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Review of  The Emergence of Phonology

Reviewer: Anett Réka Garami
Book Title: The Emergence of Phonology
Book Author: Marilyn M. Vihman Tamar Keren-Portnoy
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Phonology
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 32.955

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This volume presents studies on first language acquisition and the emergence of phonology in children. Seventeen papers written by Marilyn M Vihman and Tamar Keren-Portnoy, Marilyn M. Vihman and William Croft, Natalie Waterson, Charles A. Ferguson and Carol B. Farwell, Marlys A. Macken, Lise Menn, T. M. S. Priestly, Marilyn M Vihman and Shelley L. Velleman, Marilyn M Vihman, Shelley L. Velleman, and Loraine McCune, Daniela Oliveira-Guimarães, Sophie Wauquier and Naomi Yamaguchi, Marta Szreder, Tuula Savinainen-Makkonen, Ghada Khattab and Jalal Al-Tamimi, Mitsuhiko Ota, Lorraine McCune, Lise Menn, Ellen Schmidt, and Brent Nicholas respectively are included in this collection dealing with various languages (British and American English, French, Arabic, Polish, Finnish, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish). Through language specific features of acquisition authors aim to establish general features of child language as well, which appears to be a successful attempt. The volume is dedicated to the presentation of early word production and the phonological patterning that can be observed in that. Along with this, it contributes to the literature of usage-based phonological development, more precisely the so-called whole-word approach, which started in the 1970s. Papers in this volume extend this model.

Introduction: (Introduction: the emergence of phonology: whole-word approaches, cross-linguistic evidence). Ferguson and Farwell’s and Macken’s studies on whole-word or lexical patterns as the core of adult as well as child phonological patterns stood outside of phonological theory at the time of publication. Following Chomsky and Halle’s statement of generative phonology (1968) other studies emerged as a response to its limitations; child phonology was examined within different theoretical frameworks. One of them was the whole-word approach, which the volume returns to and determines as the core of adult and child phonological knowledge. It means that children take words (or word-like sequences) as units, not sounds. This theoretical framework can account for individual differences across children, lexical variation within one child and the phenomenon of regression. According to the whole-word phonological model the input is the entire lexical unit based on which the child generates his/her own word templates and generates his/her own output. Through this process different mechanisms are applied (e.g. truncation, reduplication, omission etc.). However, the source of the shapes of the earliest words is also related to prelinguistic vocal practice, namely babbling. The pronunciation of the first words is close to the child’s babbling practice. Furthermore, the importance of word templates in early phonological development is emphasized. Vihman and Keren-Portnoy claim that rhythm is an important factor responsible for variability in acquisition processes. The volume provides descriptive papers that have given rise to the whole-word approach in Part II, empirical studies that work with this approach (except for Ota (Chapter 15) and Priestly (Chapter 7), who do not make any explicit use of the theory) in Part III. In Part IV further perspectives and challenges to theories are addressed.

Part I contains one paper (Chapter 2: Phonological development: toward a ''radical'' templatic phonology) describing the current framework. In that chapter Vihman and Croft establish their theoretical hypothesis as language-specific phonotactic templates being the representation of the segmental phonological structure of words. In addition, they argue that this theory is also suited to the analysis of adult phonology. In this theory the basic phonological unit is a word template. Since for many children the earliest domain seems to be the entire lexical unit, authors conclude that children are progressing towards their linguistic and phonological knowledge by learning whole words at first. They also argue that some patterns occur cross-linguistically while others are language-specific.

Part II includes papers (Chapters 3-6) on the emergence of the theoretical framework used throughout this volume. Authors build new models on existing literature. They present long-existing generally accepted knowledge and phenomena, but highlight exceptional, interesting processes of language learning as well (e.g., regression in pronunciation, high level of variation of word forms in one child, imitation etc.) In Chapter 3 (Child phonology: a prosodic view) Waterson offers an approach that provides new insights into the relationship between child and adult forms and structures. Children’s language system is different from adults’ but it is related to it. The child’s linguistic development is individual; however, it may be similar to other children’s, thus the findings may have general implications. The paper provides a detailed description of the acquisition of certain sounds ([v, w, ɲ, b]). Evidence is given that the child’s own forms are produced through the recognition of a set of features out of the selection of features composing adult forms.

