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

uptalk description & references

‘Uptalk’ is one of the names given to the phenomenon which has recently appeared in English where people use rising intonation at the end of sentences – a pitch pattern that is more usually associated with questions. Some people associate it with American English, others with Australian English – and theories abound as to why it’s emerged at all.

It’s not something I know a huge amount about, but a quick trawl around Google Scholar brings it up in a couple of articles by Paul Foulkes and Gerry Docherty, phoneticians with a sociolinguistic bent at York and Newcastle respectively. I’ll just quote the relevant passages here for information and list the references at the end so that they can be followed up if anyone is sufficiently interested to do so.

One article is titled ‘Phonological variation in the English of England,’ available here in pdf.

“One of the most noticeable innovations in recent years has been the development of rising intonation in the Closed tone category in dialects which traditionally use falls. This has been found in the USA, Australia and New Zealand as well as Great Britain, and has been variously labelled high rising tone (HRT), Australian Question(ing) Intonation (AQI) and uptalk (see Cruttenden 1995, 1997: 129-131, Fletcher, Grabe & Warren in press). The pattern is associated with the upwardly mobile (‘yuppies’) in England (Cruttenden 1997: 130), but lower class and/or female speech elsewhere.

“Because of its perceptual salience, HRT has been the subject of much comment by non-linguists, including the mass media. Some of these comments are highly speculative and empirically untested, for example, that Australian soap operas are responsible for the spread of HRT (Bathurst 1996, Lawson 1998). Others, taking up the mantle of John Walker and others in lamenting change of any kind, identify HRT as a sign of unstoppable decay in modern English (e.g. Bradbury 1996, Norman 2001). Still others draw a logical but naïve conclusion, based on comparison with standard English, that rises indicate questions, and thus the use of rises in declaratives reflects a psychological state of uncertainty. The voice coach Patsy Rodenburg, for example, is quoted by Kennedy (1996) as claiming ‘that rising inflection is about being unsure…you make a question rather than a statement because you are scared’. Such statements are ill-founded in that they equate a particular intonation pattern with a single linguistic function. They thereby fail to take account of issues raised earlier: the form-function problem; the fact that intonational meaning is derived from a complex set of sources; and that social and linguistic evaluation of features may vary from speaker to speaker. It is obvious from examination of intonation patterns in dialects such as Newcastle and Liverpool that rises may be employed in the Closed category without any indication of interrogative meaning or uncertainty. Furthermore, linguists who have analysed HRT have identified its positive discourse functions. It has been shown that HRT serves to track the listener’s comprehension and attention, especially when the speaker is presenting new information. Listeners perceive HRT to be deferential but friendly (Guy & Vonwiller 1984). It also acts as a turn-holding mechanism in narratives (e.g. Warren & Britain 1999).”

The other article is Foulkes and Docherty’s 2006 paper in the Journal of Phonetics (a pre-publication version is available here in pdf); the section I’m quoting is useful mainly for the references to descriptive work in other varieties of English:

“Rising contours in declaratives have begun to emerge recently in English dialects where they are not traditional features, a phenomenon variously referred to as ‘uptalk’ or ‘high rising terminal’ (see Cruttenden, 1995, 1997). This innovation has been observed in the USA (Arvaniti & Garding, 2005), Australia (Guy, Horvath, Vonwiller, Disley, & Rogers, 1986), New Zealand (Britain, 1992; Warren & Britain, 2000), and England (Cruttenden, 1997). In most locations, it is characteristic mainly of young speakers. In the USA, Australia, and New Zealand it is also most common in lower class and/or female speech, but by contrast it seems to be associated with the upwardly mobile in England.”

Selected references in full:

  • Arvaniti, A., & Garding, G. (2005). Dialectal variation in the rising accents of American English. In C. T. Best, L. Goldstein, & D. H. Whalen (Eds.), Laboratory phonology 8. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Britain, D. (1992). Linguistic change in intonation: The use of high rising terminals in New Zealand English. Language Variation and Change, 4, 77–103.
  • Cruttenden, A. (1995). Rises in English. In J. Windsor Lewis (Ed.), Studies in general and English phonetics: Essays in honour of Professor J. D. O’Connor (pp. 155–173). London: Routledge.
  • Cruttenden, A. (1997). Intonation (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Guy, G., Horvath, B., Vonwiller, J., Disley, E., & Rogers, I. (1986). An intonational change in progress in Australian English. Language in Society, 7, 23–51.
  • Warren, P., & Britain, D. (2000). Intonation and prosody in New Zealand English. In A. Bell, & K. Kuiper (Eds.), New Zealand English (pp. 146–172). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

The 2006 paper in the Journal of Phonetics is useful for a variety of reasons and worth reading if phonetics/phonology interest you at all. The full citation is:
Paul Foulkes & Gerard Docherty (2006), ‘The social life of phonetics and phonology.’ Journal of Phonetics 34: 409-438