LINGUIST List 11.259

Mon Feb 7 2000

Disc: Phonemic Analysis

Editor for this issue: Lydia Grebenyova <>


  1. Robert Williams, Phonemic Analysis
  2. Larry Trask, Phonemic Analysis

Message 1: Phonemic Analysis

Date: Sat, 05 Feb 2000 16:19:52 -0500
From: Robert Williams <>
Subject: Phonemic Analysis

I too wish to chime in with Trask (Vol-11-228) and Hudson (Vol-11-247). In
my experience and research, the morphological qualities of English
orthography are routinely marginalized in the teaching of reading and the
preparation of reading teachers while the purely
phonological/representational qualities (minor though they may be) of that
same orthography are foregrounded. Also, and as an addendum to Hudson's
comments, seemingly routinely the psycholinguisitic and sociolinguistic
components inherent in the reading process (an obviously Bakhtin-ian
dialogic process) are ignored, probably because research has yet (and may
never) fully describe or understand that same process. In short, we still
do not understand how reading works and thus much of reading instruction
attends to superficial phonemic approximations that have very little to do
with sophisticated apprehension or comprehension of written material. Of
course, conversely, phonological representations become perfectly (if
weirdly) sensible ... once the individual knows how to read. Thus, reading
teachers instantly become spelling teachers and the little help they
provide with actual reading occurs as a result of simple engagement and
imitation (read: "practice"). Pity the bored students.

More to the point for linguistic research, I would liken phonemic analysis
to grammatical analysis in that neither is particularly useful for lanuage
use (i.e. literacy); but the fundamental purposes and methodolgies - aside
from contemporary or "fashionable" theoretical hypotheses - of both are
intensely important for various areas of linguistic research and for
students interested in such topics, which should, in a perfect world,
include all reading teachers and, indeed, all teachers who use language to
communicate with students.



 Multiple Choice?
Darken the appropriate circle.
Darken the appropriate world.
Robert H. Williams, Jr.
Assistant Professor of English Education
Radford University
P.O. Box 6935
Radford VA 24142
540-682-4350 (home)
540-831-5745 (office)
540-831-6800 (fax)
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Message 2: Phonemic Analysis

Date: Mon, 07 Feb 2000 15:15:30 +0000
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Phonemic Analysis

Jorge Guitart writes:

> You say you don't do theory 

Well, no; I didn't say that. I only said that I was reluctant to apply
the term 'theory' to my account of phonological processes.

> 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.

Sure. Autonomous phonemics is a theory.
> You are of course entitled to a) not be willing to look at other ways of
> expressing that relationship 

And who ever said that?

I didn't attack any theories of phonology. I merely defended autonomous
phonemics as having a rightful place in our armory.

> b) not tell your students about other ways,

And I didn't say that, either.

What I tell my students is as follows. We need an approach, and I've
selected autonomous phonemics as the most appropriate. Many other 
approaches exist, and you can read about these in current textbooks, if 
you're interested. But they won't be of much use for present purposes,
and they may confuse you. If you'd like some guidance, I'll be happy
to give it to you outside of class.

> c) not tell your students about your own way (apparently your theory is
> not made explicit to them.) 

I don't present it as a theory, but only as a useful way of getting to
grips with the data. As always, I prefer to teach students to look at
linguistic data, and to see terminology, notational devices and theoretical
concepts as tools that can aid them in this. In my experience, a heavily
theoretical approach can all too easily lead to a state of mind in which
the theory becomes paramount, and the data become little more than grist
for a theoretical mill. I have seen the consequences of this for myself,
and I don't like them.

> Forgive me, but I think you are missing a
> lot and you are making your students missing a lot.

Well, it is not possible to cover everything within the confines of a 
first degree in linguistics, and choices have to be made. I've made mine,
and here they are. Learn to look at linguistic data with open eyes and a 
clear head. Learn to spot patterns. Learn to express those patterns as 
explicitly, as accurately, and as generally as possible. Learn how to test 
your first attempts for inadequacies, and learn how to modify your accounts 
so that they work better. For this purpose, learn to regard our theoretical
constructs as useful tools, not as ends in themselves.
> What you call 'bandwagon' I call being intellectually disposed to seeing
> things in a new way.

Well, I have nothing against seeing things in a new way. What I was
complaining about was the practice of teaching beginning students *only* 
the currently fashionable theoretical ideas.

I agree that linguistic theorizing has its place. But I confess I get
depressed when I see so much work of the general form 'An Optimality-
Theoretic account of the same old data you've already seen analyzed
six times before in six other frameworks'. I have to wonder if this is
really the most valuable way for linguists to spend our time, when so
much far more fundamental work remains to be done.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
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