimality Theoretic account of /s/ lenition in Salvadoran Spanish


This dissertation examines onset and coda /s/ lenition in the Spanish of El Salvador, a dialect in which this phenomenon is particularly advanced. That is, Salvadoran /s/ weakening is not only pervasive in both syllabic positions but manifests as allophones beyond the traditional tripartite conception. In addition to providing the first sociophonetic account of /s/ in El Salvador, this dissertation aims to address another gap in the literature: while /s/ weakening is the most-studied phonological variable in the history of the field, many accounts fail to make connections between observed patterns and important aspects of phonological theory. In my analysis I show that these connections, which are highly reliant on phonetic principles, are crucial to a more complete understanding of the phenomenon at hand.

Speakers for this study are 72 Salvadorans who participated in sociolinguistic interviews in El Salvador in 2015. I segmented and acoustically analyzed 200 occurrences of phonological /s/ per participant (n = 14,400 tokens) in Praat (Boersma & Weenink, 2016), and each token was subsequently coded for linguistic and extralinguistic variables including allophone, which was categorized as follows: [s]: a voiceless strident fricative; [z]: a voiced strident fricative; [sθ]: a voiceless approximant resulting from gestural undershoot; [h]: a voiceless glottal fricative; [ɦ] a voiced glottal fricative; and [∅]: deletion of the segment in its entirety.

Using these 14,400 tokens, this dissertation develops a phonetically-based phonological analysis of /s/ lenition within Optimality Theory (Prince & Smolensky, 1993/2004) in which the need to reduce articulatory effort cost (Markedness) while preserving important perceptual distinctions (Faithfulness) drives variation. I model the Salvadoran data via a maximum entropy algorithm, which assigns weights to OT-style constraints instead of strictly ranking them. Maximum entropy not only allows for variation but maximizes it, assigning probabilities to all possible output candidates according to shares of total harmony.

Markedness constraints in the grammar are styled following Kirchner (1998, 2004) and incentivize the weakening of difficult articulatory gestures in phonological environments that exacerbate their biomechanical effort cost. I find, for example, that /s/ is most likely to lenite when its flanking segments are more open (such as two vowels that are [-high]) or disagree with it in coronality, voicing, or both. I find that all five non-deleted variants can be modeled according to the interaction between their composite articulatory gestures and the phonological contexts in which they occur. Faithfulness constraints in the grammar, on the other hand, drive the preservation of perceptual cues in more salient prosodic positions. I find that the impetus to preserve both features [+strident] and [-voice] is highest in the strongest prosodic positions (phrase-initially > word-initially > syllable-initially) and decreases gradually in turn with position strength. Furthermore, I find that these differences are modulated by syllable stress, with tonic syllables blocking lenition at higher rates than atonic syllables.

With respect to demographic factors, this dissertation shows that while language-internal factors establish basic constraints in the grammar, the relative importance of preserving perceptual cues varies for different social groups; this is implemented in the grammar by scaling Faithfulness constraint weights up or down. I find that speakers from San Miguel, rural speakers, older Salvadorans, women, and those with lower levels of education prioritize Faithfulness (i.e., the preservation of important perceptual cues) less than their respective counterparts, resulting in higher rates of effort-based lenition. Furthermore, I find that speakers from these groups not only lenite /s/ at higher rates but are also more likely to both produce particularly nonstandard variants such as [sθ] and lenite /s/ more often and more extremely in more salient prosodic positions.

In sum, this dissertation contributes valuable data about a pervasive phenomenon in an understudied dialect of Spanish, including an in-depth exploration of the social factors that condition it. More broadly, this study presents a nuanced approach to Spanish /s/ lenition that is able to account for onset and coda /s/ weakening within a single analysis by situating the phenomenon within well-established theories of phonetically-based phonology.

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