householder’s asthma

Right now I’m reading ‘The primacy of writing’, a fascinating chapter in a 1971 book by Fred Householder (an American linguist at Indiana University who died in 1994 at the age of 80). It’s an attempt to integrate orthographic information into the kind of phonological grammar which Chomsky and Halle had presented in their 1968 Sound Pattern of English, which I think is deeply misguided, but which does include a very valuable discussion about the relation of writing and orthography to linguistics and phonology.

But that’s a digression. (How wonderful, to start off with a digression, she adds parenthetically.) The question I really want to ask is, how do you pronounce the word asthma?

There are three options so far:

  • /azmə/, ie with “z”
  • /asθmə/, ie pronouncing “th”
  • /asmə/, ie with “s” and not pronouncing “th”

One of these options is provided by Householder and the other two come from the OED. Two of them I find surprising, but I’m prepared to believe there could be regional differences.

Footnote: I’m allowed to file this under ‘phonology’ because it mentions SPE. The pronunciation question is of course completely trivial from a phonological point of view :)

6 thoughts on “householder’s asthma

  1. Good question, I dunno about that one. (Is that how you say it?)

    Theta – you have to use unicode as far as i know – IPA symbols are available here, or general extensions to the Latin alphabet here and surrounding pages :)
    (Eg the number for theta is 952 so you just type in this:
    & # 952 ;
    (but without the spaces)
    and it magically transofrms itself in some mysterious way that i’ll leave Rachel or Grant or someone to explain :)


  2. Cath,

    I am by training a psychiatric social worker with a strong interest in the semantics/syntactics/pragmatics of psychopathological communication. I reside just 100 miles from Indiana University (as I live in Louisville, Kentucky, USA). I had never heard of Householder but the message-behind-the-message(s) I am getting is that IU is a kind of Mid-American Mecca for all things linguistic. What your article stimulates me to do is “connect” with the folks up there… after I really do my homework in the research library down here.

    It would seem to me that the linguistic/semiotic element is the key to development in the behavior/social sciences– particularly with the trend toward neurolinguistics. Integrating these factors into one “whole” which becomes the clinical picture of a psychiatric patient would seem to be the task to which psychopathology needs address-itself– and this isonly crudely understood at present, with quite imperfect language-science and neuroscience. [Psychiatry DOES have words to describe the speech/thought pathology of psychotics– word salad, flight-of-ideas, loose association, derailment, tangentiality, circumstantiality– but the neurolinguistics of these (and other potential) factors is not understood… it is in rudiments.]

    I keep myself pretty occupied with these studies. Part of my self-education– in order to avoid the pitfalls of assuming that every book I read from the University of Louisville Libraries bookshelves on language science is as well-received in the discipline as others– I follow blogs. Your blog has been especially helpful.


    —Vernon Lynn Stephens, M.S.S.W.
    D.S.M. IV # 350


  3. Hi Vernon,

    Thanks for getting in touch! I have to admit that I don’t know much about Householder but I got the impression from somewhere that he was already well established as a linguist prior to the Chomskyan “revolution” and I think this might have given him a bit of the critical distance which was remarkable by its absence when generativism swept through the linguistics world in the 60s. (The book in question is called Linguistic Speculations and he says in the preface, “I am writing this book for my fellow-linguists, in each chapter introducing at least one new or unpopular proposal for consideration.” This is quite refreshing because his thoughts/speculations are often *genuinely* new or unpopular, not just wild controversies about tiny theory-internal points like too much of the generative literature seems to contain, at least to my eyes :) ) I believe Indiana has always had a strong linguistics department.

    It’s funny you should mention neurolinguistics. Have you heard of William Uttal’s book, The New Phrenology? It’s a careful, cautionary look at cognitive neuroscience and the limitations of brain scan data (especially). He bills himself (rubbish pun, sorry) as an iconoclast – his views are probably not exactly mainstream but I found that particular book to raise some very useful points about the relation between the mind and the brain.

    I should warn you that I suspect that my version of linguistics isn’t necessarily always mainstream, but hopefully if/when I diverge from the mainstream it will just contribute to broadening my readers’s perspective :)



  4. Seeing as I mentioned Uttal here – I’ve just put a review of his latest book up on my ‘Books’ page, if you consult the tabs at the top of the page (beside ‘Home’ and ‘About’!)


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