LINGUIST List 10.1855

Thu Dec 2 1999

Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Dan Moonhawk Alford, Re: 10.1846, Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?
  2. Jorge M. Guitart, Re: 10.1846, Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?

Message 1: Re: 10.1846, Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?

Date: Wed, 1 Dec 1999 13:17:36 -0800 (PST)
From: Dan Moonhawk Alford <>
Subject: Re: 10.1846, Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?

Against my better judgement, I feel I need to respond to the following
replies to my posting.

As an overall point, however, I'd like to take a moment to marvel at the
amazing strength of hold over our minds that "thinginess" has on us
because of the cultural pattern that flows through English -- especially
compared to the distrust of nouns I find in Native America (where my
Algonquian-languages-speaking friends say they can talk all day long
without uttering a single noun). 

Jorge Guitart <> writes:
> Saying that an allophone is a relation is negated by saying that X is an
> allophone of Y in language Z, since X is ***something****. 

You've totally misunderstood me. I specifically put brackets around the
[X], which you've abandoned; too bad, since the brackets say, universally
to linguists, that the [X] is a PHONE. Perhaps I should have written it
out more clearly: The phone [X] is an allophone OF the phoneme /Y/. I was
trying to say that "allophone" by itself is misleading, assisting us to
imagine that it is a thing, whereas "allophone of" points more directly to
its use as a relation between two things, phone and phoneme. "Allophonic"
would be even more preferable for seeing its relationship role.

> That something is one possible physical representative of a mental
> entity, which is also ***something***, and is part (a discrete
> segment!) of ***something*** else.

An allophone is not a something that is physical; that's a phone.

> What is indeed a relation is the connection between phoneme and
> allophone 

this makes no sense to me; a relation between a phoneme and a relation?

> which is the work of a set of rules or of constraints or whatever that
> determine both production (pronounce Y as X) and reception (recognize
> X as Y). X is an allophone of Y and not of P or Q or R because Y
> underlies X: Y is there to begin with as part of a form that has
> meaning or grammatical function. As I say to my students, it's mostly
> in your head.

or not, as the case may be. And [x], let's call it a flap, may be an
allophone of both /Y/ and /P/, let's call them /t/ and /d/, at the same
time -- which could lead to an ambiguity sorted out by context by the
speaker: bring me the "ladder/latter".

Jules Levin <> writes:
> >At 14:39 30/11/99 -0500, Dan Moonhawk Alford wrote:
> >>What a bizarre set of postings on this topic! "Grown" linguists treating
> >>allophones as "things," abstract entities just like phones and phonemes!
> It all depends on your academic perspective. To a quantum physicist,
> not even the ferocious hungry full-grown Bengal tiger that just
> strolled into your office is a "thing,"--just a bunch of abstract
> entities popping (poping?) in and out of existence. But he can still
> gobble you up!

This is a specious argument. I'm perfectly willing to accept a phone, an
analyst's impression of a physical sound, as an abstract "thing"; I'm
willing to accept a phoneme, an analyst's impression of a point in a
pattern, as an abstract thing. It's just that I'm not willing to call the
relationship between the two on the same level of thinginess as the two
things it connects. To a quantum physicist, that tiger is a spacetime
event, but a relationship is not such an event.

> A species, like a phoneme, is an abstraction, but we still want to save the
> whales. 

Uh, I'd rather we save the actual whales (phones) than our abstract notion
of the scientific nomenclature of their species (phonemes). Make sense?

> Perhaps all abstract entities partake, to greater or lesser
> extent, of "thingness". Or maybe we just need to assign them some
> fictional thingness in order to "manipulate" them cognitively...

The latter sounds more like it to me, and maybe it's true for some kinds
of manipulation I'm not personally acquainted with. OR MAYBE the graduate
students of the last 20-30 years have not been required, in the full-blown
Chomskyan era which disparages all foundational structuralist work done
before, to read the books and articles which shaped linguistics. 

Call me retro, but I refuse to see a relation as a thing like phones and
phonemes. As Whorf said, nobody has ever seen "a wave" except that their
language told them so; all there is is "waving" -- which I am doing now as
I say goodbye.

warm regards, moonhawk

Visit Moonhawk's webpage at 
for recent presentations and hard-to-find classic articles.

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Re: 10.1846, Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?

Date: Wed, 01 Dec 1999 17:39:40 -0500
From: Jorge M. Guitart <>
Subject: Re: 10.1846, Disc: What Exactly Are Allophones?

Thank, you Jules. Now I know why so many quantum physicists plow into
noncars every year in the U.S. and why so many of them in India are eaten
by nontigers.
At any rate I I was talking about mental things not thingy things and the
mental ones have definitely a high degree of thinghood. With regard to
this, there is I think sufficient empirical support for the notion that
phonological segments are just that, segments. They seem to have boundaries
since everything that is contained in one moves at the same time in, say,
unplanned malapropisms of the kind reported by Victoria Fromkin.

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue