phthongs, shphthongs

I do appreciate that, for most people, the phrase Fifty Years in Phonetics sounds like nothing so much as a death sentence. And yet, David Abercrombie’s book with that very title just leapt off the page as I was, er, browsing through someone’s list of references – this season’s must-read, was my instant reaction.

Anyway, the thrilling journey through technical phonetics terminology takes a new twist in chapter 4, where it turns out that if someone hadn’t decided to co-opt the term segment for talking about ‘speech sounds,’ who knows but today we might all be talking about supraphthongals and autophthongal phonology in linguistics departments all over the world.

In this chapter (first published in 1989), Abercrombie says that the earliest use of segment as a technical term, as far as he had found, was in an article by someone called NC Scott in 1941. Although there had been widespread dissatisfaction with using ‘sound’ or ‘speech sound’ as technical terms, none of the competitors had until then really taken off. The possibilities included phone, suggested by RJ Lloyd in 1899 (and still currently in use in some contexts), sone, suggested by John P Harrington in 1912, and the lovely phthong, suggested by an Edinburgh man, Dr SW Carruthers, in 1900.

Carruthers himself apparently acknowledged that his coinage had an “uncouth look” – and yet, in its favour, it was presumably only borrowed from Greek, and in the context of some other tongue-twisty linguistics terms it mightn’t have been too bad. (In one tragic exam script I marked recently, someone gave a beautiful definition of homonymy, unfortunately in answer to the question about hyponymy, and stated at the end with would-be knowledgeableness, ‘hyponymy is not to be confused with polysemy.’)

Meanwhile, in the previous chapter, Abercrombie discusses the origins of the term phoneme. It was apparently invented by a French scholar, Dufriche-Desgenettes, in the late 19th century.

“The word phoneme, or rather phonème, was coined, apparently, by the French phonetician, poet, and lexicographer A Dufriche-Desgenettes (1804-?85), a founder member of the Société de Linguistique in Paris. Dufriche-Desgenettes considered that there was no satisfactory equivalent for speech-sound, sprachlaut, or phone; son du langage being too clumsy. So he invented phonème to provide one (he was a great inventor of new technical terms). The term was intended to refer to vowels and consonants, in the way in which our more recent segment does. He used it in a paper which he gave to the Société de Linguistique on 24 May 1873, on nasal consonants, and on subsequent occasions.” Abercrombie 1991: 24-25.

Interestingly neither Scott nor Dufriche-Desgenettes were the ones responsible for making their terms so widely known – it was Baudouin de Courtenay’s student Kruszewski who popularised the term ‘phoneme,’ and Kenneth Pike who via his 1943 book Phonetics popularised the term ‘segment.’

Abercrombie, D (1991), Fifty Years in Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


7 thoughts on “phthongs, shphthongs

  1. It was Sapir though, who invented the concept of the phoneme, wasn’t it?

    A friend of mine was trawling through a pre-phonemic Sapir work on an Amerindian language for a project a while back. It was written in phonetic transcription, and moreover, the language is known to have horrible allophony.


  2. No, the idea was around for a good while before Sapir. It’s usually de Saussure who gets the credit for it, or de Courtenay and the Kazan school. But many scholars had the concept even before the terminology came into use – Henry Sweet for example, the English phonetician and philologist, in the 1870s.
    Also in Abercrombie’s chapter 3 he provides quotes from Odell (1806) and Isaac Pitman (1846) (that’s Pitman the inventor of shorthand, if you’re into trivia like that), which show that these writers all made the point that some speech sounds are distinctive and others not.

    You could have a look at Stephen Anderson’s book, Phonology in the Twentieth Century, for more details/discussion.

    I don’t know much about Sapir’s methods, but perhaps he intentionally tried to transcribe as much phonetic detail as he could, with a view to basing his phonemic analysis on the transcriptions? Phonological analyses were apparently much more closely grounded in phonetics in the past than they are now! (see eg Ohala’s catchily titled article, ‘Phonetics and phonology then, and then, and now.’)


  3. Btw Anne as you undoubtedly already noticed, pronouncing the second half of the title involves you producing an alveolar then a labiodental then a dental fricative all in rapid succession!
    Ie as the air is passing through your vocal tract you have to make a constriction first of all with your tongue and the front of the roof of your mouth, then with your top teeth and bottom lip, and finally with your tongue between your teeth! Really, sometimes I wonder why nobody has yet produced a book called Phonetics is Fun.
    Apparently the phth sequence is fine in Greek though!


  4. The “Golden Rule of Transcription” was first formulated by Henry Sweet in his Handbook of Phonetics of 1877: “… it is necessary to have an alphabet which indicates only those broader distinctions of sound which actually correspond to distinctions of meaning in language…” (p. 103). In “Les sons du francais” of 1887, Paul Passy (who was familiar with Sweet’s works) wrote: “…il nous sufit de représanter les élémans du langaje ayant une valeur significative [it is sufficient for us to represent the elements of language which have a significative value] …” (p. 51). Neither Ferdinand de Saussure nor Mikolaj Kruszewski nor Jan Baudouin de Courtenay ever clearly expressed this idea (let alone others who have been credited with it, such as the ancient Indian grammarians, the Icelandic “First Grammatical Treatise” and the Swiss Jost Winteler).

    The term *phoneme* (as opposed to the “phoneme idea”) was taken up by Saussure in his Mémoire of 1878. Kruszewski, in a review of this work, used it for a sound or sound sequence that enters into alternations (within a language) or correspondences (between languages), as did his teacher Baudouin who had provided the conceptual framework. Later, Baudouin used *phoneme* for a mental representation of a sound. Finally, his student Scerba, who studied with Passy for some time, was the first (in 1910) to use *phoneme* for a distinctive unit.

    For further details, see:
    Joachim Mugdan, “Die Anfänge der Phonologie”, in: Peter Schmitter (ed.), Sprachtheorien der Neuzeit II: Von der Grammaire de Port-Royal (1660) zur Konstitution moderner linguistischer Disziplinen. Tübingen: Narr 1996 (Geschichte der Sprachtheorie 5), 247-318

    For those who don’t read German, some of the points made in that article already appear in:
    Joachim Mugdan, “The Origin of the Phoneme: Farewell to a Myth”, Lingua Posnaniensis 28(1987), 137-150, reprinted in:
    Charles W. Kreidler (ed.), Phonology: Critical Concepts Vol. V, London / New York: Routledge, 2001, 4-20


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