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


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.