LINGUIST List 8.182

Thu Feb 6 1997

Qs: Recommending PhD research, Sonority

Editor for this issue: Susan Robinson <>

We'd like to remind readers that the responses to queries are usually best posted to the individual asking the question. That individual is then strongly encouraged to post a summary to the list. This policy was instituted to help control the huge volume of mail on LINGUIST; so we would appreciate your cooperating with it whenever it seems appropriate.


  1. Bill Croft, Ethics of recommending PhD research
  2. LAS, ? Sonority Hierarchy

Message 1: Ethics of recommending PhD research

Date: Wed, 05 Feb 1997 13:18:44 +0000
From: Bill Croft <>
Subject: Ethics of recommending PhD research

Most of you out there who teach linguistics encounter 
students, perhaps one or two a year, sometimes more, 
sometimes less, who either excel at linguistics or are 
intent to pursue (post)graduate research in linguistics, or 
both. (And others of you reading this list are those 
students.) The discovery of these students is one of the 
most satisfying things in university teaching---after all, 
we were once those students, and they share our passion for 
our chosen field. 

But I have a moral dilemma in advising them about pursuing 
a linguistics research career. On the one hand, these 
students' inclinations and abilities mark them out as 
future linguists, and for the most part that is what they 
want to be. On the other hand, the current job market has 
been dreadful for the two decades I have been doing 
linguistics, and doesn't look like it is about to change. I 
have real ethical problems recommending students to devote 
several intense, poverty-stricken years to come out at the 
end with little if any prospect of a career---even for the 
best students.

Another, morally problematic factor that we must consider 
is---to put it most frankly---self-interest, both short-
term and long-term. In the short term, most of us are under 
pressure by our universities to admit more research 
graduate students; this is true in at least the US and the 
UK. If we don't, our departmental funding might be cut, our 
Ph.D. program (and their courses) may be eliminated, and 
perhaps our department (or our job) will be eliminated as 
well. These facts pressure us to encourage not-so-brilliant 
students who want to pursue an academic career, or 
brilliant students who haven't considered the option, to 
pursue PhD study, in order to keep our department an 
economically viable segment of the university. 

In the long term, these students are the future of our 
field, especially for those of us in less popular 
subfields. Discouraging them, or not encouraging them, may 
lead to the decline or even demise of our subfield, or even 
the field as a whole, and none of us wants that either.

So my questions are:

(1) What advice do you give to students in the following 
three categories?

(a) an outstanding undergraduate student who wants to 
pursue a PhD in linguistics.
(b) an outstanding undergraduate student who has not 
expressed an interest in pursuing a PhD in linguistics.
(c) a good but not outstanding undergraduate student who 
wants to pursue a PhD in linguistics.

[The advice I currently give is as follows: (a) I tell them 
what the job market is really like, and what academia is 
really like, and advise them that if they really love what 
they are doing and want to spend the next 4-6 years doing 
it with the real possibility of having to choose another 
career, they should go ahead. This pessimistic perspective 
has not stopped any of my students yet, incidentally. (b) 
If they have other career interests, I don't try to talk 
them into an academic career. (c) I give them the facts of 
academic life as for the (a) group, but I don't encourage 
them. However, I haven't actively discouraged them either.]

(2) For those of you in small or "non-mainstream" areas of 
linguistics, what do you tell students in (1a)-(1c), 
including students who have started their PhD courses and 
say "I want to do [your subfield], but I don't know if it's 
worth it because there are no jobs in it".

[I actually haven't had to give such advice because those 
who have come to me have been pretty firm about their 
interest in my subfield(s), but I've heard of others in 
this situation.]

(3) Are there *sound* reasons for thinking the economic 
situation in higher education in the US and/or western 
Europe will change significantly for the better in the near 
future (i.e. by the time currently finishing undergraduates 
would receive a PhD)? 

[I should note that for 15 years now I have been reading 
that there will be a big improvement in the academic job 
market "just around the corner", and I'm still waiting.]

I should make clear that I am referring to advising 
students about pursuing a PhD in linguistics. Advising 
students to take an undergraduate degree in linguistics is 
another story of course, and one that has already been 
discussed on this list on a number of occasions. 

I will summarize responses to the list (plus my assessment 
of whether I should change the advice I give).

Bill Croft
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: ? Sonority Hierarchy

Date: Tue, 4 Feb 1997 14:08:55 -0500
From: LAS <>
Subject: ? Sonority Hierarchy


 I am looking for information regarding the sonority hierarchy. What
I would like, ideally, is a table showing a specific value for each
English phoneme rather than the broad grouped values I have access to
 The closest thing I have been able to find to what I am looking for
so far is Elizabeth Selkirk's 1982 article entitled "On the Major
Class Features and Syllable Theory" which appeared in a volume
entitled _Language Sound Structure: Studies in Phonetics Presented to
Morris Halle by his Teacher and Students_. In this article, Selkirk
divides English phonemes into groups according to manner of
articulation and voicing. Voiceless stops are the lowest in the
hierarchy, carrying a value of 0.5. Voiced stops come next with a
value of 1.0, and so on, with liquids and glides toward the higher end
of the spectrum and with vowels appearing at the top.

 This is really good information. The only problem is that
affricates and [sh] and certain other sounds are not included. Also, I
believe that there must be data out there somewhere that presents a
specific value for each sound rather than simply presenting broad
values based on groups of sounds. For example, it is said that [sh]
is more sonorant than [s] yet a grouping of all voiceless fricatives
together into one group and assigning them all one value does not
capture this fine distinction.
 Thanks for whatever information you can give me in terms of actual
data or references. I understand that either Jakobsen and Halle's
_Preliminaries to Speech Analysis_ (1952) or Bloch and Trager's
_Outlines of Linguistic Analysis_ (1942) may have such information,
but I have been unable to track down these sources as of yet. It may
be that more modern equipment is able to measure the data more
accurately, anyway, so I would prefer to have access to something
fairly recent if it's available.
 Incidentally, similar information in the form of a chart or table
for any other languages (especially Arabic, Spanish, and Chinese)
would be very helpful, as well.
 Thanks in advance,

David Harris
Language Analysis Systems Voice: (703) 834-6200 ext. 242
2214 Rock Hill Road, Suite 201 Fax: (703) 834-6230
Herndon, VA 22070 

"Human beings have an inalienable right to invent themselves; when that
right is preempted, [the result is] brainwashing." 
	Germaine Greer
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue