LINGUIST List 11.429

Tue Feb 29 2000

Disc: Phonemic Analysis

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Mailbox, Phonemic Analysis

Message 1: Phonemic Analysis

Date: Sun, 13 Feb 2000 22:47:00 +0100
From: Mailbox <>
Subject: Phonemic Analysis

Dear Fellow Linguists,

concerning the present discussion about 'phonemic analysis', it seems to me
that one major point is being ignored; namely, that of the implications of
philosophy of science (or perhaps I ought to say: what we should learn from
it). Now, while I'm going to take Larry Trask's (LT) latest contribution to
this discussion as my point of departure, I don't want this to be
(mis)construed as an attack upon him. In fact, I have noticed in this whole
discussion (and in a number of others, not only before this forum), a
certain tendency among us linguists to "backslide into Logical Positivism".
Thus, e.g., when LT says things like

"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."

I get worried. This sounds to me very much like the position Logical
Positivism held; namely, that there are data 'out there' *independent of any
theory*, and that 'scientists generalize upon these data' and thus 'slowly,
step by step, as it were, build up their theories'. I had thought that this
naive view of what science is all about went out with empiricism. What
philosophy of science (POS) has been telling us for at least *twenty-five*
years, is that there are no data without theory (the theory tells us what
'out there' counts as data); what philosophy of psychology (POP) has been
telling us for the last *ten* years (or more) is that even perceptions are
'theory laden' (our theories about the world around us tell us what possible
and likely perceptions are/can be).

There is an important point that needs to be made here: Regardless of
whether LT holds this position or not, if he teaches the course the way he
describes, (as data quasi independent from *later* theorizing) his students
will *think* he does, and will most likely conclude that this is the correct
way of approaching scientific (or other) explanations.

Given the insights into the workings of the human mind I presented above, it
seems to me that approaches like that of classical phonemics, which BTW
sprang from Logical Positivism, are seriously misguided, because they are
based on the latter's view of scientific inquiry, which, to put it bluntly,
has been proven inadequate. Can you imagine a present day college physics
course teaching a Newtonain, or even an Aristotelian view of the universe?
(yes, I know, it's gets tiresome to always cite physics the *the* science to
be emulated, but still, this branch of science has been more successful at
explaining complex aspects of the universe than many others. It has
certainly been more successful at providing explanations in it is own field
than linguistics has been.)

The question, then, as far as I can see, comes down not to whether we want
to teach classical phonemics in intro linguistics course, but whether we
want to confront our beginning students with important questions about the
nature of scientific inquiry, and of human inquiry in general. And, if we
don't trust our beginning students to come to grips with such a complex
question, how long do we want to wait? Until grad school?

As LT says: "Phonemics is a theory", albeit, I say, a sorely inadequate
one. (As are most likely *all* of our present theories.) If you think that
it is an appropriate theory with which to introduce students to the
complexities of phonology (and thereby those of linguistics), then you ought
to do so with what I should call "the proper respect for theories"; that is,
with an adequate explanation of the importance of theories in our quest of
understanding the world around us. Of course, this is no easy task, and
I've often despaired at ever getting this point accross to my students. And
I have also witnessed teaching where "data become little more than grist for
a theoretical mill", and I'm not about to condone this kind of teaching.

As I've said: It's certainly a difficult question to decide how much theory
to teach and how early or late to teach it. But it's one every teacher,
even a linguist, has to face. For me, personally, the theory laden aspect
of all human endeavor at explaining the world around us has always been one
of the few ways in which I could tie my introductory courses to the
interests of the (general) students: By showing them that what we were
doing here was, in essence, no different from what they (we all) were doing
every day in our attempts at explaining the world around us to ourselves.

Again, LT, your contribution was only what got me to thinking about this
whole question.


Peter Menzel
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