question about phonemes

Rob Freeman rjfreeman at EMAIL.COM
Fri Apr 4 20:50:46 UTC 2003

Hello All,

I find this discussion very interesting because it fits in with a perspective
I am trying to push - that grammar does not exist.

I shouldn't be surprised because the advocates I hear for the non-existence
of the phoneme are the same (Langacker, Hopper) I have read and identified
with at the syntactic level.

Personally all I can say of substance on the phoneme issue is that
non-existence is for me a "happy congruence" with the way I believe syntax

That said I can understand how the two sides of the discussion can easily
misunderstand one-another. In a sense, of course, grammars (and phonemes) do
exist, we can see them.

I would propose that the non-existence advocates re-phrase their argument
from one that states outright that phonemes don't exist, to one that
emphasizes more that they are in a state of being continuously created. That
is what I read in Spike's post and what prompted me to write here:

"cognitive theories like the one represented in Joan Bybee's recent work, ...
see phonemic behaviors as schemata that are constructed by generalizing over
a body of stored, phonetically rich word-level exemplars."

That way you can have your cake and eat it too. It is not an issue of whether
something exists or not, but whether that existence is a fundamental
principle or a product of fundamental principles.

As an analogy I like to compare grammar, and phonemes might be the same, with
waves on the sea. Waves don't have an independent existence, they are the
constant products of uncountable tiny interactions between water molecules.

Hope I'm not getting too meta-physical. This perspective has concrete
applications. It turns our conventional ideas of language inside out, so that
they don't so much become wrong, but you see that the fundamental processes
underlying them are somewhat lateral to those we have been accustomed to

That gives us new power.

-Rob Freeman

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