Markedness in the Acquisition of Kiswahili Phonology: An Optimality Theory Perspective
Child language acquisition process is, among other factors, determined by the degree of linguistic markedness of the structures under acquisition. In the acquisition of phonology, phonological markedness has been posited to affect both the rate and route of acquisition. Marked phonological structures are those which are difficult to articulate or perceive, rare in phonemic inventories and in typological occurrence, structurally complex and cross linguistically avoided or banned. The inverse is true for the unmarked which typically enhance the acquisition process. However, there are different phonological variables determining markedness across languages and children besides variation in both constraint choice and ranking. The paper addresses these questions by examining the acquisition of Kiswahili phonemic inventory and the syllable structure. This is a longitudinal study of two children aged one to five years old observed for four years. The data was obtained from parental diary, audio recordings and observations. It is argued that unmarked structures (the voiceless, plosives, coronals and CV syllables) are acquired faster and dominate the lexicon. In Optimality Theory (OT- Prince & Smolensky, 1993/2004), linguistic markedness is recast into markedness constraints which demand surface forms to be structurally unmarked. The study identified universal constraints responsible for the acquisition of Kiswahili phonology and the language particular ranking of those constraints. The findings show that markedness constraints are typically ranked higher above the faithfulness constraints in the initial stages of acquisition. The acquisition process is viewed as a gradual demotion of the markedness constraints over faithfulness constraints with sufficient exposure to adult input. Furthermore, markedness constraints against voiced and prenasalised fricatives, coda and syllabic consonants, remain undominated in the constraint hierarchy at age five in spite of adult input having such marked structures. The degree of markedness of the structure, determines how fast it is acquired.
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