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Myths and burials

In a working life from 1849 to 1905, Alexander Melville Bell developed what he called ‘visible speech’. This was a first version of what we now call phonetics. Bell was building on a long tradition going back to the 1669 work of William Holder of breaking the speech sounds down into their constituents. For example, vowels sound different to one another partly by the position of the tongue in the mouth and partly (by Bell’s discovery) by the rounding of the lips. Bell drew a V-shaped chart with the vowel in tar at the bottom and the vowels in tea and two at the top corners, and other vowels at positions in between. The arm of the V with tea at the top represented vowels with the tongue towards the front of the mouth. The other arm with two at the top represented vowels with the tongue more to the back. He called these and all the positions in between ‘cardinal’ positions.

Then in 1917 Daniel Jones, Bell’s academic descendant at University College London, proposed what he called the ‘cardinal vowels’, arranging these on a quadrilateral, with two variants of the AH sound at the bottom and the vowels in tea and two at the top corners, but without mentioning Bell.

In 1913 it was clear to George Bernard Shaw, as an acute and perceptive observer and a propagandist for spelling reform, that Jones had edged Bell out of his place in the history of speech science. Shaw dramatized the relation between Bell and Jones in the characters of Colonel Pickering and Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’, pointedly mentioning visible speech in the preface. Eliza, as the main character in the play, is clearly named after Bell’s wife, Eliza, who would seem to have been as feisty as Shaw’s character.

Quite separately there was a real-life attempt to recast a working class woman as an aristocrat which Shaw probably knew about. This was apparently a disaster for all of those involved.

Rapid Syllable Transition Treatment

In a way rather similar to Jones’s attempt to write Bell out of history, there is a claim by Tricia McCabe, Cate Madill, Pippa Evans, Laura Crocco, Elizabeth Murray, Kirrie Ballard, and others, from the University of Sydney, Australia, in a series of publications from 2008 and later that they have invented something which they call ‘Rapid Syllable Transition Treatment’, or ReST – on They give their Head of Department, Don Robin, the credit for inventing ReST. He is named as a contributor to two of the 68 publications listed

The ReST authors make six points.

1. ReST involves ‘intensive practice in producing multisyllabic pseudo-words’, arbitrarily selected as the immediate goals;

2. ReST is for Childhood Apraxia of Speech or CAS;

3 ReST is characterised in terms of ‘Principles of Motor Learning’;

4. The pseudo-words are defined exclusively in terms of phonemes;

5. Feedback is given trial-by-trial, in case of doubt, erring on the side of correction;

6. Feedback is couched in terms of a three-way opposition between phonemic accuracy, ‘transitioning’ or  ‘smoothness’ and metricality or  ‘beats’.

To my mind there are six serious mistakes here – by overlooking or ignoring:

A. The discovery by Holder (1669), Bell (1849) and others including Chomksy and Halle (1968) that speech sounds have constituent parts, now widely known to adherents of various theories as ‘distinctive features’;

B. The original, therapeutic logic of pseudo-words – by definition, possible words;

C. The common case of errors which either don’t fit into the  ReST authors’ three-way framework or fail on more than one of their criteria;

D. What is going on in the mind of the child – by the insistence on giving feedback, discouraging any spontaneous internalisation by the child;

E. The standard practice in science and health care research of making only one change to a previously published protocol;

F. Common academic and professional decency, the spirit of open dissemination of knowledge, and the recognition of previous work, including mine, by Nunes (2002, 2006)

The idea of therapy with polysyllabic pseudo-words is one of the main ideas in my 2002 thesis where I credit all of those predecessors I was able to find. Because of the bizarre shenanigans of Jones and his successors, I missed the work of Holder, Thelwdall and Bell. I described this novel approach by pseudo words in numerous posts over a number of years on Phonological Therapy, an Australian listserve owned by Caroline Bowen, and in a 2006  article in Phonological Therapy.

Not having published anything until 2008, the ReST authors’ claim of invention seems to me quite spurious.

Mentioning neither features or metricality (although they make use of both), the ReST authors’ name for their therapy does not make sense. It is about more than syllables, Unlike older protocols, ReST does not bear on the notion of possible words. The logic of using pseudo-words in therapy is thus greatly reduced.

Because of their multiple changes to older protocols, it is impossible to evaluate whether any of the ReST authors’ changes are beneficial or not.

But despite their own rather cavalier approach to transparency, the ReST authors do not hesitate to advise that “the closer you stay to the research protocol, the more likely the children you treat will benefit from ReST therapy.” As we say in England, they’ve got a nerve.

The ReST authors may see the fact that they are applying the pseudo-words idea to CAS as exonerating them from any requirement to disclose any prior publications. But this has the effect of concealing what may be disadvantageous changes to older protocols, such as mine.

The price

There is a presumption in favour of openness in science. It is obviously important to develop new idea, to bring to light any errors and illogicalities in old thinking, and to take account of all advances in knowledge,c technique and technology. But it is also important not to lose sight of old thinking. It is always possible that this has been just misunderstood. Or old errors can be just repeated

To my mind, the burial of Bell and his predecessors and the representation of ReST as a blue sky invention have had negative effects on the history and development of both clinical linguistics and speech and language pathology in the English-speaking world.

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