Saturday, December 23, 2006

Its Knot Necessarily Sew

The claim that phonetics and semantics are not related is of course too absolute for me to defend. So we explain what we believe can be inferred about one from the other. The examples in the last post moved in the direction of certain semantics to their likely phonetic forms. Yes this is a relationship. Let me admit that from the start and move on. I then use the term necessary relationship and claim that there is no prescriptive or proscriptive force from one segment to the other. Although there are apparent correlations between words about relative size and the vowels in those words most will agree that a words need not based their meaning on their vowels. And to support this they could counter the claim that a stressed vowel in a diminutive word can certainly be a back vowel as in "puny."

If a contrary voice suggests that "puny" does have a +high initial segment (either [i] or [j]) in its stressed diphthong [ju], "huge" [hjudʒ] serves as a counter example. That can be countered by the additive argument: "puny" has an unstressed high segment in the second syllable that 'adds' to its diminutive tone. It's getting ridiculous already. There is no reason "puny" must mean "small." And although the direction of implication can make a supportable claim about what vowels are likely to be stressed in words with certain semantic intensions it is unreasonable to expect that on hearing the phonetic or phonological form in an unknown language anyone could synthesize its semantics.

And for some this is an unbearable lightness. Buffy looks at my white board covered with formulae and the corresponding sets and symbols and all forms of data and its grids and she flashes back to her math classes. She is now fully immersed in the dense and philosophical literature of the renaissance and she doesn't always share my interest in the IPA. The patterns I'm identifying are semantically empty and she has questioned how I was able to leave behind my literary degrees and move over to phonology. We've moved in opposite directions. I can say nothing of her motives and her reasons for following her math degree with literature--but I left literature and moved over to phonology largely because I enjoy a field that is often unapologetically only about itself. I find phonology to be a largely self-absorbed field and I love it for that.

There are of course many in the field who apply their learning and theories to early childhood language acquisition and even some who focus on theraputic applications. And that's a wonderful focus. I've said so before. But I came into the field because I spent several years telling high school aged students that success in my English classes was not going to guarantee success anywhere in their future, and failure would not guarantee failure anywhere else. Then why try? they asked. Why indeed. And so I moved into a culture that loves and trusts itself for its own sake. Such is academia. It's such a joy to read an essay that deals with expletives taboos and other offensive forms with spartan pointedness. No asterisks or &!@#ing euphemisms. (I'm not talking about the words themselves here so I don't need to use them.) While others are claiming that a word must be banned, linguists are assuming that it is possible to separate an offensive word from the hatred that often propels it. Separating a form from its meaning is my little reminder that basic investigation is a reasonable goal.

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