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.