LINGUIST List 11.630

Tue Mar 21 2000

Disc: Phonemic Analysis

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Wojcik, Richard H, RE: 11.602, Disc: Phonemic Analysis

Message 1: RE: 11.602, Disc: Phonemic Analysis

Date: Mon, 20 Mar 2000 09:13:51 -0800
From: Wojcik, Richard H <>
Subject: RE: 11.602, Disc: Phonemic Analysis

I agree with much of what Larry Trask has written about the philosophy of science. I will confine myself to just to Larry's description of the history of phonemic theory. Note that Peter used the expression "classical phonemics", which is often used to describe phonemic theory during the period of so-called "autonomous phonemics". I think that that period was strongly influenced by Positivism, or at least the mood of the times that led up to Positivism. Autonomous phonemics was characterized by the view that phonemes had unique physical identities, that there could be little or no place for phonemic neutralization in the definition of phonemic representation. It was a reaction to, and rejection of, almost 50 years of Baudouinian phonemics, of which Sapir was one of the last proponents. (Not necessarily a conscious proponent--I have never seen any reference to Baudouin in Sapir's writings.) Classical phonemics was such a radical departure from the original psychological definition that Chomsky and Halle professed to be following in Sapir's footsteps when they rejected autonomous (or classical) phonemic theory. In fact, they did not understand Sapir's theory well enough to make that claim, but that is another story... 

Larry Trask [replying to Peter Menzel] writes:

	<...previous discussion on philosophy of science snipped... Peter comments:>
> > 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,
> I confess I am astonished to read this.
> The phoneme principle was known to the ancient Indian grammarian Patanjali,
> and to the 12th-century Icelandic First Grammarian. In Europe, it was
> slowly worked out during the 19th century. More or less explicit
> understandings of the phoneme principle can be found, for example, in
> Odell (1806), Whitney (1843), M> ´┐Żller (1843), Ellis (1844), Pitman (1846),
> Winteler (1876), and Sweet (1877). By most accounts, the first fully
> explicit statement of the phoneme principle was developed by Baudouin de
> Courtenay and Kruszewski at Kazan in the late 19th century. From Kazan,
> the principle was carried west to Britain by Shcherba, reaching Daniel
> Jones in 1911. Jones and his colleagues began regularly teaching phoneme
> theory in London in 1915 (by Jones's own account), and Jones made use of
> the idea in his subsequent publications, and published an explicit account
> in 1929.
Shcherba was Baudouin's student, but he was never a member of the Kazan School. He did not carry the "Kazan" phonemic principle to the West. Shcherba finished the University of St. Petersburg in 1903, after Baudouin had moved to St. Petersburg. Despite being one of Baudouin's best known students, Shcherba ended up rejecting Baudouin's basic approach to phonemics. It has been said that Shcherba was forced to give up Baudouin's psychologism by the Communist Party, although he never really gave it up in his heart (according to A.A. Reformatskii in Iz_istorii_otechestvennoi_fonologii). But Shcherba did firmly reject Baudouin's acceptance of phonemic neutralization as a necessary component of phonology (aka "physiophonetics"). For Shcherba, neutralized phonemic alternations were alternations between separate phonemes (i.e. "psychophonetics"), not phonetic alternants of a single underlying phoneme. This was a fundamental shift in the dividing line between phonology and morphophonology.

Shcherba founded the so-called Leningrad School of Phonology, one of three phonological schools to evolve directly out of Baudouin's theory of phonetic alternations. The other two schools were the Moscow School of Phonology and the Prague School of Phonology. Shcherba did strongly influence Jones, as Larry said, but he passed along a concept of the phoneme that was radically altered from the Kazan period. The Kazan period had influenced the West already, but via Saussure, who acknowledged his debt to Baudouin and Kruszewski. 

The Moscow School retained Baudouin's level of phonemic abstraction, but thoroughly rejected his psychologism. They were perhaps more influenced by Fortunatov's formalism than the Communist Party's materialist philosophy. In any case, they managed to escape the political stigma that came to be associated with Baudouin's psychological approach to language. The Prague School was a little more like the more recent school of "Generative Semantics" in its definition of theory--a collection of different approaches that held to some common themes. The important thing to note about Jakobson and Trubetzkoy is that they were educated in Moscow--with roots in Fortunatov's formalist approach to language. Like the Moscow School, they adapted Baudouin's theory without his psychologistic explanations.

I agree with Larry that the roots of classical phonemics predate Logical Positivism, but I think that the radical new "autonomous" phoneme that was emerging in the 1920s and 1930s resonated very well with the Positivist movement. A good litmus test for distinguishing pre- and post-classical phonemics is to consider final obstruents in devoicing languages such as Russian, Polish, and German. The "pre-classical" position (Baudouin, Sapir, Moscow) was that morphemes could end in voiced phonemic obstruents. The classical position (Shcherba, Jones, Prague, post-Bloomfieldians) was that morphemes in such languages could only end in voiceless phonemes (e.g. the "unmarked" case in Prague School phonology). This may not seem like such a radical difference until you consider that the generativist rejection of phonemic theory in the mid-sixties rested mainly on this point--that phonemic theory would not tolerate underlying voiced obstruents in such neutralizing contexts. The so-called "classical" phoneme contained the seeds of its own destruction.

> Meanwhile, the Prague School linguists were developing their own view of the
> phoneme, and the Americans were developing theirs. Sapir's 1925 paper
> is usually considered the classic American presentation, and Bloomfield
> adopted phonemes unhesitatingly in his 1933 book. By 1934 Twaddell was
> writing that the phoneme principle was generally accepted.
> And I'm not aware that *any* of these people were significantly influenced
> by Logical Positivism. Most of them had never even heard of it.
> Logical Positivism was invented by the Vienna Circle, which didn't begin
> meeting before the 1920s, which hadn't really formulated its LP doctrines
> before the late 1920s, and which didn't become influential outside a small
> circle before the 1930s. LP was really only introduced to the English-
> speaking world when its first British disciple, Freddie Ayer, published
> his famous book in 1936.
Yes, Larry, but was Trubetzkoy unaware of the Positivist movement in Vienna in the 1920s? The three-way split in Russian phonemic theory took place in the 1920s. I still think that the emergence of classical phonemics had a lot in common with the emergence of Positivism. I think that it is worth speculating that there were connections. Was communist materialism unrelated to Positivism? Why did phonemic theory undergo a sea change on the issue of phonemic neutralization in the 1920s?

> So how can phonemics be viewed as having sprung from Logical Positivism?
> The dates are all wrong. < of discussion snipped...>
Again, Peter may have intended to distinguish "classical phonemics" from simply "phonemics". If he didn't, he should have. Classical phonemics is all about trying to define phonemic categories in terms of unique, physically observable properties.
Richard Wojcik, Associate Technical Fellow
Boeing Phantom Works
Mathematics & Computing Technology (M&CT)
PO Box 3707, MC 7L-43, Seattle, WA 98124-2207
(425) 865-3844 / fax: (425) 865-2965/pager: (206) 797-4170
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