Individual-level contact limits phonological complexity: Evidence from bunched and retroflex /ɹ/

Jeff Mielke, Adam Baker, Diana Archangeli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


We compare the complexity of idiosyncratic sound patterns involving American English /ɹ/ with the relative simplicity of clear/dark /l/-allophony patterns found in English and other lan- guages. For /ɹ/, we report an ultrasound-based articulatory study of twenty-seven speakers of American English. Two speakers use only retroflex /ɹ/, sixteen use only bunched /ɹ/, and nine use both /ɹ/ types, with idiosyncratic allophonic distributions. These allophony patterns are covert, be- cause the difference between bunched and retroflex /ɹ/ is not readily perceived by listeners. We compare this typology of /ɹ/-allophony patterns to clear/dark /l/-allophony patterns in seventeen languages. On the basis of the observed patterns, we show that individual-level /ɹ/ allophony and language-level /l/ allophony exhibit similar phonetic grounding, but that /ɹ/-allophony patterns are considerably more complex. The low complexity of language-level /l/-allophony patterns, which are more readily perceived by listeners, is argued to be the result of individual-level contact in the development of sound patterns. More generally, we argue that familiar phonological patterns (which are relatively simple and homogeneous within communities) may arise from individual- level articulatory patterns, which may be complex and speaker-specific, by a process of koineiza- tion. We conclude that two classic properties of phonological rules, phonetic naturalness and simplicity, arise from different sources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)101-140
Number of pages40
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2016


  • Allophony
  • Complexity
  • Contact
  • Lateral
  • Rhotic
  • Ultrasound

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


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