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Some shenanigans

Ideas, like people, peoples, towns, countries, and movements, have histories. Sometimes histories get buried. What just happens to be remembered may be less than the full truth.

The myth of Pygmalion

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, that Jones had edged Bell out of his place in history. Although Shaw would not have known about them, this also applied to William Holder and John Thelwall, two other members of my awsome foursome.  So Shaw dramatised 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 the character who was plainly named after her.

Quite separately there was a real-life attempt to recast a working class woman as an aristocrat which Shaw probably knew about. This was not a success for any 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 recent claim from 20o8 by some Australian authors that they have invented something which they call ‘Rapid Syllable Transition Treatment’, or ReST – on

The ReST authors make six points. First they say that ReST involves ‘intensive practice in producing multisyllabic pseudo-words’. Second, they say that ReST is for Childhood Apraxia of Speech or CAS. They characterise ReST in terms of ‘Principles of Motor Learning’, arguably an insecure foundation. Third, they characterise their pseudo-words exclusively in terms of speech sounds. They thus ignore Holder’s discovery that speech sounds have constituent parts, what are now, since the 1968 work of Chomsky and Halle, known as ‘distinctive features’. The clinical practice, which Holder describes in 1669, was based on pseudo-words. Fourth, they see their immediate goals in terms of teaching children to say particular pseudo words which they have arbitrarily selected. Fifth, they insist on giving feedback trial-by-trial, in case of doubt, erring on the side of correction, making no allowance for what is going on in the mind of the child, and thus ignoring the original logic of pseudo-words – by definition, possible words. Sixth, they recommend couching the feedback in terms of a three-way opposition between phonemic accuracy, ‘transitioning’, or what they call ‘smoothness’ and metricality or what they call ‘beats’. But they don’t say how they respond to errors which either don’t fit into this framework or which fail on more than one of their criteria.

Nor do they mention any of their predecessors. The idea of therapy with multisyllabic pseudo-words is one of the main ideas in my 2002 thesis where I credit all of those predecessors I was able to find. I described this approach in numerous posts on an Australian listserve owned by someone known to the ReST authors. Not having published anything until 2008, the ReST authors cannot claim to have invented anything. Oddly they say that ReST was invented by their head of department. But he is named as a contributor to only 2 of the 68 publications listed.

The big difference between ReST and the practice of Holder, Thelwall and Bell, the last three members of my awesome foursome, and myself, is that, unlike older protocols, ReST does not bear on the notion of possible words. The logic of using pseudo-words in therapy or clinical linguistics is thus greatly reduced.

It is standard practice in science and health-care to make no more than one or at most two changes to an existing protocol. Only on this basis is it possible to evaluate the effects of whatever changes are made. Multiple changes to a protocol like those made by ReST make it difficult or impossible to determine which changes are useful and which ones are not.

But despite their own rather cavalier approach to previous literature, 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.”

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

Putting things right

To my mind, there is a presumption in favour 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 and scientific technique and technology. But it is also important not to lose sight of old thinking. It is always possible that the old work 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 are shenanigans which have blighted the history and development of both clinical linguistics and speech and language pathology in the English-speaking world. These things can be put right.