When Eric got in touch to ask if I had anything to offer in Alan’s honor, my first reply was that it was all so long ago and in such a different life that I doubted I could contribute anything. Practically the instant I hit Send, I realized I was wrong: Despite all the intervening years and careers, I had actually written something very recently that would not have been possible without Alan’s work.
Much to my surprise I’ve recently come back around to writing about language again as a contributor to the Japanese language and culture website Tofugu.com, where no degree of language-geekery is considered too geeky. (Evidence: the site already had an article about rendaku before I started writing for them.) My first contribution was this article about the phonological alternations in Japanese verb endings. Although it isn’t a formal OT analysis, I think of it fondly as my attempt to bring a little OT-style to the masses. The description uses a notion of bits and pieces of language conflicting with one another that I definitely would never have come up out of my own head if I didn’t know anything about OT.
It’s also significant that it’s this particular set of data. You know the old joke about revolutionary theories, right? At the start everyone thinks they’re nonsense, and in the end, everyone thinks they’re true but so obvious that everyone knew that stuff all along? Well, before OT, there was really no good way to make sense of this set of Japanese alternations, as I distinctly remember from the suffering of one of my good friends who made the attempt in her phonology generals paper. And after OT, when I submitted an OT analysis of this data to a journal, I was told that it was too obvious to be worth publishing. All hail the revolution!