LINGUIST List 3.769

Sat 10 Oct 1992

Disc: Phoneticians I

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  1. John S. Coleman, 3.766 Phoneticians
  2. Richard Ogden, phoneticians
  3. Joe Stemberger, Re: 3.766 Like, Phoneticians

Message 1: 3.766 Phoneticians

Date: Fri, 9 Oct 92 10:34:23 EDT3.766 Phoneticians
From: John S. Coleman <>
Subject: 3.766 Phoneticians

Alexis Manaster-Ramer's statement that:
> There is the entire literature on incomplete
> neutralization, which claims that in Russian, Polish, German,
> and Catalan (which every phonetician has always heard as having
> absolute total exceptionless final devoicing), there are small
> but systematic measurable differences in the way underlying voiced
> and voiceless finals are realized (differences realized in the
> preceding vowel usually, as I understand).
is incorrect: not EVERY phonetician has ALWAYS heard these
cases as having totally exceptionless final devoicing. True, there
are a great many cloth-eared phoneticians around who are apparently
incapable of noticing the phonetic distinction between "devoiced"
voiced stops and ordinary voiceless stops, but that does not mean that
all ear-trained phoneticians are bad, or that impressionistic
phonetics is no good. Ear training and impressionistic phonetics
should be judged on the record of its best practitioners, not
its average or mediocre practitioners. In fact, I have heard of an
occasion when a good ear-trained phonetician pointed out
the difference between devoiced voiced final stops and voiced
stops in German to a very well-known senior phonetician (who shall
remain nameless), whose response was "I refuse to believe it",
but later published several papers on it, having satisfied himself
by instrumental experiments that the ear-trained phonetician's
observations were indeed correct. Which rather tends to refute
Alexis's additional comment that:
> the differences
> in question are so small that we could not expect a human phonetician
> to hear them.

To open up this discussion a bit, I would like to pose the following
quiz: has instrumental phonetics made ANY original qualitative (not
quantitative) observation about human speech that had not
already been noted by ear-trained phoneticians. I predict that
we will be hard pressed to find any examples.

--- John Coleman
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Message 2: phoneticians

Date: Fri, 9 Oct 92 15:46 GMT
From: Richard Ogden <RAO1VAXB.YORK.AC.UK>
Subject: phoneticians

Alexis Manaster Ramer writes:

> Now, the differences
> in question are so small that we could not expect a human phonetician
> to hear them.

 --- but a native hearer could? If a phonetician can't hear them,
who *would* you expect to hear them, and what is the importance
of these differences? Apparently not perceptually important? Then
why should a speaker make these distinctions? If something is unhearable
I take it that it is also unusable from the hearer's point of view.
I wonder whether we aren't asking too little of phoneticians' ears?

In my experience it's often the RANGE OF VARIABILITY that is
important. Some things you would want to differentiate phonologically
can be phonetically identical sometimes, because the range of things
you might find would be different for the two phonological units.
It might just happen that the phonetic exponents of these things
overlap, but that the ranges of variability are different for each

> I might add that the instrumental findings which show that
> words 'lucky' and 'bugger' have intervocalic fricatives seem
> to me quite consistent with the fact that pretty decent phoneticians
> often describe these as stops, namely, these fricatives are utterly
> different from a good ach-laut or gamma.

 --- are you saying these words *always* have intervocalic fricatives?
and that when they are pronounced with fricatives phoneticians
can't hear this? I would like the reference for this work please.
 --- And why *should* a velar fricative in English sound like
'a good ach-laut' (is this meant to be phonetic terminology?) or
a 'gamma' (the name of a letter used to describe a phonetic event?!)?
Do you mean velar fricatives as are canonically described for German
and Greek? These fricatives do quite different work from the ones
you might find in English, so if they don't sound the same I am not
 --- again, if fricatives are misheard as plosives I would like to know
why the phoneticians in question are 'pretty decent'.

Richard Ogden
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Message 3: Re: 3.766 Like, Phoneticians

Date: 09 Oct 1992 10:54:56 -0500Re: 3.766 Like, Phoneticians
From: Joe Stemberger <>
Subject: Re: 3.766 Like, Phoneticians

I have to agree with Alexis Manaster-Ramer that the human ear has
its limitations and that instrumental studies are often needed.
Cases of incomplete neutralization where the phonetician's ear is
incapible of hearing the difference have been reported in child
phonology and in aphasia.

In child phonology, it is clear that some children incompletely devoice
final obstruents, but the phonetician can't detect it; sometimes its
a matter of a subtle difference in the length of the preceding vowel.
Another common process is the "voicing" of word-initial obstruents, and
some children DO produce a sub-perceptual difference between e.g. /t/ and
/d/. Some children who appear to pronounce /r/ as [w] do in fact produce
them with subtle differences. Many children delete word-final obstruents;
some of those children apparently don't delete them entirely, because you
can see small transitions in the spectrograms.

In apraxia of speech, which involves motor incoordination, you can get
apparent cases where the speaker mispronounces one phoneme as another,
e.g. /n/ as [d]. But acoustic and x-ray studies show that the velum is
simply being controlled poorly, and this occasionally leads to a PERCEPTION
of a phonemic error. (And transcription of children with cleft palates,
where the velum can be poorly controlled even after surgical correction,
has the same sorts of problems.)

I think the best instances of where the ear is insufficient come from child
language and aphasia; instances from normal adult speech are rarer and more

The ear is really important, too, though, and I for one trust it a lot ---
with an understanding that there are certain limitations. Sometimes you
need to do both ear and instrumental studies. I confess I get nervous when
people do JUST instrumental studies; some of the differences reported for
final devoicing in Polish, for example, HAD to have been detectable by a

---joe stemberger
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