endemic and deeply frustrating

Just a quick rant.

It is extremely misguided to think that the names of letters are in any way useful in discussing phonology, or the relations between phonology and orthography.

I’ve just noticed in the methodology of an article which I don’t think I’m going to bother citing that one of a battery of tasks involved the participants in the experiment being asked to “judge whether “V” and “T” rhyme”.

Even in the complete absence of any other information about the experiment and its aims, it’s going to be difficult to understand the significance of any results of this rhyme judgment task – obviously, the letter shapes don’t and can’t rhyme, so they must mean the letter names, [vi] and [ti], but what’s the use of knowing how people judge that?

Contrary to what the authors state, this is not an orthographically simple task, and nor does the process of accessing the names of the letters correspond to “transcoding” the letters into phonemes. The need for a decision on whether the two words (words, yes, not letters) rhyme can be called a phonological processing task in line with the loose usage that sees any operation carried out on the auditory form of words as phonological regardless of its nature if you want – but it’s only analogous to deciding whether “5” and “9” rhyme, or whether “£” has the same number of syllables as “#”.

In 1996, a whole decade ago, David Poeppel wrote an article critiquing the use of phonological concepts in neuroimaging studies making this exact point – which has clearly not been absorbed by the relevant academic community yet:

“visual letters are among the most abstract and artificial linguistic stimuli; they have an arbitrary relationship to the speech sounds of a language. Single letter names do not signify the sound of a letter because they are acquired words. So, ell is not the phonological representation of the liquid /l/, but merely its name or designation in an alphabetical arrangement.” (Poeppel 1996: 330)

Confusion (as I’ve just written in a note to self which will not survive into any official draft, partly on grounds of relevance but mainly in a renewed effort not to sound perpetually apoplectic) on what’s meant by phonology, and on the relation of even this vaguely understood kind of phonology to things like orthography, is endemic in far too many pockets of the literature and deeply frustrating.

That’ll do for now.


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