question about phonemes

Geoff Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Thu Apr 3 14:36:58 UTC 2003

At 08:00 AM 4/3/2003 -0600, Suzette Haden Elgin wrote:
>which included the statement that
>"most linguists no longer believe in the cognitive reality of the notion
>'phoneme' " -- I withdraw my foolhardy remark about this question not being
>a profound one, and I would appreciate a little clarification. I now have
>two questions -- two question-clusters, actually.

         With all due respect to Spike, I completely disagree that 'most
linguists' no longer believe in the cognitive reality of the phoneme.  In
fact, just recently I helped review a paper on the subject for a major
phonetics/phonology journal. The editors ultimately rejected the paper
because it was arguing *for* the cognitive reality of the phoneme, and the
reason for the rejection was that this argument has been made so often and
so persuasively that there is no longer any doubt and yet another article
on the same subject was not needed.
         Certainly most contemporary textbooks within the overall
generative framework have at least four or five pages defending the notion,
and my own textbook, currently almost finished[1], within the Cognitive
Grammar framework makes the same claim, at great length.  The simple fact
of just how hard it is to teach narrow phonetic transcription, and how easy
to teach a broad-to-phonemic transcription to undergraduate students
strikes me as an extraordinarily strong, real-world demonstration that we
hear small numbers of phoneme-sized chunks, and anyone who has taught or
tried to learn a second language as an adult knows that the chunks vary and
govern our perceptions and productions.
         It is true that there is a part of Cognitive Grammar that has
argued a different view (Bybee's new book, and similar work by Kemmer,
Langacker and others), but to say that 'most linguists' have rejected the
notion is somewhat extreme.  I think it will take a lot of persuading to
dethrone a concept that goes back to the eighteen eighties (Baudouin) and
has been defended by every flavor of phonologist from Sapir through Daniel
Jones, David Stampe and now through Andrew Spencer and Carlos Gussenhoven
(both authors of quite recent phonology texts), and is accepted by most
psycholinguists (something that can't be said about most grammatical
constructs these days...).
         I don't want to start a debate about the reality of phoneme, but I
just couldn't let that one pass...


[1]  Nathan, Geoffrey S.  In Preparation.  Introduction to Phonology:  A
Cognitive Grammar Approach.  Berlin:  Mouton.
Additional published references on this subject available upon request...

Geoffrey S. Nathan <geoffnathan at>
Faculty Liaison, Computing and Information Technology,
Wayne State University

Linguistics Program
Department of English
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI, 48202

Phone Numbers
Computing and Information Technology:  (313) 577-1259
Linguistics (English):  (313) 577-8621

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