segment sceptics

Selected, in chronological order

• Paul (1886), according to Abercrombie (1991): “In contrast to Pike’s view that a stretch of speech has a natural segmentation is the view that it is an indissoluble continuum, with no natural boundaries within it. This view is at least a hundred years old. It is clearly stated, for example, by Hermann Paul in his Principien der Sprachgeschichte in 1886. The word, he says, is ‘eine continuerliche reihe von unendlich vielen lauten,’ ‘a continuous series of infinitely numerous sounds,’ as HA Strong translates it in Principles of the History of Language. … As he puts it, ‘… A word is not a united compound of a definite number of sounds, and alphabetical symbols do no more than bring out certain characteristic points of this series in an imperfect way.’” (Abercrombie 1991: 29-30)

• Twaddell (1935) – the phoneme is “a fiction, defined for the purpose of describing conveniently the phonological relations among the elements of a language, its forms,” p53; “it is meaningless to speak of ‘the third phoneme … of the form sudden’, or to speak of ‘an occurrence of a phoneme’. What occurs is not a phoneme, for the phoneme is defined as the term of a recurrent differential relation. What occurs is a phonetic fraction or a differentiated articulatory complex correlated to a micro-phoneme. A phoneme, accordingly, does not occur; it ‘exists’ in the somewhat peculiar sense of existence that a brother, qua brother, ‘exists’ – as a term of a relation,” p49.

• Firth (1935) – “It is all rather like arranging a baptism before the baby is born. In the end we may have to say that a set of phonemes is a set of letters. If the forms of a language are unambiguously symbolised by a notation scheme of letters and other written signs, then the word ‘phoneme’ may be used to describe a constituent letter-unit of such a notation scheme” (Firth 1957 [1935]: 21)

• Firth (1948) – on using literacy-inspired transcriptions as a basis for phonological analysis (from the 1930s onwards, the writings of JR Firth show him distancing himself from over-reliance on transcriptions in alphabetic notation, for phonological analysis): “The linearity of our written language and the separate letters, words, and sentences into which our lines of print are divided still cause a good deal of confused thinking in due to the hypostatization of the symbols and their successive arrangement. The separateness of what some scholars call a phone or an allophone, and even the ‘separateness’ of the word, must be very carefully scrutinized” (Firth 1957 [1948]: 147).

• Ladefoged (1959) – quoted by Lüdtke (1969: 151): “The ultimate basis for the belief that speech is a sequence of discrete units is the existence of alphabetic writing. This system of analysing speech and reducing it to a convenient visual form has had a considerable influence on western thought about the nature of speech. But it is not the only possible, nor necessarily the most natural, form of segmentation.”

• Lyons (1962), commenting on Firth: “the practical advantages of phonemic description for typing and printing should not of course be allowed to influence the theory of phonological structure. It has been argued that phonemic theory has been built on the ‘hypostatisation’ of letters of the Roman alphabet: cf Firth, [‘Sounds and Prosodies,’ 1948], p134”

• Abercrombie (1965) is quoted by Lüdtke (1969: 151) as saying, “The phoneme … is not something which has a ‘real existence’.”

• Lüdtke (1969) – abstract, “the phoneme segment is not a natural item but a fictitious unit based on alphabetic writing”

• Householder (1971), summarised by Vachek (1989: 25): “[Householder] formulates the question whether, instead of postulating Chomskyan artificial underlying forms, it would not be more realistic to regard the graphical shapes of words as starting points from which the language user obtains their spoken, phonological shapes.”

• Linell (1982) – a whole book providing comprehensive, detailed coverage of the topic, Written Language Bias in Linguistics.

• Kelly and Local (1989) – the question of notation – aim to avoid doing phonetic transcription with the same symbols as are then used for doing phonological transcription/analysis.

• Abercrombie (1991) – “Segment, then, is the name of a fiction. It is a transient moment treated as if it was frozen in time, put together with other segments to form a ‘chain’ rather than a ‘stream’ of speech. Methodologically it is a very useful fiction. A segment, isolated from the flow of speech, can be taken out of its context, moved into other context, given a symbol to represent it, compared with segments from other languages, placed in systems of various sorts, singled out for special treatment in pronunciation teaching; and used in dialectology, speech therapy, the construction of orthographies. (The same is true, of course, of speech-sound and phone. They do not give rise, however, to the possibility of a word for the process, ‘segmentation.’)” (p30)

• Faber (1992) – “segmentation ability, rather than being a necessary precursor to the innovation of alphabetic writing, was a consequence of that innovation” (p112); “segmentation ability as a human skill may have been a direct result of (rather than an impetus to) the Greek development of alphabetic writing. Thus, the existence of alphabetic writing cannot be taken eo ipso as evidence for the cognitive naturalness of the segmentation that it reflects” (p127)

• Derwing (1992) – “the segment (or phoneme) may not be the natural, universal unit of speech segmentation after all, and that the orthographic norms of a given speech community may play a large role in fixing what the appropriate scope is for these discrete, repeated units into which the semi-continuous, infinitely varying physical speech wave is actually broken down.” p200

• Port & Leary (2005) in Language, 81

• Port (2006), ‘The graphical basis of phones and phonemes.’

