LINGUIST List 13.114

Fri Jan 18 2002

Disc: Review, Phonology and Language Use, Bybee

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Joseph Davis, Review, Bybee (2001), Phonology and Language Use

Message 1: Review, Bybee (2001), Phonology and Language Use

Date: Mon, 14 Jan 2002 14:47:32 -0500
From: Joseph Davis <>
Subject: Review, Bybee (2001), Phonology and Language Use

	To Graham Horwood's thorough and suitably dispassionate review
(LINGUIST 13.48) of Joan Bybee's 'Phonology and Language Use,' I might add a
more enthusiastic recommendation and a different perspective. For
anyone trained in the long tradition represented by, e.g., Bloomfield,
Trubetzkoy, Jakobson, and Chomsky, Bybee's book will be either
disconcerting or refreshing. Rather than beginning with a grand
theoretical scheme into which data must be fit willy-nilly, Bybee
collects data and offers explanations on the basis of the data and
other information that promises to be relevant. Thus Bybee's
phonology is more inductive than phonologies have often been. She is
willing to abandon inherited categories and structures when they fail
the test of data. She confronts not only the long-problematic phoneme
but also a-priori formal binary features. For Bybee, phonology is not
a ready-made, speculative "theory" of the sort seen so often in
linguistics but a body of statements that generalize findings from the
study of what she calls "language use." Bybee's phonology thus
resembles more what is called "theory" in some other fields of
inquiry, such as biology.

	Bybee's phonology is particularly compatible with that of the
Columbia School, initiated by William Diver (1979, 1995) and
represented most recently and fully by Tobin (1997). Skepticism of
tradition is one thing they share. Another is an understanding that
diachrony and synchrony cannot really be separated in phonology, since
it is language use that produces over time the distribution found in a
lexicon. Most important, though, is Bybee's implicit recognition of
the importance of what Columbia School (CS) calls "orientations":
those independent bodies of knowledge that turn out to be useful in
helping us to understand a phenomenon under study (and which render a
linguistic theory non-autonomous). The three orientations that CS has
found most useful are phonetics, a "human factor," and communication.

	Bybee is explicit on the relevance of phonetics. She says
that most phonologists have acknowledged the substance of phonetics,
though they have often not gone beyond mere acknowledgement to take
advantage of the insights phonetics can provide to phonology. Bybee
cites several earlier studies that show the relevance of the substance
of phonetics, and she provides this account of the development in
Spanish of an excrescent [d] in some future-tense forms:

venir + he > venir� > venr� > vendr� 'I will come'

Bybee views the development of the [d] in such high-use verbs as a
retiming of articulatory gestures that were all already present:
voicing, dental location, oral stopping, and nasal opening. The
retiming involves the early closure of the nasal opening.

	If most phonologists have acknowledged phonetics, few indeed
have incorporated what CS calls the "human factor" into linguistics.
Bybee appeals to this orientation repeatedly (without calling it
such). She is up-front on this point: "A basic assumption of this
book is that the cognitive and psychological processes and principles
that govern language are not specific to language, but are in general
the same as those that govern other aspects of human cognitive and
social behavior" (p. 17). For example, a basic economy of effort can
be seen to underlie the two types of phonological change that Bybee
views as being most securely supported by evidence: "one type that
automates production by overlapping and reducing muscular events, and
another type that simplifies consonants and vowels by eliminating some
of the gestures that have been compressed" (p. 204). An example of
the two opposing mechanisms operating successively is the
monophthongization of Old English [eo] to [oe] followed by its
de-labialization to [e], giving, e.g., modern 'deep'. Each change was
economical in its way in that the first represents a compression of
sequential gestures and the second represents a simplification of a
complex articulation. (If it seems contradictory that both can be
economical, imagine that the change had taken place in reverse!)

	It might be worth adding that Bybee even suggests going beyond
a human factor to a kind of living-organism factor. Humans are not
the only organisms that are known to habituate to repeated stimuli, as
happens in what she considers the reduction of both form and meaning
found in such changes as 'going to' > 'gonna' (p. 9).

	The word 'communication' may not appear in Bybee's index, but
clearly communication serves as an orientation for her throughout.
The existence of linguistic signals (delimited "meaningful units") is
at least implicit, and here and there explicit (pp. 4, 176). And one
of the main thrusts of the book concerns the relevance of semantics to
phonology: "I have shown [in an earlier work] that the phonological
fusion of morphemes reflects their degree of semantic fusion, and in
the chapters of this book, I will explore further the relation between
grammatical and lexical units and phonological structure" (p. 5).

