LINGUIST List 11.247

Sat Feb 5 2000

Disc: Phonemic Analysis

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Grover Hudson, Phonemic Analysis
  2. Jorge Guitart, Phonemic Analysis

Message 1: Phonemic Analysis

Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2000 10:50:24 -0500
From: Grover Hudson <>
Subject: Phonemic Analysis

I would like to support Larry Trask's recent message (Vol-11-228. Thu
Feb 3) on this topic, and add two points. 

First is that an understanding of more-or-less classical phonemics is
essential for students if they are to UNDERSTAND AND BE REASONABLY
CRITICAL OF DATA, which typically comes to them, from textbooks,
grammars, and dictionaries, in some sort of phonemic form. Even
so-called phonetic data, which the textbooks use to teach phonemics, is
grossly simplified, since reliable consistently detailed phonetic
writing is notoriously impractical.

When, someday, we have data in a somewhat detailed phonetic featural
system, we can start going directly, in our teaching, to the search for
generalizations in terms of features, and then use these
generalizations to abstract over the featural representations. 

Until then, students have to learn to deal with generalizations in
terms of phones - and this means understanding more-or-less classical
phonemics. The IPA, indeed, is a set of symbols for presenting possible
phonemic contrasts, not possible phones, which are innumerable.

The other, small, point, is an addition to Trask's lists of purposes
for which phonemics is the 'appropriate tool in a number of
circumstances' ('language teaching, lexicography, and the devising of
practical orthographies for previously unwritten languages'). Phonemics
seems to be essential for understanding the
logic/effectiveness/defectiveness of most orthographies and so for
understanding the teaching of reading. My impression is that a lack of
understanding by reading teachers of English phonemics is a major part
of the problem apparent in the persistent dissatisfaction with the
teaching of English reading. 

Perhaps part of the reason for this lack of understanding, and for the
resulting problem, is the inappropriate influence of premature
phonological theories in courses in which teachers learn about English

Grover Hudson

Department of Linguistics & Germanic
Slavic, Asian & African Languages
A615 WH, Michigan State University, 
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027
phone 517-355-8471, fax 517-432-2736
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Message 2: Phonemic Analysis

Date: Fri, 4 Feb 2000 15:09:53 -0500 (EST)
From: Jorge Guitart <>
Subject: Phonemic Analysis

Larry Trask wrote:
> It is perfectly possible, and in many quarters usual, to adopt a version of
> autonomous phonemics which abandons biuniqueness in favor of neutralization.
> And it is also perfectly possible, and probably usual, to start the analysis
> in terms of lexical items and word-forms taken as given. That is, in order
> to do autonomous phonemics, you don't have to accept the most extreme positions
> ever suggested by the American structuralists.
> > Rather, we should find out what phonemes are starting
> > from the lexical units, then see what happens to them under conditions
> > of distortions, and then propose a theory of what mediates between lexical
> > units and their physical realizations.
> Well, I'm not happy with that word "distortions". Otherwise, though, what
> is suggested here is *precisely* what I do in my presentation of autonomous
> phonemics -- except that I don't think I'd care to dignify my account of
> phonological processes with the label "theory".
> Autonomous phonemics may not find much favor with contemporary phonological
> theorists. But it remains an indispensable tool in a wide variety of
> linguistic enterprises. It does not deserve to be dismissed as no more
> than the laughable and fossilized relic of more primitive days.
> Finally, and more generally, I would, as usual, like to raise my voice against
> any suggestion that the business of linguistics instructors is to teach
> their students the latest and most fashionable theories. In linguistics,
> theories come and theories go, and this week's fashionable theory may be
> old hat by the time the students graduate. Our business is to teach our
> students to analyze linguistic data, using whatever tools may be convenient.
> We should not be urging them merely to hop onto the latest theoretical
> bandwagon. To do that is to fail them.
Jorge Guitart responds:

You say you don't do theory but you do have a theory about the
relationship between some abstract level in which any two sounds remain
distinct and the physical level in which they both are pronounced
identically since you assume the concept of neutralization and I suppose
other concepts as well.

You are of course entitled to a) not be willing to look at other ways of
expressing that relationship b) not tell your students about other ways,
c) not tell your students about your own way (apparently your theory is
not made explicit to them.) Forgive me, but I think you are missing a
lot and you are making your students missing a lot.

What you call 'bandwagon' I call being intellectually disposed to seeing
things in a new way. 

With best wishes

Jorge Guitart
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