coarticulation is not a design flaw

I’m just back from a talk* where it was argued that language is far from a perfect or optimal system, but something that happens to work, most of the time, in spite of being bodged together in a clumsy and inelegant way (it could never have been designed to be this way, but with a bit of tinkering it comes to have the properties which make it at least functional).

The argument itself is coming from a background in American generative syntax, and so most of the argumentation was directed towards showing that human minds don’t and can’t represent entire trees for complicated syntactic structures. Which is actually, and thankfully, not even slightly controversial in many linguistics departments today, although apparently not all.

The phon-link, however, came in the discussion session following the talk, when one example of a clumsy solution to the language problem was drawn from speech production. According to the speaker, it’s not ideal that speech is produced via a single-tube system (ie the vocal tract) – because it gives rise to problems such as coarticulation.

For a single-sentence tutorial on coarticulation, consider the way that you say the word ‘ten’ on its own, and the way that you say the word sequence ‘ten past’ – the end of the word ‘ten’ becomes more similar to the start of the word ‘past’ when you say them together, particularly in fast speech. It might sound a bit more like ‘tem past’, in other words.

But coarticulation isn’t a problem. It’s not a problem for speakers, it’s not a problem for hearers – if it’s a problem for anyone, it’s only for people who adopt the troublesome assumption that the components of words have their own form in some sense independently of the words they belong to, and that this form somehow changes to take on the shape of adjacent or nearby segments when the segments are all assembled in order to be articulated. The problem in speech analysis is not how coarticulation can happen, but how segmentation can be motivated, for what is an inherently continuous (non-segmented) stream produced by the overlapping movements of the tongue, lips, jaw, and so on – and it’s in precisely the “transitions” between what could be thought of as “segments” that so much of the information that is most valuable for hearers is located.

To paraphrase someone else’s slogan – coarticulation in speech is not noise, but information! and the perception of inelegance and clumsiness is very much just in the eye of the beholder.

* Actually, I’ve just discovered this wee rant languishing as a draft in a folder somewhere – the talk was so long ago I can barely remember what the speaker looked like. But I need to post it, if only for my own phon-related health. On account of unavoidable weekly commitments I haven’t been to the departmental phonetics/phonology seminar for weeks – months even – and the p-side of my brain (p-centre?) is getting worryingly undernourished.

seven things

Tagged by Berenike to give seven things I like and tag seven people.

I like:

  • a nice cup of tea
  • Belmont, St Andrew, St Kilda, and the plebby stuff they play on Classic FM
  • peace on the Lord’s Day
  • having work to do (the other six days)
  • Thomas Boston and his ilk
  • being finished with the thesis (much as I also liked writing it, actually)
  • och, most folks generally

I tag: Betty (or what’s the name you go by?), Tim, Clare, Richard, Libbie if she’s got the time, the Teuchter, Sheena, and that’s 7. Which is just as well, to save me tagging Matthew and Jeremy Walker, who undoubtedly have less frivolous things to do with their time.

really, spiritually

How do they that worthily communicate in the Lord’s Supper feed upon the body and blood of Christ therein? (LC170) (With reference to this discussion.)

Answer unabridged: “As the body and blood of Christ are not corporally or carnally present in, with, or under the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, and yet are spiritually present to the faith of the receiver, no less truly and really than the elements themselves are to their outward senses; so they that worthily communicate in the supper, do therein feed upon the body and blood of Christ, not after a corporal and carnal, but in a spiritual manner; yet truly and really, while by faith they receive and apply unto themselves Christ crucified, and all the benefits of his death.”

According to JG Vos,

“AA Hodge (Outlines of Theology) summarises the doctrine of the historic Reformed creeds as follows: “All the Reformed agree as to the following particulars. 1st. This eating was not with the mouth in any manner. 2nd. It was only by the soul that they [the elements, the bread and wine] were received. 3rd. It was by faith, which is declared to be the hand and mouth of the soul. 4th. It was by or through the power of the Holy Ghost. But this receiving Christ’s body is not confined to the Lord’s Supper; it takes place whenever faith in him is exercised.”

According to Calvin,

“As we do not doubt that Christ’s body is limited by the general characteristics common to all human bodies, and is contained in heaven (where it was once for all received) until Christ return in judgment, so we deem it utterly unlawful to draw it back under these corruptible elements or to imagine it to be present everywhere.”

by the way

News in brief.

