Several weeks in a practicum I had suggested that a very basic introduction to Optimality Theory might be a worthwhile for the few students who might go on to study more linguistics. It seems to me that if the OT table makes enough sense that an introduction could work very easily. The general reception was cautious disagreement. It was definitely disagreement but it was cautious. I imagine the only thing that held people back from calling it a stupid idea was a regard for my feelings.
So I did a presented a quick mock lesson in class today. The assignment was to introduce a topic as if I was teaching an intro to linguistics course. I introduced OT as a model for the way we might make any decision--using the example of purchasing a car. I mentioned very highly ranked constraints (such as 'cannot explode on ignition') and lower constraints (such as 'must be red'). That part went fine.
Then I tied it into phonology where the names of the constraints had to change (unless there is risk of some word exploding on utterance--Monty Python comes to mind). This is where my lesson fell apart because I had made some assumptions about what students might ask. I never assumed they would ask why faithfulness constraints should be expected. And my fellow students put me on the spot asking 'why should we assume that nothing will be added to an underlying form?' and I made the fateful mistake of trying to argue that faithfulness constraints function on principle. As if we have a reason for expecting faithfulness constraints to play an important part in language without seeing them in action. How do we know that DEP-IO and MAX-IO are ranked somewhere? Only because that would explain some of what we see.
How do we know that an output form will in some ways correspond to the input? Because we see places where that constraint makes sense. Not because it should correspond. And obviously it doesn't always.
Two things you don't want to hear from a professor after you've done a presentation:
- As a student I was willing to accept what you said. As a phonologist I have some issues.
- It was certainly brave of you to try.