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An Introduction to Element Theory

Phillip Backley

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A textbook introduction to the Element Theory model of phonology

This book invites students of linguistics to challenge and reassess their existing assumptions about the form of phonological representations and the place of phonology in generative grammar. It does this by offering a comprehensive introduction to Element Theory.

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1. A Theory for Elements
2. Elements for Vowels
3. Place Elements in Consonants
4. Manner Elements in Consonants
5. Further Issues: Liquids, Licensing and Antagonistic Elements

About the Author

Phillip Backley is Professor of English Language and Linguistics at Tohoku Gakuin University, Japan. He is co-editor of Strength Relations in Phonology (2009) and has published on a range of topics in phonological theory and language acquisition. He has previously taught at Kyushu University in Japan and at the University of Lille 3 in France.


This book was missing for sure. There are two major views on what sound is made of in the mind: basic building blocks are either (binary) features or unary primes that combine like colours do. Phillip Backley is an expert in the area: he has actively accompanied the unary project in Government Phonology (and sister theories) since the 80s. He now proposes a textbook that introduces to Element Theory in the best possible way: the beginner discovers the ins and outs of the unary enterprise without this requiring any prior knowledge and following a very lucid, laid-back presentation of the synopsis of a field which can only be written by somebody who has full command of the literature and its quarrels. However, the advanced reader will also discover a wealth of data that support the demonstration. The cognitive ambition of the unary project is never out of sight, and Backley admirably shows on every single occasion that the acoustic signature of Elements goes hand in hand with their identity and workings in the mind, and in grammar. There was no book that introduces to the unary project in melodic representation - now there is one, and Backley sets standards that it will be hard to supersede.
- Tobias Scheer, University of Nice and CNRS
Backley's book offers perspicacious and astute insights into possible and impossible segmental systems, delivering the reader a convincing and tightly-woven integration of formal representations, acoustic properties, and crosslinguistic typology.
- Dr Andrew Nevins, Reader in Linguistics, University College London

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