• Ladefoged (2005) – “We should even consider whether consonants and vowels exist except as devices for writing down words … [they] are largely figments of our good scientific imaginations,” p186; “We also lose out in that our thinking about words and sounds is strongly influenced by writing. We imagine that the letters of the alphabet represent separate sounds instead of being just clever ways of artificially breaking up syllables,” p190; “the division of the syllable into vowels and consonants is not a natural one. Alphabets are scientific inventions, and not statements of real properties of words in our minds. … vowels and consonants are useful for describing the sounds of languages. But they may have no other existence,” p191; “The alphabet, which regards syllables as consisting of separate pieces such as vowels and consonants, … is a clever invention allowing us to write down words, rather than a discovery that words are composed of segment-size sounds,” p198.

• Silverman (2006) – p6, p11-13, and elsewhere.

• Lodge (2007): “There has been a long history of warnings against the notion of the phonological segment (eg Paul 1890, Kruszewski 1883, Baudoin de Courtenay 1927), as pointed out succinctly by Silverman (2006). Later the concept was criticised by Firthian prosodists (see Palmer 1970) and more recently reviewed by Bird & Klein (1990); the most recent exposé of the misguided acceptance of alphabetic segmentation in phonology can be found in Silverman (2006).”


6 thoughts on “segment sceptics

  1. It was too long to fit in my thesis, but once I’d discovered the concept, it was amazing to see the sheer volume of some actually very long-standing objections to ‘segmentalism’, and from many different perspectives. I’m also increasingly interested in phonology pre-SPE – some of the particularly pithy refs come from the 1930s and 40s – it just seems, the more you read, the more it turns out that people had already seriously grappled with many issues which people are being forced to re-consider now, but somehow in a way that’s divorced from the labours of our predecessors.

    Other refs –

    Harris, R. (2000). Rethinking Writing. London: Continuum
    [Possibly idiosyncratic in some things, but wide-ranging and extremely stimulating to read]

    Derwing, B.L. (1992). Orthographic aspects of linguistic competence. In P. Downing, S.D. Lima, and M. Noonan (Eds.), The Linguistics of Literacy. John Benjamins
    Faber, A. (1992). Phonemic segmentation as epiphenomenon: Evidence from the history of alphabetic writing. In P. Downing, S.D. Lima, and M. Noonan (Eds.), The Linguistics of Literacy. John Benjamins
    [This volume has a few useful papers but these two are the most interesting]

    Olson, D. (1994). The World on Paper: the Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
    Olson, D.R. (2002). What writing does to the mind. In E. Amsel and J.P. Byrnes (Eds.), Language, Literacy, and Cognitive Development: The Development and Consequences of Symbolic Communication. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
    Ong, W.J. (1992). Writing is a technology that restructures thought. In P. Downing, S.D. Lima, & M. Noonan (Eds.), The Linguistics of Literacy. John Benjamins
    [These by Olson and by Ong are possibly more general on the literacy/orality ‘interface’, not just phonology but morphology & syntax too – Ong especially from a perspective quite at odds with SPE-style theoretical frameworks]

    Prakash, P., Rekha, D., Nigam, R., and Karanth, P. (1993). Phonological awareness, orthography, and literacy. In R.J. Scholes (Ed.), Literacy and Language Analysis (pp. 55-71). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
    [The Chinese and Portuguese stories are famous (ie Read et al, Morais et al) – this is along the same lines but the evidence is from Kannada]

    Also only recently discovereed this 2002 article by Ravid & Tolchinsky, extremely ambitious and covers a lot of ground, again broader than phonology, but has a developmental angle which was perfect for my purposes when I came across it (also served as a keynote paper so lots of interesting discussion accompanies it in the same issue):
    Ravid, D. & Tolchinsky, L. (2002). Developing linguistic literacy: a comprehensive model. Journal of Child Language, 29, 417-477

    Uppstad, P.H. & Tønnessen, F.E. (2007). The notion of “phonology” in dyslexia research: cognitivism – and beyond. Dyslexia, 13: 154-174
    [Verging on the ranty, but fun to read!]


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