To be or not to be: phonemes

Yishai Tobin yishai at
Fri Apr 4 03:51:47 UTC 2003

Dear Suzette and Funknetters,

This discussion has brought me (an inveterate lurker) out from the shadows.

Arguments for and against the phoneme seem never to cease (cf. my discussion on
and summary of the topic in Chapter 1 and the endnotes 6-14 in Phonology as
Human Behavior: Theoretical Implications and Clinical Applications, Duke
University Press. 1997).  They are reminiscent of the early 70s when there were
discussions at LSA and other meetings on whether "deep structure" was
"syntactic" or "semantic" and the different camps would sit on opposite sides
of the auditorium arguing with each other and then be convinced that each one
of them had won the argument and the issue was closed.

The concept of the phoneme (like everything else) is complex,hardly foolproof,
and highly arguable. The existence/demise of the phoneme has been the subject
of much theoretical (descriptive, formal and functional) debate.  As a longtime
functional advocate of the phoneme, I became persuaded/convinced of its
worthiness and reality when confronted with developmental and particularly
clinical situations.

IN MY EXPERIENCE: Children's errors/processes can really be classified as being
phonetic versus phonemic.  For example, if a child says something like /t/ for
/k/ or something like /d/ for /g/ (a process called "fronting") and you repeat
what  the child says; they will adamantly disagree and claim that they did NOT
say what you did; and then they will correct you by saying something that
sounds to you EXACTLY LIKE what you said.  Acoustic analyses of these
utterances show that their (fronted) /t/ or /d/ for /k/  or /g/ is distinct
from their regular apical /t/ or /d/ and, indeed, they have two distinct sounds
in their system and in their production at least one of which "misses the mark"
and overlaps with the other and may not be heard and differentiated by you.
(The same goes for voiced/voiceless distinctions and other sound

I even think that most regular functional errors/processes are ususally
phonetic (like the above) and if a child has more than merely sporadic phonemic
errors (where s/he cannot perceive or produce different sounds) this may be an
indication of a possible organic origin of an error or pocess.  I have also
noticed that most children make errors primarily with consonants and it may
also be possible that children that make more than sporadic errors with both
consonants and vowels may have an organic origin to these errors/processes.
This, of course, is a hypothesis that must be investigated.

It may also be that anti-phoneme advocates could look at the same data
differently, but, for me, at least, develomental and clinical phonology
supports the existence of what Sanford Shane called that little "bastard", the

Yishai Tobin

Suzette Haden Elgin wrote:

> April 3, 2003
> My thanks to all on the list who have responded to my question about the
> upper limit of (documented) phonemes in human languages. Thank you for the
> help, and for the references. However, this is one of those cases in which
> the cure has turned out to be worse than the disease.
> After reading Spike Gildea's response -- 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.
> (1) What does that statement of Spike's mean -- functionally? And how do we
> define "cognitive reality," precisely? If phonemes do not function in human
> speech to let speakers/listeners distinguish the meanings of words, how [I
> am tempted to say "how the blazes"] does that happen? Why do we continue to
> teach the concept of phoneme and to teach charts of phonemes if they're
> only figments? And what should those of us who work outside the ivory tower
> use as a way of helping people do useful tasks like teaching reading, if
> not phonemes? I am accustomed every few years to learn that something we
> linguists have written whole shelves of books about is now out of favor and
> considered quaint, only to learn a few years later that the quaint little
> whatever-it-is has come back around on the guitar again. It's
> disconcerting, but is apparently the nature of the Linguist Beast. However,
> I'd like clarification from within a functionalist framework. I'm not at
> all sure that I understand this.
> (2) It looks to me, from the responses, as if the following situation holds
> (always remembering that the whole thing is unreal, anyway, right?):
> Suppose we come across a language that has five identifiable vowels.
> Suppose the language modifies vowels by nasalizing them, and there are
> minimal pairs in which the meaning distinction depends on whether the vowel
> is or isn't nasal. The question then is whether the phoneme inventory for
> the language is to be analyzed as having five vowels or as having ten
> vowels. If that is so, and if I haven't totally misunderstood your
> messages, what are the criteria for making that decision? Functionally
> speaking.....
> Suzette

Professor Yishai Tobin
Department of Foreign Literatures and Linguistics
& Department of Behavioral Sciences
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
P.O. Box 653
84 105 Be'er Sheva, Israel
972-7-6472047 (office)
972-7-6277950 (home)
972-7-6472907  / 972-7-6472932 (fax)

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