Author Topic: What was the impetus for phonology?  (Read 5124 times)

Offline zaba

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What was the impetus for phonology?
« on: March 11, 2015, 11:28:23 PM »
We all know that phonetics (or something like phonetics) was performed from the late 1800s, even wh wax cyllinders. But phonology didn't really shop up on the scene until well after Saussure died, maybe somewhere in the late 1930s with Trubetzkoy and Jakobson.

What was the impetus for positing the existence of the phoneme (which I assume is key to the birth of phonological theory in general)? Was there some phenomena that this first generation of phonologists latched onto as representing the insufficiency of phonetic and acoustic theories?

Just been thinking about the the development and history of our young science. Thanks!

Offline Daniel

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Re: What was the impetus for phonology?
« Reply #1 on: March 12, 2015, 09:11:43 AM »
The ideas about contrastiveness from Saussure, I believe, are the origin of all of this. Meaning is based on being contrastive with other things, and therefore we need to find out what is contrastive.
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Offline zaba

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Re: What was the impetus for phonology?
« Reply #2 on: March 12, 2015, 12:30:05 PM »
But it wasn't until welllll after Saussure's death that this developed into scientific inquiry. Previous to the 1930s, phonetics seemed to suffice. Was there know break-through paper/discover/ah-ha moment from which phonology emerged?

Offline panini

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Re: What was the impetus for phonology?
« Reply #3 on: April 08, 2015, 11:15:55 AM »
I think the impetus was really the problem of transcription of unknown languages in publications like Handbook of American Indian Languages. Early works in that area are extremely difficult to use, since they provide ludicrous levels of phonetic detail, and it is very difficult to recognize simple generalizations, given the very raw nature of the transcriptions. There was and to some extent still is such a problem in Finno-Ugric studies as well (look at Sammallahti's phonetic transcriptions in The Saami Languages for an example), but there you're dealing with a long descriptive tradition of a relatively few quite similar languages. At any rate, over the course of study of Native American languages, the idea of factoring out low-level pronunciation details and focusing on abstract Saussurean notions like "contrast" became more practically useful, and resulted in the development of scientific theories of phonology by Sapir, Swadesh, Bloomfield, Haas, Newman, Voeglin and other Amerindianists.
 

Offline Daniel

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Re: What was the impetus for phonology?
« Reply #4 on: April 09, 2015, 09:46:05 PM »
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(look at Sammallahti's phonetic transcriptions in The Saami Languages for an example)
I was actually just doing that today. They are a bit tricky! (But, though they aren't glossed immediately, the glossaries supplied are very useful!)
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Offline Copernicus

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Re: What was the impetus for phonology?
« Reply #5 on: June 01, 2015, 02:03:28 PM »
We all know that phonetics (or something like phonetics) was performed from the late 1800s, even wh wax cyllinders. But phonology didn't really shop up on the scene until well after Saussure died, maybe somewhere in the late 1930s with Trubetzkoy and Jakobson.
Actually, the first modern phonologist was the Polish linguist, Jan Niecisław Ignacy Baudouin de Courtenay (13 March 1845 – 3 November 1929). He was the person who first coined the term "phoneme" (фонема).  He published mainly in Russia and in Russian, but he did publish a little in German and his native language of Polish.  Basically, he (and his graduate protege,  Mikołaj Kruszewski) came up with a theory of alternations.  Basically, alternating sounds could represent a single phoneme (e.g. the s/z alternation in books vs. bags) or two phonemes (e.g. the s/z alternation in house vs to house).   He called the former a physiophonetic alternation and the latter a psychophonetic alternation.  Trubetzkoy was later used the terms "phonology" and "morphophonology" to make the same distinction. 

Notice that the original concept of phonemic theory allowed for phonemic neutralization, but that changed with later schools of phonology, especially structuralist schools, which rejected the older view that a single phoneme could have phonetic variants that could be perceptually confused as distinct phonemes.  Distinct phonemes could not have overlapping allophony in these subsequent schools, and that doctrinaire view essentially killed off the impetus for Baudouin's original alternational dichotomy.  Modern generative phonology actually went to the opposite extreme.  It tends to incorporate both types of alternation under the rubric of phonology.  That is, generative phonologists have trouble making a formal theoretical distinction between phonological and morphophonological alternations.

Baudouin developed the original concept of the "psychological phoneme", which Edward Sapir and his students had described (albeit without reference to Baudouin's seminal role).  Baudouin de Courtenay is still fairly obscure to Western linguists, so you still hear people incorrectly claiming that phonology started with scholars like Saussure.  In fact, Saussure once attributed his understanding of this area to Baudouin.  Baudouin's alternational dichotomy led directly to three major Russian schools of phonology:  Leningrad, Moscow, and Prague.  Because the former two developed during the Soviet period and published almost exclusively in Russian, Western linguists tend to know very little of them.  The Prague school of phonology was dominated by two Russian emigres:  Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson.  They were Moscow-trained, but influenced heavily by Baudouin's work.  Trubetzkoy distinguished phonology from morphophonology in way that was isomorphic with the physiophonetics/psychophonetics dichotomy.

What was the impetus for positing the existence of the phoneme (which I assume is key to the birth of phonological theory in general)? Was there some phenomena that this first generation of phonologists latched onto as representing the insufficiency of phonetic and acoustic theories?
Yes, there was.  Baudouin's theory was originally developed in the backwater Kazan University, and his school became known as the Kazan School.  Based on my reading of some of his early writings, I think that Baudouin was fascinated by the discrepancy that speakers of different languages and dialects made between intended and perceived speech sounds.  He was also, like all 19th century linguists, schooled in Sanskrit and may have been influenced by Panini's theory, which included reference to a concept of a phoneme (varna).  (Indeed, ancient Hindu grammarians were superb articulatory phonologists.)  So a physiophonetic alternation involved a single salient speech sound--e.g. a phonemic voiced obstruent that became devoiced at the ends of syllables in Slavic languages. 

Let me give an example from Polish, since you can observe both types of alternation in the same word:  mróz /mruz/ 'frost'.  The genitive form of that word is mroza /mroza/ 'of frost'.  Now Polish, like Russian, devoices all obstruent consonants in syllable-final position.  So /mruz/ is actually pronounced [mrus], although there may be subtle phonetic traces of voicing in the final consonant.  In Baudouin's theory, the psychological intention would be to pronounce the phonetic target [z], but the production would result in [s].  Think of this as an articulatory constraint on Polish pronunciation.  However, the u/o alternation in the stem is something else--two intentionally distinct phonetic targets (i.e. phonemes) that are pronounced as such.  So a Polish speaker can easily articulate [mros] instead of [mrus], but Polish morphology dictates that /u/ in the nominative correspond to /o/ in the genitive.  So Baudouin called the s/z alternation physiophonetic (phonological) and the u/o alternation psychophonetic (morphophonological).

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Just been thinking about the the development and history of our young science. Thanks!
Not so young.  Linguistic theory goes back at least to Panini, but his great work clearly had precursors going back to Vedic times.  Ancient Hindu sages were quite motivated to preserve pronunciation in their oral tradition of publishing.   :)
« Last Edit: June 01, 2015, 02:13:05 PM by Copernicus »