feel-good phonology

Dan Silverman’s Critical Introduction to Phonology is full of things that I wish I’d seen explicitly stated all in one place long ago. He puts down informally and with the greatest of ease concepts and positions which you find little sustained support for elsewhere in the phonology literature. It’s a critical introduction, which means a lot, but it presents ‘real phonology’ that’s recognisable to serious phonologists in a way that is sensitive to real concerns and problems which otherwise don’t inform how phonology is taught.

Here’s his critique of introspection as a guide to what matters in the phonological system of a language. He’s started off with the example of how the nonword ‘blick’ somehow “sounds better” than the nonword ‘bnick.’ He says,

“Many phonologists – though not I – think that ‘blick’ is a possible word because it doesn’t violate any sound-sequencing constraints of English, except that it just happens to be missing, and so it feels okay. These phonologists propose that ‘bnick,’ by contrast, involves a genuine violation of an unconscious sound-sequencing constraint, and so it sounds awful to English ears. Such a constraint might strictly prohibit English words starting with the sound sequence ‘bn.'”

But, he says, this is a flawed approach to take.

“When I speak English, every sound substitution is always one word or another. [I’m not sure if this might mean ‘results in’ one word or another?] There are no relevant feelings on my part about whether the sound substitution is good or not. They are all good, because they are all English. So if ‘blick’ feels good, and ‘bnick’ doesn’t, parallel sorts of feelings are nowhere to be found when we compare real words. Does it even make sense to ask whether the word ‘brick’ feels better than the word ‘trick’? Even if some people have an intuition on the matter, would their feelings somehow teach us anything about linguistic sound structure? I maintain that we can’t determine the structural properties of linguistic sound systems based on how people feel about the sounds they use. This has been stated quite emphatically by the scholars Bernard Bloch and George L Trager. Writing in 1942, they assert that, ‘The ordinary speaker of English, we are told, … “feels” or “conceives of” the two [l]s in “little” as “the same sound.” This may or may not be true; if true, it is an interesting fact, but it can never be used by the linguist as a criterion for his classifications, or even as a proof that he has classified correctly. … The linguist is concerned solely with the facts of speech. The psychological correlates of these facts are undoubtedly important; but the linguist has no means – as a linguist – of analysing them.'”

I did discover recently, incidentally, that blick is a real word, thus spelling doom for innumerably many introductory phonology texts, but the main point still stands: people’s metalinguistic reflection on language is not a good guide to their actual linguistic behaviour or whatever implicit ‘mental representations’ of language they might have. Reports of introspection can be useful in some contexts, but at the end of the day, they are “opinions. They are high-level meta linguistic performances that are highly malleable. They do not represent any kind of direct tap into competence, but are rather prone to many types of artefacts, such as social expectations, experimenter bias, response bias, and undersampling” (Pierrehumbert et al 2000: 189-190).

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* Silverman, D (2006), A Critical Introduction to Phonology. London: Continuum
* Pierrehumbert, JB, Beckman, M, and Ladd, DR (2000), ‘Conceptual foundations of phonology as a laboratory science.’ In N Burton-Roberts, P Carr, and G Docherty (eds), Phonological Knowledge: Conceptual and Empirical Issues. Oxford; OUP

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16 thoughts on “feel-good phonology

  1. Facebook Scrabble taught me that POZ is a word and so is ZEA, and so allowed me a whopping 30-something points in one go.

    Amazing! Or were you trying to show me up for only winning one game on scrabble in my life ever?

    Blik is also a word according to the OED. Evidently, not many phonologists know that it’s actually “R. M. Hare’s word for a behavioural or affective tendency which influences one’s interpretation of experience, a personal slant (on something); a conviction, esp. a religious one.”

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  2. It is important to notice that contrarily to whay Silverman may think, phonologists do not use this intuition to say that [bn] is not a good syllable onset in English. This analysis can be reached through purely distributional evidence.

    The point phonologists make in phonology textbooks is that given a certain set of hypotheses regarding the knowledge a native speaker of English has about the syllable structure of his language, this native speaker should not consider onsets like [bn] as grammatical, but should consider [bl] grammatical. This is merely thought to explain the feelings English speakers have when confronted with “blick” and “bnick”.

    Silverman just puts it the other way round. He’s saying that many phonologists think that these feelings serve as a basis for their claims about syllable structure. But that’s not right. These phonologists are just saying that their claims about syllable structure explain the feelings we have.

    The interesting part of the story is that we only stop to observe these kinds of feelings when we have a theory that makes predictions concerning them. Otherwise, they seem nothing but trivial.

    PS: The fact that “blick” is a real word (although a marginal one – real for some speakers) does not undermine phonologists’ claims. Instead, it is a nice corroboration of them. Their claims would be shown wrong if “bnick” emerged as a real word of English.

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  3. I don’t have Silverman’s book to hand, but i think his point is that ‘explaining the feelings’ of native speakers is not part of the linguist-qua-linguist’s job description. That’s what I understand the Bloch and Trager quote to be saying anyway – that using native speaker intuitions even to corroborate your analysis, never mind making predictions about intuitions, is not a particularly useful pursuit to be engaged in.

