March 06, 2008

Ph(o)netics and ph(o)nology

Courses on phonetics and phonology usually cover the topic of language-particular phonotactic constraints: conditions on the sound sequences that are allowed to form words in a given language. For example, a phonologist may explain, English has fricatives with the usual spellings f, th, s, sh, and h; but only one of those sounds is allowed to occur before a nasal consonant (m or n) at the beginning of a word in English. The one that is permitted is s. Although none of the following are actual words:

*fmelp, *fnelp, *hmelp, *hnelp, *shmelp, *shnelp, *smelp, *snelp, *thmelp, *thnelp, *vmelp, *vnelp, *zmelp, *znelp

there is a difference: *smelp and *snelp may not exist, but they are at least possible words. There could be someone called Mr Snelp; the name does not (I think) exist, but it is perfectly English-sounding. And the fish called smelt could just as well have been called smelp. Words in English can begin with [sn]; but they cannot begin with, for example, [fn].

Now, having explained this, the phonetics/phonology instructor is sometimes faced with a smart student who says: "You said words don't begin with [fn]. But what about words like [fn]etics and [fn]onology?" At this point, a bad phonetics/phonology instructor, the sort you do not want to study with, will say: "Shut up; when I want your stupid observations I'll ask for them", or something along those lines.

But a good phonetics/phonology instructor, of the sort you might meet at the University of Edinburgh or U C Santa Cruz, will say something rather different.

Interesting things (they will say) can happen in rapid or casual connected speech, including complete loss of vowels in completely unstressed syllables. And thus words like phonetics are sometimes heard with essentially no pronounced vowel at all between the [f] sound (spelled ph) and the [n] sound. Yet the people who use words like phonetics and phonology also use related words like phonetician and phonotactics, and they always have a vowel after the [f] in those words — precisely because in those words the first syllable is not entirely unstressed.

And that illustrates rather nicely the difference between phonetics and phonology. The fact that phonetics has a vowel between the first two consonants is part of the phonology of English. The fact that you will sometimes hear it pronounced without that vowel is a fact about the phonetics of English.

So that was a good question. Well done. Thank you for asking it.

After that someone may ask about the status of words like schmuck and schnapps, borrowed from German and Yiddish. And that may lead to a bit of discussion about the curious possibility of words that are phonologically impossible but occur as loanwords anyway, which may lead to a consideration of whether a notion like "definitely possible in English" can be defined at all... But sometimes you have to re-assert control and return discussion to something a bit closer to the point about phonotactics that you were trying to teach in the first place.

There is a rather nice discussion of the phonotactics of English, and the question of how many syllables there are in the language, in Heidi Harley's book English Words. And if you want a serious scholarly study by a proper phonetician, see Lisa Davidson's paper in Phonetica. The abstract says:

Pretonic schwa elision in fast speech (e.g. potato > [pt]ato, demolish > [dm]olish) has been studied by both phonologists and phoneticians to understand how extralinguistic factors affect surface forms. Yet, both types of studies have major shortcomings. Phonological analyses attributing schwa elision to across-the-board segmental deletion have been based on researchers’ intuitions. Phonetic accounts proposing that elision is best characterized as gestural overlap have been restricted to very few sequence types. In this study, 28 different [#CəC-] sequences are examined to define appropriate acoustic criteria for ‘elision’, to establish whether elision is a deletion process or the endpoint of a continuum of increasing overlap, and to discover whether elision rates vary for individual speakers. Results suggest that the acoustic patterns for elision are consistent with an overlap account. Individual speakers differ as to whether they increase elision only at faster speech rates, or elide regardless of rate. Phonotactic legality per se does not affect elision rates, but speech rate may affect the phonological system by causing a modification of the standard timing relationships among gestures.

Note that figure 8 is incorrect in Lisa's article (I knew you'd notice). The correct figure is in this .TIF file.

Oh, one other thing. Please don't email me about fnord, OK? Don't make me be a bad person and tell you that when I want your stupid observations I'll ask for them.

Also don't mail me about snelp: I knew some damn fool would invent something to be named with one of my possible but nonexistent words so it would then exist, and sure enough, there actually is something called snelps: it's a real-time-strategy game that I didn't know about (thanks, Russell Aminzade, for the info); see this site. Sigh. All I wanted was a few nice little examples of words that were not on Paul Payack's stupid list. I didn't feel like Googling every single one, since there was nothing important about the specific examples chosen, and it was probably going to be ten tedious searches with zero hits except for several thousand misspellings etc. It's not easy being a linguoblogger. Sniff.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at March 6, 2008 12:22 PM