segments and segmentation

Particularly in the context of learning to become literate in an alphabetic script, people talk a lot about the principle that (spoken) words can be taken apart and decomposed into smaller pieces, which relate in some way to abstract units which you might call phonemes or segments. (Note that that relation is not that speech “consists of” phonemes/segments – an (important) separate issue.)

But saying that ‘words are decomposable into’ segments is not quite synonymous with saying that words ‘come apart into’ segments. There is a critical difference in what these two phrases imply. An orange comes apart into segments, because that’s what an orange is like once you unpeel it: the segments and the boundaries between them are immediately obvious – it’s decomposable into segments in a natural way. But an apple doesn’t ‘come apart’ into segments – you have to cut it into pieces yourself. It’s ‘decomposable’ in the sense that it’s certainly possible to divide it, and people obviously frequently do divide apples up into sensible pieces that suit them, say quarters length-ways, but considered in itself it’s an undivided whole.

Spoken words, if I may say so, are much more like apples than they are like oranges. Evidence comes from all directions to explode the idea that speech can consist of discrete, independent, atomic particles – whether from inspection of waveforms and spectrograms, listening to speech in an unfamiliar language, or the recognition that the entire vocal tract is in constant motion throughout an utterance, and that in the motor behaviour of speech producers there are as many different configurations of the vocal tract as there are moments of time in the duration of the utterance.

And David Abercrombie makes the same point:

“‘To segment,’ therefore, has two kinds of meaning. There is ‘artificial’ segmentation: it is possible to cut a bit off anything, however much of a continuum it might be, as with a circle; and there is ‘natural’ segmentation. In the first case, we make boundaries; in the second, we detect boundaries. The fundamental problem of linguistic segmentation is whether there can be a natural segmentation of continuous speech. If not, if speech is a continuum in which no natural segmentation is detectable, then any segmentation of it must be artificial.” (Abercrombie 1991: 28; see also chapter 16 of Ladefoged 2006)

Without a recognition of this property of the sounds of speech, any account of the literacy acquisition process – however popular – is bound to flounder into incoherence, and fail to be even descriptively adequate, never mind providing any realistic kind of explanation.

Abercrombie, D (1991), Fifty Years in Phonetics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Ladefoged, P (2005), Vowels and Consonants. Oxford: Blackwell

6 thoughts on “segments and segmentation

  1. You are talking about speech-noises-as-sound, and not of spoken-words-as-words. When I hear a language of which I know nothing (does not resemble one I know), I hear a stream of sound(s).


  2. What does “words as words” mean? I’m talking about the sounds of spoken words: the process of identifying segments in spoken words is not driven by acoustic or articulatory criteria.

    Post is based on a chunk of text i’ve discarded from one of my chapters, perhaps inadequately contextualised


  3. Happened to see this a couple of hours ago (the very next paragraph is problematic, not quoted here, but this bit is spot on) –

    “… speech consists of continuously variable waves of acoustic energy. Spectrographic analysis of the speech stream has shown, for the most part, none of the segmentation we perceive when, for example, we hear three sounds in the word “cat” (Gleitman & Rozin, 1977). The apparent segmentation of the speech stream is a cognitive/perceptual phenomenon, not a characteristic of the acoustic stimulus itself.”
    (Wagner & Torgesen 1987: 194)

    (The “apparent segmentedness” might be a less ambiguous way of putting it.)


  4. Just since i’m at it:

    “The problem [with Diringer’s concept/definition of a ‘perfect alphabet’ as one where there is a one-to-one mapping between sound and symbol] lies in the presupposition that the pronunciation of a word or phrase combines a finite number of discrete elements which are its constituent ‘sounds.’ This is a misconception, whether considered for an articulatory or an acoustic point of view. To the extent that the notion has any psychological plausibility at all, that is probably a post facto product of acquaintance with alphabetic writing itself. The phonetic events that occur in the course of any given utterance are highly complex: they can be described and analysed quite exactly in various ways, depending on the criteria adopted. Experimental phonetics leaves no room for doubt on this score. But the impression we may have of repeating exactly the same sounds when we repeat a word is an illusion. To ask ‘How many sounds are there in this word?’ is to ask a nonsense question (for the same kind of reason as it is nonsense to ask how many movements it takes to stand up): a continuum can be described and analysed, but it does not consist of a finitely denumerable concatenation of single elements. It follows that the idea of an optimally ‘correct’ written record as one that indicates the exact number of sounds occurring in spoken discourse is nonsense too.”
    Roy Harris (2000), Rethinking Writing, p130-131.

    – using the fact that speech is segmentable but not segmental as grounds for inveighing against the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect alphabet


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