Saturday, February 03, 2007

Labov calls it a full count

Let's be honest. Most readers of this web log are not professional linguists. The heavy majority are curious and intelligent patrons of the humanities. Probably a lot of English majors.

So when I mention that my studies are focusing on phonology and English language history you have a pretty good idea that I'm talking about the sounds of our language today and yesteryear.

Sometimes I'm asked for specifics about phonology. "What's that?...precisely?" I go through a couple of stock phrases. One standard answer is the mental representation of speech sounds and their relationships to other speech sounds. I know to expect the tilted squinting stare, meaning "huh?" I've had some trouble explaining to people that it isn't psychology. It might come close to some schools of psychology...sometimes...but not really.

One of the easier ways to illustrate a very basic phonological analysis is to ask my curious friend for the plural of dog. "Dogs" she says. So I then ask for the plural of cat. She says "Cats."

Here's the switch. I ask her what she did to make the words plural. "Added 's'" she says with that challenging half smirk that says "Uhhh...isn't that obvious?" So I explain to her that in fact she added a sound. And it wasn't the same sound for both words.

"So I don't add an ess?" She asks. It might be an ess that sometimes is expressed like a zee. It might be a zee that's sometimes expressed like an ess. It might be underspecified and take it's form only once it's articulated in its environment. But whatever we decide to say it is "before it's pronounced" phonology claims that both the [z] and [s] start off as the same segment.

My phonology II professor used an analogy from baseball and she applies it specifically to the difference between phonology and phonetics. She imagines a batter at the plate facing four pitches. He swings and a misses on the first pitch. He tips the next pitch (a fastball) foul. He tips the third pitch (another fastball) into the same exact place. He sits staring as the fourth pitch passes right over the plate at waist level. The umpire yells "Yeeeeur ouddaheeere!"

A "phonetic" umpire would say that these "events" fall into three types: Type 1) swing and miss. Type 2) called strike. Type 3) foul tip (2 times). The "phonological" umpire would say these "events" fall into two types: Type 1) strike. Type 2) uncounted foul tip.

I like this analogy. What I really like is that it establishes a form of analysis that most people have performed. They know the rules that need to be applied and in what order and they know which details of each event are relevant to the analysis. It's easy for a rational student to ask relevant and helpful questions. I've been trying for about a year to come up with a better illustration. So far I'm at a loss.


  1. Are phonemes just confounding hurdles on the way to Tr-th? Sign Language users would not be confused by your question about dogz and cats, would they? Maybe we should all stop communicating verbally...

    (*please make this "question" interesting by rephrasing it)

  2. Weren't we honest before? I feel so used.

  3. Today, Anonymous answered your question from my September 3 2006 post on French food.

  4. An excellent response was deleted by a bad connection. Here's the shorter version.

    Daniel you are very literal. Have you read the Literal-Minded web log I link to in my sidebar? So now we have an answer for the question of fried apples (or fritters of apples). The French phrase for french-fries is apparently a lot like 'borg' or 'blog'. It's a shuffled bunch of segments that have shuffled off their semantic/morphological history only to find it later in the new form.

    Casey you are very confusing.

    Speakers/performers are aware of the limitations of language so how can it be a hurdle? It is a means. As far as trYth goes...the premise of your pursuit eludes me. I think.

    Sign language does have a phonology. There is some interesting work done on signing and its phonemes. It has to do with hand shapes motions and positions.

  5. Indeed, the sign language equivalent of a phoneme is called a chereme.

    If my memory serves me correctly.


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