Chapter 4 (Words and sounds in early language acquisition) examines the child’s language development in terms of words and word-initial consonants. Interestingly, imitations are not excluded from the analysis, since spontaneous data are very rare in one-year-old children. Ferguson and Farwell find surprising tendencies in their data, namely the high range of variability of word forms and the accurate rendition of early stage words. Furthermore, the child may show a fallback in earlier, more accurate forms as their learning proceeds and also shows a great selectivity in deciding which words they would want to produce. Thus the authors conclude that phonological development takes place along several parameters (including the phonetic and lexical parameter). Ferguson and Farwell establish a model in which they separate phonetic and phonemic development while maintaining some ''contrast''. First children learn words from others; they construct their own phonologies and then develop phonological awareness. They assume that an adult’s ability to pronounce her/his language is a stage in her/his phonological development, which means the same kind of developmental structure as that of children.

Chapter 5 (Developmental reorganization of phonology: a hierarchy of basic units of acquisition) describes the acquisition of the consonant system by a child learning Mexican Spanish as her native language. Macken lists several phenomena that show a central role for the word as a prosodic unit through language acquisition. Si (the subject of the study) employs syllable deletion, syllable reduction, consonant harmony, consonant cluster simplification and metathesis. Si’s data are reviewed as they pertain to a general model of phonological acquisition including universals and individual differences of acquisition.

In Chapter 6 (Development of articulatory, phonetic, and phonological capabilities) Menn reviews the strategies children use in acquiring phonology. The author creates a model that allows us to deal with three issues: (1) knowledge of how words sound, (2) knowledge of how to pronounce them, (3) knowledge of allomorphy. To be able to ''copy'' adult forms the child invents rules to derive their own output. Early phonological development is viewed as the development of motor programming. The model is placed in the theory of child phonology in general.

The nine papers (Chapters 7-15) in Part III include cross-linguistic empirical studies. Chapter 7 (One idiosyncratic strategy in the acquisition of phonology) is one of the exceptional studies in this volume not adopting the whole-word approach explicitly. Data are analyzed on the basis of relationships between input and output (correspondences, coincidences and reversions). It was found that syllable position and stress are major factors determining the child’s output. Furthermore, the study suggests the syllable should be regarded as the basic unit in phonological acquisition.

Chapter 8 (Phonological reorganization: a case study) provides an illustration of the beginning of phonological systematization with the documentation of three processes: experimentation, the use of whole-word-sized production patterns and regression. As a result the establishment of preferred production patterns and the restructuring of new target words to fit the existent production patterns are evidence of phonological systematization.

The aim of Chapter 9 (How abstract is child phonology? Towards an integration of linguistic and psychological approaches) is the examination of the emergence of phonological systematicity within a psychological framework based on the distinct paths that children follow in phonological and lexical development. The subjects of this study are two children who have different strategies, units of organization and articulatory bases for their first word production. The two children’s way of language development is different; however, simple CV(CV) words are pronounced by both of them. It was found that children pronounce the most difficult or unfamiliar sounds word-initially, while word-medially more automatic production is at work. The model shown in this paper proposes vocal motor schemes and adult models on which children shape their early vocal patterns.

Chapter 10 (Beyond early words: word template development in Brazilian Portuguese) offers an analysis of the emergence and evolution of word templates, and a discussion on the role of the word and the segment in phonological acquisition of Brazilian Portuguese. Evidence is shown of the gradual fading of templates as segments emerge as the units of representation. There is also an extension of phonological templates to new words as the child’s vocabulary increases. The achievement of the author’s goal, to trace and follow the emergence of templates and also their decline and disappearance, is proved by case studies.

Chapter 11 (Templates in French) examines a previous hypothesis proposed for French: having a formal, rhythmically determined template which includes a variety of structures in child output. The study maintains CV syllable structure as the basic unit employed by French children. According to the findings of the paper, children begin with CV and VCV structures and insert internal CV structures to develop towards the adult form of words.

In Chapter 12 (The acquisition of consonant clusters in Polish: a case study) Szreder provides a comprehensive analysis of the acquisition of consonant clusters, especially word-medially in Polish. Among the findings of this study the author acknowledges that the four positions of consonants (singletons at word onset; word-initial, word-medial, and word-final consonant clusters) pose different difficulties for children. However, she claims that the overall shape of the word triggers processes; and vice versa, processes affect the overall shape of the word. There is a dependency interaction between word-initial and word-medial position regarding the stability of the word form. The results prove that the child’s linguistic experience is crucial. Although we can see systematicity in the use of pronunciation patterns, there is no clear consistency, which makes it difficult to build a clear model of phonological development. Interestingly, Szreder found examples of cluster insertion where the adult target word had no clusters.

In Chapter 13 (Geminate template: a model for first Finnish words) the acquisition of Finnish as a native language is examined. In Finnish children hear inflected words with three or more syllables most of the time, but they cannot reproduce them properly. This study discusses whether the first words of Finnish children can be represented in CVCV structures successfully with a focus on medial geminates.

Chapter 14 (Influence of geminate structure on early Arabic templatic patterns) examines the geminate structure in early Arabic templatic patterns with a focus on the influence of adult phonology and the child’s own processes towards phonological knowledge. The study shows data from children between the beginning and the end of the one-word stage of language acquisition. New data on early word shapes in Lebanese Arabic and patterns in children’s production are presented. The findings support the preliminary hypothesis of the special role of phonological length in Arabic in the production of lengthening as a suprasegmental feature, which the child tends to overgeneralize and applies to new incoming words.

Chapter 15 (Lexical frequency effects on phonological development: the case of word production in Japanese) is the other exception to the approach featuring the studies in this volume. Ota presents evidence that the development of phonological production involves lexical diffusion and phonological conditioning. When children become able to produce a word depends on how often they hear the word. The production of Japanese words with more than one syllable is discussed in this chapter, including the phenomenon of syllable omission or ''truncation''. A notable finding of the paper is the role of the lexicon in cross-word variation in sound production.

Further perspectives and challenges to theories are addressed in Part IV (Chapters 16 and 17). In Chapter 16 (A view from developmental psychology) McCune summarizes the importance of template research for early child phonology and general studies of the first phase of language acquisition as well.

Chapter 17 (Challenges to theories, charges to a model: the Linked-Attractor model of phonological development) concludes the volume by presenting the Linked-Attractor model of phonological development (Menn et al., 2009). The novelty of the Linked-Attractor model is that it comprises three elements: production/output templates, perceptual/input templates and the mappings between input and output. Building a theory of child phonology acquisition is exposed to the problems of variability and individual differences.


The Emergence of Phonology is a collection of descriptive papers for linguists researching early phonological development in children. The studies presented here provide detailed discussion and analysis of the early stage of language acquisition in children learning different languages. Based on fieldwork and personal data collection from subjects, the authors successfully describe the individual factors as well as general implications of first language acquisition. The data presented in this volume appear to support one of Jakobson’s major claims that there is a uniform order of sound development in different children learning the same language and in children learning different languages as well. These uniformities arise from fundamental implications, such as children learn to produce sounds and units that they often hear, which is obviously not the same set in the case of different children. However, based on data represented here a solely uniform structure of language development cannot be built. Besides general simplification methods natural phonological processes (attested in adult phonology as well – e. g. vowel harmony, assimilation, voicing, spreading of features such as nasality etc.) also work on child words. We should have a model that can account for uniformities as well as individual differences. The “whole-word approach” is supposed to be a model of this type. By claiming that language acquisition is triggered by perceiving whole words (entire lexical units), individual differences can be accounted for since children are exposed to different sets of words and sound strings which they attempt to reproduce.

Within “whole-word” acquisition the templatic approach highlights the simplification processes of difficult sound strings and segments. Based on the input (word or word-like units) children build templates that help them in reproduction. The questions could be raised whether acquiring perception and production are distinct and whether the “whole-word” has different roles in these processes. I think the “word” as a unit may have different functions in perception and production, which difference could be elaborated on.

In my opinion, comparing the whole-word approach to other current theoretical frameworks could make explicit the limitations of the former. For instance, CVCV Phonology (Lowenstamm, 1996; Scheer, 2004) or Optimality Theory (OT) (Prince and Smolensky 1993) could provide further analyses of the data collected and described with great care in this volume. Representing the data collected from various languages in the syllable-free CVCV Phonology framework controlled by principles and parameters could provide new insight into the process. It would be interesting to represent child words in CVCV structure to see how governing relations work and produce well-formed words in a child’s own grammar.


Ferguson, C. A. and Farewell, C. B. 1975. Words and sounds in early language acquisition. Language, 51. 419-39. Reprinted in this volume as Chapter 4.

Lowenstamm, J. 1996. CV as the only syllable type. Ed. Jacques Durand and Bernard Laks Current Trends in Phonology: Models and Methods. European Studies Research Institute, University of Salford Publications. 419–442.

Menn, L., Schmidt, E., and Nicholas, B. 2009. Conspiracy and sabotage in the acquisition of phonology: dense data undermine existing theories, provide scaffolding for a new one. Language Sciences, 31 (2-6), 285-304.

Prince, A. and Smolensky, P. (1993). Optimality Theory: Constraint Interaction in Generative Grammar. Rutgers University Center for Cognitive Science Technical Report 2.
Scheer, T. 2004. A Lateral Theory of Phonology. Vol. 1. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
My name is Anett Réka Garami, I am a student of PPCU Doctoral School of Linguistics (Hungary). I am a phonologist and my research field is special consonant clusters in English and West Slavonic languages represented in CVCV Phonology framework.

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