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Discussion Details

Title: where is phonetics in grammar?
Submitter: Heriberto Avelino
Description: Recently, I was part of a discussion regarding an issue that I thought was
uncontroversial. However, it seems that this is not as straightforward as I
first thought. The debate is about the place of phonetics in the study of
'grammar'. More precisely, whether the study of sound patterns using
phonetic methodologies and techniques falls within the broad scope of the
term 'grammar'.

My position is that phonetics, indeed, belongs and should be included in
'grammar', whatever notion we may have of it, either as the more abstract
idea of grammar as universal grammar or the more practical notion of
grammar as the grammatical description of a given language. The
antagonistic view to my own seems to be rooted in the fact that some
traditional descriptive grammars have not included sections of the sound
patterns of similar length to those dedicated to morpho-syntactic aspects
of the language. While this is true and we often find that the phonology
section of many grammars are reduced to the inventory of phonemes, I
believe that this is, in part, because in the past the access to the tools
and techniques was limited and linguists didn't have the training to
provide more detailed descriptions of the sound patterns (Maddieson (2003)
shows the low proportion of phonetics in 20 recent grammars). However, it
is clear that many earlier and quite solid grammars, which have been
praised as exemplars in the field, such as Sapir's Southern Paiute, Dixon's
Yidin or Aoki's Nez Perce contain rich sections devoted to the fine
phonetic description of the sound patterns of the languages. (I always
wondered whether Sapir would have included acoustic analysis of the
remarkable glottal processess in S. Paiute and corresponding illustrations
if he had had expedite access to a sonograph.)

Another point to consider supporting the inclusion of phonetics in
'grammar' comes from languages with complex phonological processes which
indicate grammatical categories, such as tone, non-modal phonation,
nasalization and consonant mutation processes, among others. In these
languages is especially clear that the instrumental study of the sounds
might help to a better understanding of the nature of these processes and
the interface of the different levels of linguistic analysis. Just to
mention an example, a phenomenon called a 'ballistic syllable' has been
described for several Otomanguean languages. The descriptions (as well as
my own impressionistic observations) suggest processes related to the
control of tone, non-modal phonation, intensity and overall 'effort' in the
implementation of the contrast. Interestingly enough, the contrast is not
only lexical but also is exploited in inflection of verb and noun
paradigms. However, even with the heroic efforts of several scholars, we
still do not know completely what the nature and appropriate description
and analysis of 'ballistic syllables' is; in fact, we don't even know if
the term refers to the same phenomenon across languages or covers several
distinct processes. Nevertheless, how to produce a ballistic syllable has
to be part of the speaker's knowledge, and thus grammar. I think that with
languages of this type the study of phonetics shows particularly clearly
that it merits being included in 'grammar'.

One further domain where the need of phonetics is evident is in the study
of intonation. Prosody is one of the less well-known areas of many
languages and one where grammars do not abound in basic facts. However, I
believe, nobody could deny that intonation is, indeed, a crucial component
of grammar. Perhaps, its exclusion from descriptive grammars is due first
to the limited access to tools that could adequately capture the phonetic
nature of the phenomenon, but also (and maybe derived to some extent from
the latter) to the absence of a descriptive framework within which to
describe the patterns and handle the relationship between prosody and
syntactic/semantic aspects of the language. With the development of better
models and methods for the study of intonation, there has been a clear
advance in knowledge of universal and language-specific patterns in this
area but so far this is not typically reflected in descriptive grammars.

In sum, I would like to see the grammars of the future including rich
informative sections dealing with the phonetics of languages, including as
far as possible instrumental measures of the basic acoustics and the most
prominent phenomena of their sound patterns. Now we have the conditions to
produce these more complete grammars: A basic grounding in phonetics is
taught in most linguistic programs, acoustic analysis tools are accessible
to almost anyone with access to a computer and internet, and - just as with
any other aspect of grammar - the data to construct typologies of phonetic
phenomena must come from descriptions of individual languages. Describing
the grammar of a language entails necessarily describing its phonetic

Anyhow, because it seems that not everybody shares the idea that phonetics
should be considered a substantive part of grammar, I'd like to hear the
reactions from the community. I would appreciate very much your comments
and views.

Maddieson, Ian. 2003. ''Field phonetics.'' In J. Larson & M. Paster,
eds., Proceedings of the 28th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics
Society, 411-429.
Dixon, R.M.W. 1977. A Grammar of Yidin Cambridge. Cambridge studies in
linguistics ; 19) New York : Cambridge University Press,
Sapir, Edward. 1931. Southern Paiute, a Shoshonean language. Texts of the
Kaibab Paiutes and Uintah Utes. Southern Paiute dictionary, (Proceedings of
the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ; v.65)
Aoki, Haruo. (1970). Nez Perce grammar. University of California
publications in linguistics (Vol. 62). Berkeley: University of California
Press. (Reprinted 1973, California Library Reprint series).

'Life is short but wide'

Heriberto Avelino
Department of Linguistics
1203 Dwinelle Hall,
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-2650
Phone: (510) 642-2757
Fax: (510) 643-5688
Date Posted: 26-Jul-2006
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
LL Issue: 17.2149
Posted: 26-Jul-2006

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