Nobody's Perfect Dept.

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Fri Dec 15 17:42:28 UTC 2006

"The smallest significant unit in language" is also misleading. Since allophones constitute morphemes,  a "phone" is in a real sense smaller, and "significant" too, since you can't have a spoken language without phones.

  Prof. Murfin has taught English and criticism at Yale.

  For lurkers, a phoneme is the smallest contrastive notional unit of sound that may affect meaning in a given language.


"Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: "Arnold M. Zwicky"
Subject: Re: Nobody's Perfect Dept.

On Dec 15, 2006, at 7:13 AM, Larry Horn wrote:

>> >From a professional explication for undergraduates of cultural-
>> theory terms:
>> "Phoneme... A phoneme is the smallest significant unit in
>> language; thus, both 'a" and 'an' are phonemes, but 'n' is not."
>> --Ross C. Murfin, "Glossary of Theoretical and Critical Terms," in
>> Daniel R. Schwarz, ed. _Joseph Conrad: The Secret Sharer...with
>> Biographical and Historical Contexts...and Essays from Five
>> Contemporary critical Perspectives_ (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997),
>> p. 264.
> Well, he got the -eme part right, anyway. Part credit.

not even that. "a" and "an" are morphs, instances of a single
morpheme. murfin seems to be missing the abstraction in the morpheme

ok, to be generous, you can read him as using "morpheme" to mean
'instance of a morpheme'. so there are two morphemes in "an owl" and
two in "a bird".

in any case, the examples are not well chosen. the reader has to
figure out (from their juxtaposition) that the "a" and "an" in
question are the indefinite article and not any of the other things
spelled "a" or "an" (many of which are not morphemes). note that the
use of spelling is problematic. as is the fact that these morphemes
are also words.

there's plenty of room here for misunderstanding.


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