	It might behoove Bybee to be more systematically explicit
about these orientations and their role in supporting proposed
explanations for observed facts of language use and change. For
example, consider the diachronic loss of final consonants. To her
credit, Bybee faults the teleological statement that final consonants
are lost in order to achieve a preferred syllable structure: "Clearly
the changes do create these observed patterns, but something else must
cause the changes to occur." She improves on the explanation by
noting that in general "phonological change is reductive in nature"
and that "syllables are produced with a concentration of energy at the
beginning and a diminution of energy at the end." But of course that
too begs the question why phonological change should be reductive and
particularly so towards the end of units rather than their beginning.
Here Diver's three orientations working together can provide the
explanation: Communication urges the precise articulation of
meaningful signals from beginning to end ('seat' is distinct from
'eat' and from 'sea'). Yet the human factor urges simplification and
elimination of muscular gestures. How will this competition play out?
The exigencies of communication prevail just where the communicative
load is greatest, viz. at the beginning of the signal, when its
identity is still unknown to the hearer. 'Seat' will not change to
'eat' (though 'heat' might, showing again the interplay of phonetics).
The human factor will prevail where communicative load is light,
towards the end of the signal, when its identity may well be guessed
on the basis of information already provided in the stream of speech.
So 'seat' may well come to be pronounced with a glottal stop rather
than a [t] at the end, and then with nothing at all after the vowel.

	Dialogue between Bybee and the Columbia School would certainly
be productive. Here are some areas of difference which show the
potential to be ironed out:

	Bybee allows for complex units of mental storage (morphemes,
words, constructions), while CS has traditionally acknowledged only
linguistic signals, resisting the temptation to posit larger units of
structure as escape hatches from difficult semantic analytical
problems. Yet Stern (2001) makes a case within the CS framework for a
grammatical treatment of the English '-self' pronouns as meaningful
units even though their constituent parts may also be meaningful.

	For Bybee (p. 187), "lexicon and grammar are not strictly
separated, but are integrated and subject to the same organizational
principles." In classical CS theory, grammatical signals are those
which are organized tightly into value-based oppositions that
exhaustively divide up a semantic substance. (For example, the
substance of Time might be divided in a given language into the
signaled meanings PAST and NON-PAST, as in English 'cooked, cook'.)
Lexicon has been imagined as being more loosely organized. (The
lexical item 'past', e.g., might be opposed to 'present, future,
eternal, history, experience, over', etc.) More recently, however,
some authors (in Contini-Morava and Tobin 2000) have suggested a
blurring of the grammar-lexicon distinction in Columbia School theory.

	Bybee admits no segmental units such as the phoneme per se but
makes a strong case for the phonemic principle as being merely a
tendency in language, i.e., for phonemes being "emergent units"
(p. 86). By contrast, both Diver and Tobin have segmental units,
though these are not exactly the same as the classical phoneme: they
are not defined purely by distribution but have phonetic substance.
The present writer, influenced in part by Bybee, will argue at the
Columbia School conference this February that CS ought to dispense
with the phoneme altogether.

	Perhaps most fundamentally, Bybee and CS differ in the
definition of the problem they have chosen to address. Bybee studies
"language use," including casual speech, and she gets a great deal of
mileage out of token frequency. CS has limited itself to a
distributional phonology of the lexicon, specifically mono-morphemic
monosyllables represented in what Bybee might call "careful" form
(p. 209); token frequency is deliberately factored out as being a
function of semantics and so not directly revealing of phonological
pressures. I am now fairly well convinced that the two approaches are
complementary; neither can afford to neglect the other. Furthermore,
if CS has too severely restricted its focus (to a given pronunciation
of a given lexicon of a given language), Bybee might benefit from a
clearer definition of exactly what problem she is trying to solve.
Her data are wide-ranging and, consequently, they can appear to be ad
hoc. The risk is that some data can be found somewhere to support
almost any contention. A tighter definition of responsibility might
be salutary at some point in the enterprise.

(Note: Joan Bybee, Yishai Tobin, and Joseph Davis will all speak at
the Columbia School Conference on the Interaction of Linguistic Form
and Meaning with Human Behavior, in New York City, February 16-18,


- Bybee, Joan. 2001. Phonology and Language Use. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

- Contini-Morava, Ellen, and Yishai Tobin. 2000. Between Grammar and
Lexicon. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

- Diver, William. 1979. "Phonology as Human Behavior." In
D. Aaronson and R. Rieber (eds.), Psycholinguistic Research:
Implications and Applications. Hillsdale, N.Y.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

- -. 1995. "Theory." In Ellen Contini-Morava and Barbara Sussman
Goldberg (eds.), Meaning as Explanation: Advances in Linguistic Sign
Theory. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 43-114.

- Stern, Nancy. 2001. The Use and Meaning of English -self.
Ph.D. diss., Graduate Center, City University of New York.

- Tobin, Yishai. 1997. Phonology as Human Behavior: Theoretical
Implications and Clinical Applications. Durham: Duke UP.

Joseph Davis, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
School of Education R6207-A
City College
New York, NY 10031
Tel. 212-650-6240
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