LINGUIST List 8.798

Thu May 29 1997

Disc: Functionalism

Editor for this issue: Helen Dry <>


  1. benji wald, Re: 8.736, Disc: Functionalism

Message 1: Re: 8.736, Disc: Functionalism

Date: Tue, 20 May 1997 01:51:06 -0700 (PDT)
From: benji wald <bwaldHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: Re: 8.736, Disc: Functionalism

I very much appreciated Rick Wojcik and Geoffrey Nathan's lengthy answers
to my previous comments questioning what the discussion and disaagreement
(?) is all about.

While I was not completely satisfied with their responses, I did get closer
to understanding what the previous discussion was about. Two points have
now become salient to me. One has to do with the bases of what have been
presented as facts, and the other has to do with the concept of
"(consonant) cluster". I'll take the points in that order.

>The important point is that speakers
>sometimes produce what phoneticians describe as [pt] for the
>initial syllable of "potato".

Since Rick shied away here from using the term "cluster", I'm not sure what
he, or whatever phoneticians he is referring to, mean by [pt], most
crucially whether there is a claim that there is no release of the [p]
segment BEFORE the tongue goes into the [t] position. This is a question
of fact, not notation, that I am raising here, and I don't know the answer.
My intuition, which can only have limited applicability, does not suggest
that p and t would ever be coarticulated in English, although the tongue is
universally entirely free to take the [t] position at any point during the
[p] articulation (which only involves the lips after all). By
"coarticulated" allow [p] to be formed FIRST but let [t] be articulated
BEFORE release of [p]. Isn't that how it's done in Greek? As in English
when not initial, e.g., helico/pt/er, hymeno/pt/era, o/pt/imality
(theory), etc. That was my understanding of a "cluster" in my last
message. I'll get back to that below. In any case, I repeat: what are the
phonetic facts? Phoneticians make instrumental measurements; they do not
have to rely on intuitions to uncover such facts. Have they done it in
cases like English "initial" [pt]? (I rather doubt it, since phoneticians
do not generally work, or know how to work, with the informal speech
contexts in which processes like "potato"" losing" its first vowel take
place. I'd be delighted if I'm wrong about that, but if I'm right, we
don't have the phonetic facts to carry on a discussion about things like
English /pt/ in potato. We only have OPINIONS about what's sayable in
English -- I hope not.)

Rick goes on:

>The question, if I remember correctly,
>was why speakers should be able to pronounce the reduced [pt]
>if they couldn't pronounce the unreduced one.

In view of what I have said above, I understand that the phonological
processes involved are not consciously controllable, and that reduction (or
whatever?) of the first vowel in "potato" reflects a process which normally
occurs when speech is NOT deliberate or conscious, but when it is
relatively spontaneous. So we're dealing with unconscious stylistic
effects, in my view.

>> >The fact that you can't pronounce the cluster in no way means that the
>> >cluster is banned as a side-effect in the pronunciation of some other
>> >phonetic target.

That just goes along with what I just said, but sounds absurd because it
does not explicitly acknowledge the difference between consciously
controllable phonological processes, and unconscious, spontaneous, but
nevertheless learned/acquired, processes. Am I missing that somehow the
theory at issue does indeed account for this distinction? Does it even
recognise it? Or, should it?

(Self-conscious speech is indeed the suppression of some phonetic
realisation rules, but depending on how deep your phonology --
morphophonemics? -- is, it is NEVER the elimination of everything short of
"deep" phonotactics, right? In fact, I ask: is self-conscious speech ever
anything but the suppression of some realisation rules, i.e., does it ever
*really* include the addition of a rule? That might be an interesting
question for some theorists.)

Next, where I said:
>>Devoicing of vowels in
>> certain contexts seems to be as "natural" as voicing consonants
>> between vowels, leading to a contradiction for a theory which
>> thinks it has to choose between C -> voiced /V_V and V ->
>> voiceless /C_C (where both C's are voiceless)...

Rick reponded:
>OK, but why would language learners have to make such choices in
>a vacuum? Wouldn't they be able to observe what other speakers of
>the language do in those situations and act accordingly?

Yeah, of course. That's just what they do. FIRST language learners, that
is. L2 learners is another story, as everybody knows, and as has proven
useful to exploring the nature of a FIRST language phonological system.
Meanwhile, to continue with L1 acquisition, Rick makes some interesting

>The theory says that learners strive to eliminate impediments to
>desired pronunciations. Processes are essentially speech impediments.
>When you eliminate the ones that impede proper articulation, the
>residual system is your adult phonology. This point is fundamental
>to understanding what the theory is about.

