Introducing optimality theory

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7 Scopus citations


Optimality theory was introduced in the early 1990s as an alternative model of the organization of natural human language sound systems. This article provides an introduction to the model for the nonlinguist. The basic principles of optimality theory are introduced and explained (GEN, CON, and EVAL). Three important constraint families are explored (Faithfulness, Alignment, and Markedness). Illustrations are provided involving syllabification and vowel harmony in Tibetan and prosodic phonotactics in Tonkawa. The article closes with two general discussions. The first addresses recurring issues in phonological and linguistic analysis and sketches how optimality theory might account for these. The second points out how the explanations arrived at through optimality theory are providing new answers to familiar questions, as well as raising new questions for study.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)531-552
Number of pages22
JournalAnnual Review of Anthropology
StatePublished - 1999


  • Constraints
  • Linguistics
  • Phonology
  • Tibetan
  • Tonkawa
  • Universal grammar

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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