on phonematic units

Firthian Prosdic Analysis provides a way of thinking about language and phonology which is fundamentally different from approaches in the ‘American’ and/or generative tradition.

As Anderson’s overview points out, “While one might be tempted to compare the phonematic units of the former with the phonemes of the latter [ie phonemicist analyses], for example, this would be a clear mistake. Both are essentially segment-sized units, it is true, and form systems of paradigmatic contrasts, but the similarities end there” (Anderson, 1985: 189).

The extremely helpful (clear and informative) JL article by Ogden and Local (1994) makes the same point very forcefully – it is thoroughly misguided to use the concepts and categories of generative approaches as a way of understanding Firthian ones, as though the differences between the analyses were simply terminological, or as if Firth was merely fumbling, in isolation from the American mainstream and in a quaintly eccentric English gentlemanly way, towards the same understanding as SPE-style analyses ended up with.

“Phonological units are, according to FPA, in syntagmatic and paradigmatic relations with each other. Syntagmatic relations are expressed as prosodies. Prosodies can also be in paradigmatic relations; this is what it means to be ‘in system’. Thus one can talk equally well of a ‘prosodic system’ and a ‘phonematic system’ (such as ‘C-system’ or a ‘V-system’). Both prosodies and phonematic units must also be stated in relation to ‘structure’ which in turn expresses syntagmatic relations” (Ogden & Local, 1994: 480).

“In making a Firthian Prosodic statement, the analyst typically begins by paying attention to the syntagmatic ‘piece’ and stating the prosodies relevant to the description of the piece under analysis; but the information is explicitly not thereby ‘removed’ or ‘abstracted away’, and the phonematic units are not ‘what is left’: in particular, phonematic units are not ‘sounds’ (Goldsmith 1992: 153), since phonological representations according to FPA  are not pronounceable; nor are they merely the ‘lowest’ points on which all else hangs, like the skeletal tier. Phonematic and prosodic units serve to express relationships: prosodies express syntagmatic relations, phonematic units paradigmatic relations. All else that can be said about them depends on this most basic understanding” (Ogden & Local, 1994: 481).

It may possibly be worth adding that when Anderson speaks of phonematic units being ‘segment-sized’, this likely needs to be qualified by saying that in a Firthian-inspired approach, establishing the size of a segment is actually part of the analysis – segments and phonemes are emphatically not equivalent – a syllable or a foot could equally well be a “segment” in a Firthian analysis, if descriptive or analytical adequacy called for these units to be the terms in the paradigm. Hear Lodge:

“there is nothing that tells us a priori that paradigmatic relations that establish the meaningful contrasts of a language have to be between segment-sized entities at the phonological level any more than at any other level. In syntax, for example, a ‘segment’ is usually word-length, and certainly morpheme-length; the ‘segment’ is the smallest bit of the speech chain suitable for describing the patterns of a particular level. We segment speech in different ways for different purposes. Such segments include syllable places: onset, rhyme, nucleus and coda, the foot, the intonation group, the morpheme, and so on” (Lodge, 2007: 80).


(Post inspired by the surprising discovery that “phonematic units” is a search term that leads to this blog.)

(Also in the back of my mind being the Friendly Humanist’s talk about silos – phonologically speaking, the Ogden & Lodge article is superb for such a purpose, not that I would particularly claim to be anything more than firth-sympathetic.)

Anderson, SR (1985). Phonology in the Twentieth Century: Theories of Rules and Theories of Representations.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lodge, K (1997). ‘Timing, segmental status and aspiration in Icelandic.’  Transactions of the Philological Society 105: 66-104

Ogden, R & Local, JK (1994). ‘Disentangling autosegments from prosodies: a note on the misrepresentation of a research tradition in phonology.’ Journal of Linguistics 30: 477-498


3 thoughts on “on phonematic units

  1. Yes, do – it’s worth the effort of bending your head round some thoroughly different ways of thinking about spoken language (even for the intellectual challenge, not necessarily to adopt it all wholesale). Declarative instead of derivational, polysystemic instead of monosystemic, non-segmental in principle (rather than as a belated bolt-on), takes meaning & context seriously, etc. What’s not to like? Firth and the Firthians’ approach takes things for granted that were only painfully worked into generative models after the mass of evidence from experimental phonetics and variationist sociolinguistics simply became too big to ignore :-)

    * Kelly & Local – Doing Phonology
    * Docherty & Foulkes (or vice versa) in J Phonetics
    * Hawkins and Smith on Polysp


  2. Plus (while i’m on my soapbox) Firth was the first ever chair of linguistics in the British Isles and had a huge influence on British linguistics which didn’t really wane till after the runaway success that was SPE & not without a fight. See Patrick Honeybone’s biographical article. In ‘Phonology in the Twentieth Century’ he comes across as a bit of an oddball, throwing wacky analyses around left right & centre without any regard for sober generative principles, but it could be argued, provocatively no doubt, that at least some of the advances of autosegmental phonology are only catching up with what he was saying from the outset (1930s). Phonology before Chomsky intrigues me.


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