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Discussion Details

Title: Subject: Disc: Phonetics in Grammar
Submitter: Mark Jones
Description: I'd like to add my voice in support of the call for more detailed phonetic
data in descriptions of languages (LINGUIST List: 17.2161, 17.2149), but
I'd like to suggest that it is needed across the board, even in languages
we think we know well. I'd also like to see it extended to descriptions of
non-standard varieties of known languages like English, where assumptions
about the realisations of sound systems may be numerous and unspoken.
'Sociophonetic' work may not always fill this void, as data may be
relatively uncontrolled, and therefore susceptible to numerous
(unidentified) segmental and non-segmental influences.

One recent example of this need springs to mind: at the British Association
of Academic Phoneticians (BAAP) colloquium at QMUC in Edinburgh in April,
Michael Ashby of UCL presented some work he'd carried out with Young Shin
Kim, a Korean student, on how the phonologically nasal consonants of Seoul
Korean are regularly 'denasalised', i.e. produced as stop-like consonants,
even in formal speech for all subjects analysed. This work is ongoing and
as yet unpublished, but this is a very interesting and fairly major insight
on a language we probably think we know quite well, at least in terms of
how phonological contrasts are realised in fairly canonical speech.

Mike Cahill's call for basic acoustic data on vowel systems or tonal
realisations is therefore to be welcomed, but these data are relatively
simple to collect, and barely scratch the surface.

Of course, the thinking is understandably that the phonetic data should
refer primarily to 'citation' forms, and this seems sensible. The task of
relating citation form realisations to contextual variation and casual
speech is a massive and challenging task in itself. Also, basic
descriptions based on non-citation forms may risk incorrectly identifying
some casual speech variant, for example, a fricative realisation of a
voiceless velar plosive between vowels, as the underlying exponent of a
contrastive category. On the other hand, some more than basic data on
coarticulation and connected and casual speech processes would be a real
addition to our knowledge of phonetic patterns.

My feeling is that even the basic task of accurate phonetic description may
be hampered in some respects by descriptions based on the methodology of
segmental transcriptions, as much as these are still the mainstay of
language description. I think that exposing students and prospective
fieldworkers to acoustic analysis not only introduces them to a very useful
analytical tool, but it also allows a finer appreciation of the complexity
of speech, even if acoustic analysis is used sparingly in the end product.
Any description of e.g. a phonological system would probably still come
down to a segmental analysis, but the level of detail would be much
improved if formant frequencies or voice onset time data were included.
Phonetics has moved far beyond transcription as a means of data
acquisition, but I wonder how many introductions to the subject in
linguistics courses reflect that fact.



Mark J. Jones
Department of Linguistics
University of Cambridge
mjj13   at
Date Posted: 28-Jul-2006
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Anthropological Linguistics
Discipline of Linguistics
LL Issue: 17.2184
Posted: 28-Jul-2006

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