LINGUIST List 10.968

Mon Jun 21 1999

Qs: Phonetic Neutralization, Eskimo Snow Words

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Directory

  1. Richard Sproat, Avoidance of phonetic neutralization
  2. Ion, Perception, Eskimos, and Snow

Message 1: Avoidance of phonetic neutralization

Date: Fri, 18 Jun 1999 20:30:35 -0400
From: Richard Sproat <rwsresearch.att.com>
Subject: Avoidance of phonetic neutralization


Can anyone point me to any studies of spontaneous speech that purport
to show that speakers may avoid certain phonetic alternations in a
given context that could result in ambiguities in that context?

To take an (admittedly not very good) example might speakers of
American English avoid flapping /t/ in "latter" in contexts where it
might be confusable with "ladder".

Obviously there is anecdotal evidence that people will occasionally
consciously avoid such alternations in such contexts, but I am
interested in knowing if there is any evidence of a more systematic
unconscious avoidance.

Please reply to me directly and I will post a summary to the List if I
get sufficient responses.

- 
Richard Sproat Human/Computer Interface Research
rwsresearch.att.com AT&T Labs -- Research, Shannon Laboratory
Tel: +1-973-360-8490 180 Park Avenue, Room E153, P.O.Box 971
Fax: +1-973-360-8809 Florham Park, NJ 07932-0000
- --------------http://www.research.att.com/~rws/
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Message 2: Perception, Eskimos, and Snow

Date: Sat, 19 Jun 1999 12:54:51 +0100
From: Ion <iongcsl.com>
Subject: Perception, Eskimos, and Snow

Dear all

In my research I have come across the familiar statement on the Eskimos'
possession of some 30 different names for snow. It stems from research I am
doing on the existential phenomenological underpinnings of Von
Bertalanffy's General System Theory (Braziller, 1969). It is important for
me to ensure that Von Bertalanffy's suppositions are correct on this issue
and I therefore seek your help.

I outline my research question below.

In his writings von Bertalanffy claims that: 

 The Eskimos are said to have some 30 different names for 'snow', doubtless
 because it is vitally important for them to make fine distinctions while,
 for us, differences are negligible. Conversely, we call machines which are
 only superficially different, by the names of Fords, Cadillacs, Pontiacs
 and so forth, while for the Eskimos they would be pretty much the same.

Merleau-Ponty, in his Phenomenology of Perception, refers to Katz's research:

 The Maoris have 3,000 names of colours, not because they perceive a great
 many, but, on the contrary, because they fail to identify them when they
 belong to objects structurally different from each other.

I wish to focus on this element of structure.

Could it not be then that the Eskimos have some 30 different names for
"snow", not necessarily because it is vitally important to them but,
because they fail to identify snow as being just snow when it corresponds
to objects structurally different from each other? For it is not that snow
is vitally important to them but its relation to a structure on which it is
present?

Also, do we not assign so many names to cars because we wish to identify
them by their "superficial" structural differences? Perhaps we assign so
many names because we fail to identify "car" when it belongs "to objects
structurally different from each other" - no matter whether the differences
can be perceived as superficial or not.

Indeed, ignore the adjective "superficial" and just concentrate on
"structure" - for even the most superficial change is a structural change. 

Now: do we not assign so many names to cars because we wish to identify
them by their structural differences?

I would be grateful if you could clarify the Eskimo issue for me, as well
as provide any additional information/comments which you feel would be of
relevance.

Please reply off-list to iongcsl.com. If there is interest, I can collect
the responses and post them publicly in due course.

With my warmest thanks
Ion Georgiou
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