    The Pierrehumbert et al quote incidentally refers to grammatical well-formedness judgments. But I think this was in the same place where they cite Bard et al’s work with magnitude estimation as a somewhat more robust technique (than asterisks etc!) for eliciting well-formedness judgments (1996?) (i’m not in the office so can’t check the book itself!) – and naive judgments of the ‘wordlikeness’ of pseudowords etc correlates quite nicely with things like bigram frequency and so on – so it’s not that these intuitions are hopelessly useless – but just that they can’t be relied upon, and they need to be kept separate from the data itself.

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  4. It all depends what he means by thinking and saying :-)

    Developmentalists generally recognise a distinction between expressive language and receptive language – it’s well known that language learners understand more than they can produce.

    Pseudowords, perhaps like blick, or like pem, wudge, etc, might be examples of things that people can say but not “think” in the sense of “have an entry in the mental lexicon for” (- if you believe in the mental lexicon, the store of words and their phonological and semantic properties). But presumably the quote is referring to propositions you can think of, rather than words you can produce, so this isn’t really a serious point :)

    One thing I should have made clearer for the sake of people like Emanuel is that this argument from Silverman was particularly useful for me in the context of showing that the mainstream position in phonology is to study people’s implicit knowledge, rather than what they can bring to consciousness and evaluate. Eg, most phonologists would agree that asking a child to tell you “how many sounds there are in the word cat” doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about their mental representations of the word.

    My point that “people’s metalinguistic reflection on language is not a good guide to their actual linguistic behaviour or whatever implicit ‘mental representations’ of language they might have” is borne out by Silverman’s comments on the value of knowing what “feels good” to a native speaker, but it’s more important for me that it also allows us to treat with caution the kind of metalinguistic data that comes from asking people to count (or delete or blend or whathaveyou) the “sounds” of words, whether these are phonemic segments or syllables or anything else.

    Silverman does point out that /bn/ sequences do occur in English in words like Abner, obnoxious, etc, and suggests that people’s reported difficulties with initial /bn/ may be due to little more than lack of familiarity or lack of experience producing it (p8).

    The stipulation of constraints which putatively rule out allegedly “impossible” forms also reminded me of Geoffrey’ Sampson’s Empirical Linguistics, which deals with essentially the same problem in syntax – ie with supposedly illegal word-sequences like “bread the”. He says (2001: 177), “to suggest that the construction is not just very unusual but actually impossible in English is merely a challenge to think of a plausible context for it.” Chapter 2 of this book (on central embedding and the alleged impossibility thereof) is a fascinating read :)

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  5. Dear Cath,
    Thanks very much for the kind words about my book. They are much appreciated. Thanks also for pointing out a slight error in my wording. This and other errors are corrected here:

    http://seedyroad.com/academics/SMBch1.pdf

    Also, I appreciate your defending me against Emanuel’s misreading of my stance. He writes: “[C]ontrarily to whay Silverman may think [sic], phonologists do not use this intuition to say that [bn] is not a good syllable onset in English…[Silverman]’s saying that many phonologists think that these feelings serve as a basis for their claims about syllable structure. But that’s not right. These phonologists are just saying that their claims about syllable structure explain the feelings we have.”

    If this is what I was saying, then I would have written: “…These phonologists propose that ‘bnick,’ since it sounds awful to English ears, involves a genuine violation of an unconscious sound-sequencing constraint.” But I did not write this. Instead, I wrote “…These phonologists propose that ‘bnick,’ by contrast, involves a genuine violation of an unconscious sound-sequencing constraint, and so it sounds awful to English ears.
    Keep up the good work!
    -Dan Silverman

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  6. I must say I didn’t notice the wording until I came to write it down here – obv the meaning was clear enough to be recoverable even without access to the errata :)

    I’m citing your book in my thesis actually – mainly for the argument about alphabetic writing and segments. Over time I’ve been finding that there’s always been someone in the literature raising concerns about alphabetism (Twaddell and Firth in the 30s, Ladefoged in the 50s, Abercrombie and Lüdtke in the 60s, Householder in the 70s, Linell in the 80s!) – but since the implications haven’t really filtered through to mainstream phonology it’s really useful to have it articulated one more time, esp in the context of showing how it really is still possible to do phonology with just this kind of sensitivity/caution.

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  7. Dan Silverman,

    If my words had been motivated only by the passage of yours that you quoted, I would agree that I have misunderstood your stance.

    In fact, “wha[t] Silverman may think” in my passage refers mostly to the other quotation made in cath’s post. The one that says, among other things, that “we can’t determine the structural properties of linguistic sound systems based on how people feel about the sounds they use”. Your passage implies that the phonologists you are talking about think they can do it. Otherwise, your critique would be quite pointless.

    What I said in my comment, and this is compatible with the passage you quoted in your comment, is that the hypotheses presented in phonology textbooks concerning syllable structure were arrived at quite independently of the feelings people have about syllables. The fact that there are, to some considerable extent, correlations between the hypotheses and the feelings people have is something quite surprising, and I see no real problem of mentioning them in textbooks.

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  8. Thanks for clarifying for me Emanuel. If you haven’t done so already, you might want to check Chapter 7 of my book, where I go into these issues in much more detail.
    -dan

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  9. Of course “Blick” is a real word! What do you think! :-)
    (Yes, I realise that the argument was about the phonology of English words, not German ones.)
    And ‘Zea’? As in ‘Zea mays‘, or maize? But that is Latin!

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