phonetics the root of all grammars?

From the annals of Faux Linguistics spam (see here for a previous installment), here’s a peculiar statement that arrived in the inbox of many an indiscriminately chosen linguist up and down the country yesterday morning:

(English/Korean) grammar(s) imitate/copy/reflect (physical) phonetics. That is, phonetics is (not a subfield but) the origin/mother/start/model/root of (all) grammar(s) of morphology, syntax, phonology, orthography, semantics, pragmatics, etc.

It’s just about possible to think of a way that this claim could be true – if you take phonetics to mean the raw speech material that people speak and listen to, then it’s possible (although arguably completely uninteresting) to say that this is the starting point for the analysis of language. At any rate, that kind of interpretation could cover phonology, morphology, and syntax, although the links with semantics and pragmatics are a bit harder to guess (and indeed orthography; can’t really say how that one slipped in there). Most people’s linguistic theories make reference to speech at some point, even if those references are more oblique in some cases than others.

However, that’s the charitable interpretation, and it takes a bit of work to see it, because so many other odd questions are raised without hint of a suggested answer. Is this a claim about English or Korean grammars, or all possible grammars, or only the grammars of English and/or Korean? Can the author really mean that grammars reflect physical phonetics? Does he or she intend for grammars to be understood as the analyses provided by linguists, or as the (probably generative) devices attributed to speakers of a language? Is ‘all grammars of syntax’ intended to cover all possible schools of thought within syntax, or just all the fragments of grammars that have been written within one particular kind of framework? And, fairly crucially, what does the author mean by phonetics in any case?

Note that these are clarification questions – pointing out gaps in the putative exposition which would require to be filled before the claim could even be evaluated seriously by your average linguist.

But that’s not how the writer of the email sees things. The message proceeds to present this claim as a startling and subversive idea, one which is so radical that the writer is forced to propagate it by contacting individual linguists personally, for lack of, it is implied, adequate airtime in journals and the wider academic community:

So from now on I advertise my writings to all people of linguistics, since my phonetics writings are so different from the theories of the conventional (phonetics/linguistics) people/professors/etc.

Although a couple of links are provided in the email, the problem is not only that the first paragraph doesn’t provide anything in the way of substance which would indicate that it comes from such a drastically unconventional theory, but also that the links to the author’s website do not lead you to anything in the way of writings about phonetics which present any support for this original claim.

And this, in all likelihood, is what’s making it so difficult for this person to gain themselves a voice. Even if you do really believe that you have singlehandedly made such an intellectual breakthrough that you now have all the answers to all the world’s linguistic problems, well, one hint might be that spamming people’s inboxes is never going to convince them that you’re right, but somewhat more seriously, when it is plain to the existing linguistics community from the very first line that little or no attempt has been made to engage with the existing literature, and that the supposedly radical claims are framed without reference to current thinking in the absence of clearly presented original thinking, it’s going to be impossible for phonetics/linguistics people/professors to take you seriously.

Quite apart from the sad fact that if you did indeed have a point, someone else is bound to have said it first, probably long ago, and in a much more elegant, informed, and eloquent way.


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