  • July 10th was actually the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. I no longer feel bad about missing people’s birthdays, considering I’ve been known to forget my own – so it’s nothing personal. But I’m not going to say any more about Calvin, as you can read all about him everywhere else on the internet at the moment
  • (And July 20th will be the 40th anniversary of the moon landing)
  • Another friend has now got a blog up and running – bettynoirbettyblanc – go and have a look – politics and pro-life issues
  • Discussion is continuing on this elderly post, for anyone who isn’t following the comments.

legal fiction, legal fact

Remember George Smeaton? One of his colleagues in the Free Church College was James Buchanan (1804-1870), Professor of Systematic Theology. Buchanan published various works, one of the most useful being the one simply titled The Doctrine of Justification.

Buchanan fully subscribed to the doctrine of the counter-imputation of sin and righteousness – that just as Adam’s disobedience brought condemnation on those who he represented, so Christ’s obedience is the (only) basis of the justification of those who he represents.

Perhaps one of the oddest objections to this doctrine, and one the most easily and persistently thrown into the discussion, is that this counter-imputation is no more than a legal fiction. Buchanan went so far as to call this objection offensive, and rebuts it in one section of his exposition in a most firm and patient way.

“The imputation of sin and righteousness is not ‘a legal fiction’, if by that expression be meant anything that is unreal or untrue.

Suppose that it were justly described as a ‘legal fiction’, it might still represent an important truth, under the scheme of God’s moral government. [The consequences of the arrangement of the covenant with Adam], so far from being mere ‘legal fictions’, are assuredly very solemn realities:– the curse pronounced on the ground — the doom of universal death — the loss of God’s image — the forfeiture of his favour — the depravity of human nature — and all the evils and sufferings which have followed in the train of sin — all these are brought upon us under the operation of that law, and every one of them is as real as it is dreadful.

In like manner, … he has promulgated a scheme of redeeming mercy, and this too in a covenant form, through the second Adam as the representative of his people — imposing on him the fulfilment of its conditions, and securing to them the benefits of his work on their behalf … [The consequences of this arrangement], so far from being mere ‘legal fictions’, are substantial blessings of the highest and most permanent kind:– the pardon of sin — the restoration of God’s favour — the renewal of his image — the assurance of his love — the privilege of adoption — and the gift of eternal life – all these are brought upon us under the operation of that scheme, and every one of them is as real as it is desirable.

When we are brought face to face with such realities as these, it is vain to talk of ‘legal fictions’, whether under the law or under the gospel; for while condemnation, on the one hand, and justification, on the other, are strictly forensic or judicial acts, and must necessarily have some relation to the law and justice of God — and while the representative character both of the first and second Adam, and the consequent imputation of their guilt and righteousness to those whom they respectively represented, can only be ascribed to the sovereign will and appointment of God — yet the results are in their own nature real and true, and not, in any sense, fictitious or imaginary.

… Nothing is more remarkable in the doctrines of Christianity than this, that every one of them is simply the statement of a fact, and that they all relate either to substantive beings – God, angels, and men – or to real events, past, present, or future. … What is the doctrine of the trinity but the statement of a fact respecting the existence of distinct hypostases in his one undivided Godhead? … What is the doctrine of imputation, whether of sin or of righteousness, but the statement of a fact respecting the relation in which we stand to the first and second Adam, and the consequences which result to us from the disobedience of the one, and the obedience of the other?”

(Buchanan, Justification, BOT, p334ff)


It’s terribly exciting, there’s not only a new issue of the Speculative Grammarian out (the premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics), but it’s a bumper issue of linguistic puzzles, and there’s one that I can just about finish.
Each equation contains the initials of words that will make it correct. Find the missing words.

3 = types of N-P C in the I P A
4 = V H in the I P A
8 = M of A for P C in the I P A
8 = primary C V (made famous by D J)
11 = P of A for P C in the I P A
24 = L of the G A
26 = L of the L A
100 = W in the S list
~6000 = L in the W


I make that 3 types of non-pulmonic consonants in the International Phonetic Alphabet, 4 vowel heights, 8 manners of articulation, 8 primary cardinal vowels (Daniel Jones), 11 places of articulation, 24 letters of the Greek alphabet, 26 of the Latin alphabet, and 6000 languages in the world. On 100 W, I’m stuck.

So no SpecGram T-shirt for me.

See also: Everything linguists have always wanted to know about logic, the Self-Defining Puzzle, and Who’s Who in Linguistics.