The Sound Pattern of English

For most linguists, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle’s 1968 The Sound Pattern of English was a milestone. Admirers and detractors alike refer to it as SPE. Although most of its main theses have since been abandoned by both authors, SPE refines the idea of bits of phonemes which it calls ‘distinctive features’. This is still crucially relevant for the study of children’s speech.

The work of the last three members of my awesome foursome was taken much further in SPE. This was on the basis of new evidence from a large number of languages and their histories, almost all unknown to European and American scholars until the 19th and 20th centuries.

From features to phonemes

Like Holder before them, but using a new and much more precise terminology, Chomsky and Halle propose that the phonemes are defined by the features, rather than the features being just their taxonomic attributes.

By a taxonomic approach, as espoused by the International Phonetic Association, there are eleven points at which the airflow can be constricted, the vocal chords, the lips, and nine others in between. Recognising that no language exploits more than a few of these, typically no more than three or four, SPE proposes a more abstract but more parsimonious system, differentiating the TH phoneme in thin, by a negative valuation with respect to a feature which it calls ‘strident’, contrasting with a positive valuation with respect to F in fin, S in sin, SH in shin.

By the SPE system, features are either on or off. This was, as it remains, a quite reasonable assumption, given that this is how the nervous system works. Nerves are either activated or not. 

Both the parsimony of the system and the fact that is essentially binary help describe both what happens and what doesn’t happen in incompetent speech, as shown in A problem saying S and Z.

Word stress or metricality

SPE gives the first full account of English word stress, as a universal property of all English words, obvious in those with two syllables or more, and as much a part of an English word as the phonemes. Before SPE, it was often said that English stress varied randomly, as in Canada, loaned from Mohawk and Iroquois, spaghetti from Italian, and vindaloo, from various South Indian languages, previously from Portuguese, with the stress on the first, second and final syllables respectively.

Aa one aspect of what is known as the ‘metricality’ of the segments or phonemes, in contrast to their ‘segmentality’, word stress has complex effects across the whole range of speech acquisition up until the age of seven or eight.

The principle governing English word stress affects a number of word sets which children are starting to hear in conversation not necessarily addressed to them, but in their presence, about matters of family concern – like Italy and Italian, photograph and photography, music and musician, where the relation between the meanings is obvious, but the stress varies.

Until SPE, the basis of the metricality remained mysterious. John Thelwall described it in terms of ‘cadences’, stretching the meaning of the musical term. Alexander Melville Bell suspected that an account was possible. SPE provided the first such account.

The lost legacy

Chomsky and Halle did not know of the work of my awesome foursome because of some shenanigans in the early 1900s. But thanks to SPE, there is now lively research in all of SPE’s main areas, all matters of great concern for clinical linguistics, particularly the duality of metricality and segmentality.