To the extent that this is reasonable, anything contradicting it seems to
me totally unreasonable. Of course, "adult phonology" may solidify at age
six, and not sound very "adult" or "proper" (in the everyday uses of these
terms). My "adult phonology" is non-rhotic, but, like most Americans, when
I speak with "adult" deliberateness and authority my speech becomes
partially rhotic. My vowels are never compressed into the space of
dialects with truly rhotic "adult phonology", e.g., merry - Mary - marry,
all have distinct stressed vowels for me, and I have no trouble
distinguishing them in the speech of other New Yorkers. I do not think
there is a single rhotic dialect alive in the US that makes these
distinctions, and rhotic speakers don't hear them *as distinct*. Two New
Yorkers (among many other non-rhotic dialects) could convince most US
rhotic speakers that we're psychic when we guess whether each other said
"Mary", "marry" or "merry", etc. out of any larger context.

Stampean theory predicts
>that very early language learners will have both devoicing of
>vowels between voiceless consonants and voicing of consonants between
>vowels. (In fact, such processes do occur in L1 acquisition, but they
>are not observed--may not even be manifested--in all learners. Having
>them doesn't mean that they actually have to become dominant during
>phonological acquisition. They do in some learners, but not all.)

Again, are these established FACTS? Or are we just going to hear somebody
say what they think they heard their little daughter say in the playpen or
in the highchair the other day? This issue desrves SERIOUS study, and I
would like to know what actual observations have been made, and what
documentation exists for these "facts" admittedly crucial to this theory
(and relevant to ANY other theory). The quote has so much hedging, I
wonder if its evidence is distinguishable from grasping at straws.

>I know that Stampean theory is very different--quite strange to some
>people. It requires one to treat acquisition as a kind of "loss" of
>pre-existing rules.

It's not strange to any theory based on a "universal grammar (include
phonology)" approach. But what does a universal phonology claim about
surface (presumably observable) phonetics?

Phonological derivations are much more complex in
>children and aphasics than in proficient speakers. It is
>reasonable to view the existence of contradictory processes as a true
>"contradiction" in a theory of markedness/competence.

This seems to presuppose a serious body of documented facts. Did I miss
them in previous discussion (apart from something about "potato")? I think
I would understand the theory a lot better if examples had actually been
effectively discussed.

> If markedness
>theory were really correct, then why didn't the human race converge on
>the same phonology ages ago? What keeps phonologies different if there
>is some kind of gold standard that we all use to arrive at grammatical
>analyses with?

Good question. What's the answer?

Natural Phonology simply takes the view that we put
>naturally-occuring, but chaotic behavioral constraints, into some kind
>of order, depending on what challenges the target language poses for
>the articulators. What you do with contradictory processes depends on
>what you have to say.

Was that the answer? What are examples of "naturally-occurring, but
chaotic behavioral constraints"?

So I appreciate Rick's response, but I have tried to explain why I remain

Finally, Geoff's comments on the issue of "cluster":

> While it is true that syllable-final stops are unreleased when
>followed by other consonants in English, it is by no means clear that
>all first consonants in clusters are unreleased--stop plus liquid and
>glide clusters are indeed released, with the aspiration spreading over
>the liquid/glide.

An incontestable point. I was wrong not to qualify what I was saying to
apply to "clusters" of which the final element is a *stop*, e.g., pt, st,
etc. Now that I realise that, I can go on to read:
> The [pt-]
>cluster in 'potato' may not be a *phonological* (that is underlying)
>cluster, but on the surface it's indistinguishable from a real cluster
>(modulo aspiration facts) in languages that have them (such as Greek).

Is that a fact? I wasn't aware. But is it a fact? I'd like to know. I
refer to what I asked above about issues of documentation.

> So, the English [pt-] is *phonetically* a cluster, but
>phonologically not--native speakers perceive a vowel there, even if
>they don't make one.

I'm not sure I understand the implication. If there's no vowel, it's a
cluster -- by definition? And the definition is practical because we don't
(can't?) know if the 'p' is released before the 't' is articulated? (I
gather this from the "by no means clear" comment several quotes above.)
Well, it's not *inherently* unclear. It seems that it's not clear because
the theory is content to form itself without a serious inquiry into the
facts. Phonetically, we can certainly ascertain what the relative timing
of 'p' release and 't' articulation, and whatever else fits into this
process, is -- or is there an argument about the feasibility of that? If
there is, how can you continue using the example as data? Of course, if
I'm the only one who is concerned about the standards for determining
phonetic facts used in phonological theory then my questions can be
ignored, and the assertions made above can be accepted for the sake of the
aesthetic pleasure of building*intuitive* theories -- no doubt they will
reflect some revealing property of "the mind" determining "intuition". In
that case, I'll abandon my impression that phonological theory has been
enjoying an advantage over syntactic theory in its ability to test its
predictions against NEW data. -- Benji
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue