honest phonology

Talking to someone about the standard controversies in linguistics a while ago, they suggested we should start a movement called honest phonology, a name which would capture how focussed it was going to be on directly observable and measurable phenomena, in contrast to the more hidden, abstract, speculative units and processes which (could be thought to) characterise a lot of conventional phonological analyses in the generative tradition. (If Tukey could name a statistical test Tukey’s Honestly Significant Difference, I don’t see why we couldn’t do the same for linguistics. Cath’s Refreshingly Honest Phonology: can’t you just see it.)

Regrettably, though, the best it seems I can do at the moment is naive phonology, which doesn’t have quite the same prestigious ring to it and isn’t particularly likely to progress my career in academia to any noticeable extent. How come, everything I read, sounds completely unfamiliar and clunky, as if I hadn’t been reading in and around this subject for donkey’s years. At this stage, you understand, it’s a bit worrying when it feels like I’ve been subtly missing the point all along.

In her 1970 book Suprasegmentals, for example, Ilse Lehiste mentions that “there is a difference in kind between segmental features proper and the features of pitch, stress, and quantity, [which are suprasegmental].” This is on page 2. Why did I never notice this before? Obviously there is a difference between segmental and suprasegmental features, but in my blissful ignorance I wouldn’t have called it a difference in kind, as if these were wholly different species of things going on within phonology.

Is it just me, or shouldn’t it be possible – at least in principle, at least as some distant target to be aimed for – to have a unifying theory, one which can engage with the speech signal wholistically, and provide a coherent account of how all these different phenomena can be integrated, and how they could be understood as a package considering they are exhibited as a package. I can understand disentangling things as far as possible for the purposes of more in-depth analysis, but my preference, if it’s not too naive, would be to keep firmly at the back of your mind the principle that we disentangled them for the purposes of the analysis, not because they’re somehow really like that in the real world.

Hmm, and did I really want that “w” in holistically?

2 thoughts on “honest phonology

  1. I guess you can see something like that in Optimality Theory. Although each constraint evaluates some particular aspect of the output, everything is, ideally, computed in parallel.

    You can imagine that the constraints are doing the job of disentangling things “for the purposes of the analysis”, while the grammar is in fact evaluating the linguistic structures as whole, aiming for global well-formedness. That’s how I see the spirit of OT.


  2. Yes, I think that’s fair enough! I think OT does aim for that goal, in principle. But I’m moving away from generative theories in linguistics, including OT (trying to explore some alternatives) – and in fact, one of my worries about OT is that it seems to be one of the factors which keeps segmental phonology separate from suprasegmental phonology.

    Eg, I’ve recently been reading some articles by Prof April McMahon, where she argues that segmentals and suprasegmentals are indeed separate domains within phonology, and one of the arguments she uses is that OT is good for suprasegmentals and not-so-good for segmentals. She is careful to say that that in itself doesn’t necessarily mean they’re truly separate, but she does say that it’s indicative of their separateness that phonologists struggle to treat them in one unified account.

    But I’m still willing to be convinced in the other direction :D


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