the paradigmatics and syntagmatics of duration

Ok, I’ve finally had to concede defeat with this point. I’ve reserved it a place in Chapter 6 for as long as I could, but it’s just too detailed to fit. But I still like it too much to ditch it, so here it is. Context: should segmental phonology be regarded as a qualitatively separate domain from suprasegmental phonology? Someone who says they should, says so because he thinks suprasegmental features are both paradigmatic and syntagmatic. I say:

There seems to be some confusion in the literature when it is claimed that suprasegmentals are distinguished from segments by being both syntagmatic and paradigmatic (Fox (2000); this differs from Lehiste’s (1970) view that prosody is syntagmatic rather than paradigmatic). Whereas paradigms are lists of interchangeable options, syntagms are collocations; they are as different as the vertical and horizontal axes on a graph, for example, and there does not seem to be a way in which any particular linguistic phenomenon could coherently be described as both syntagmatic and paradigmatic simultaneously.

This seems to be the position of a wide variety of theorists. A very strict separation is maintained between syntagmatic and paradigmatic kinds of analysis among Firthian prosodists, for instance (Lyons 1962, Ogden & Local 1994, Waterson 1987). Although this distinction between syntagmatic ‘prosodies’ and paradigmatic ‘phonematic units’ is admittedly unique to Firthian analyses in many of its elements and implications, the incompatibility of paradigms and syntagms (or rather, more accurately, the incoherence of characterising something as both syntagmatic and paradigmatic) is shared by other very different schools of thought in phonology too. In Trubetzkoy’s case, to pick just one example, it is the phonemes and phonemic relations in a language’s inventory which are paradigmatic, while rules are syntagmatic, but again this formulation seems to clearly preclude the possibility for some phonological feature to be described as both paradigmatic (belonging to the inventory) and simultaneously syntagmatic (a rule); see Cairns (1971).)

The specific example which is used in support of the ‘both-and’ claim for prosody is time, or duration (Fox 2000): duration is said to be both a segmental property (in which case it is called ‘length’ in phonology) and also a suprasegmental property (in which case it is called ‘weight’ or ‘quantity’). But this example does not provide evidence that prosodic features can be both syntagmatic and paradigmatic – what it shows is that some acoustic property of the speech stream can be put to use in a language in either or both of these ways. That a single acoustic property of the speech stream can be multi-purpose in a language system is of course not a particularly controversial claim, but it is not a claim which contributes to the argument for or against a qualitative distinction between segmental and suprasegmental features.

8 thoughts on “the paradigmatics and syntagmatics of duration

  1. Really and truly?! It’s only had a lukewarm response from the people I’ve talked to about it so far and I was afraid I might be missing something. But I found it utterly perplexing when I read it first and i still can’t see that it makes any sense.


  2. In that case maybe I should sneak it in as a footnote or something. Thank you, that’s v heartening :) Fox very clearly/prominently states the both-and position right at the start of the book – motivating the distinction between segmental and prosodic features. It seems (as i’ve certainly written in some draft or other and can’t quite remember if it’s survived into the current version) that people can talk quite plausibly about /either/ segments /or/ suprasegmentals, as long as they don’t try to find grounds for distinguishing them

    Actually i’m going to try and find that para – i’ve got a feeling it might have fallen by the wayside…


  3. “… it would seem that segments and prosody can be discussed coherently and informatively for as long as it is only one of them that is being discussed. Problems really only become evident when commentators bring the two together and compare them. For example, it is easy enough to talk about segments, because no serious definition is required – segments can simply be demonstrated, and the conviction that they do and must exist can be relied on to follow from the reader’s intuitive recognition of what is being talked about. On the other hand, it is possible to talk about suprasegmentals/prosody and their characteristics and properties in book-length detail, as long as no justification is attempted for why they are treated separately from segmental features. Although Fox can claim convincingly, for example, that “the main distinguishing characteristic of prosodic, as opposed to segmental, features is that they apply to larger domains than the individual segment,” the problem is that since he does not express a view as to what the main distinguishing characteristic of a segment could be, he still has not provided a principled basis for the qualitative difference between them which he is keen to establish. One or the other, it seems, can be operationally defined and worked with, but a linguistically principled basis for distinguishing them remains elusive.”

    The claim that segments are paradigmatic while suprasegmentals are syntagmatic is still open to challenge, but it’s (much more mainstream and) not as odd as ‘both-and’.


  4. (er, just in case you think I understood that – you do realise this was a weak attempt at humour? I just have a horribel image of you polioshing this for hours on the bassi of my comment …)


  5. Nope, it’s too late, you had your chance at really and truly. I shall persist in assuming that medieval economic theory has at least some proto type or misty forerunner of Saussure’s paradigmatic/associative/syntagmatic distinction which allows you to have contemplated this issue at length – and so to continue basking in the thought that at least someone out there understands.

    Fox doesn’t really blither, on the whole.


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