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The organisation of a system

Phonology is the study of how the sounds of speech are organised – in any given language and in human language generally . This includes

  • The structure of speech sounds or ‘phonemes’;
  • Their privileges of occurrence, the fact that H occurs only at the beginning of syllables the sound written as NG and the KS sound written as X occur only at the end;
  • The way they interact with one another and the syntax and morphology;
  • The components of syllables;
  • The grouping of syllables into ‘feet’, giving the rhythm or metricality of the language.

English just happens to be uncommonly complex with respect to the metricality and syllable structure, and conversely simple with respect to the sounds, their privileges of occurrence, how words are built up, as in play, plays, played, and playing, and relatively few interactions between sounds, as in

  •  R inserted between vowels (in Southern varieties) in sentences connected in sense, as in “I went to Australia R and I fed a kangaroo”, but not otherwise as in “I went to Australia. And you still owe me that money;”
  • D assimilating to a following M in good morning as GOOKB MORNING in every day speech;
  • T or D assimilating to a following R in try and dry and R assimilating to the preceding T in try by what is known as ‘coalescence’.

Bulgarian, by contrast, has over 500 forms of some verbs. There are languages spoken in the Caucasus which are even more complex. The first language learner has no guidance about what is complex and how.

In the framework here, every spoken word in every language is by a sequence of steps, assembling the different constituents of every sound. In English these include:

  • Stops, ‘voiced’ in B, D, G with the lips, tongue tip, and back of the tongue, and ‘voiceless’ in P, T, K;
  • Vowels – short in him, hem, ham, hum, hod, hood, the long vowels in he, hark, hawk, who, ‘diphthongs’ with with the tongue moving in the ‘vowel space’ in hay, high, hoy, hoe, how, the vowel known as ‘schwa’ at the beginning and end of agenda, a long equivalent in her and fur, and the combinations of a long vowel or diphthong with schwa in our, ire, coir, truer, all (significantly) written with an R;
  • One complex consonant by the release of a ‘stop’ by a complete closure of the airstream in an ‘affricate’, in chew, jew, itch, edge, church and judge;
  • Some unstressed syllabic nuclei with just a consonant in the underlying forms in little and middle;
  • Word stress with one primary stress on the left branch of the ‘foot’ in ladder, in the left branch of the rightmost foot in belladonna, and discounting one rime with a short nucleus on the right edge, as in hippopotamus.

Although, by comparison with most other languages, English has a very complex vowel system and an only averagely complex consonant system, there are far more developmental problems with respect to the latter than with respect to the former. It is worth asking why this might be so. By the research hypothesis here, even an average consonant system is intrinsically more complex than a complex vowel system. It would seem possible that this may be due to the greater complexity in the derivation of consonants from their original formation in the evolution of human speech.

A hypothesis

The complexity is reduced, and learnability is enhanced by the model developed by Nunes (2002) from the work of Archangeli (1984), Kiparsky (1995) and Paradis and Prunet (1995), by which lexical entries consist only in the most minimal information about their sound structure, making as much use as possible of ‘default rules’ to make them pronounceable. For instance in the case of the right edge sound in pats, pads, patches and Pat’s, only two ‘rules’ are needed,

A) the element or feature known as continuance in the Sound Pattern of English, getting all of the other features either by default or being ‘spread’ from the preceding element, in this case the the last sound of the root

B) Add a vowel between two adjacent instances of what are known as ‘sibillants’ – in S, Z, SH, and the rightmost element of CH and J

In the case of words lke string, glimpse, and next with three adjacent consonantal elements before and after the vowel, there is a significant commonality between S and T in the fact that both are articulated with the tongue tip. In glimpse and next, the edgemost S is attached last, initially as a single positive value of continuance, and the final T in next as an abstract consonant, pronounced as T by default rules in the course of the derivation.

By the proposal here, with only an abstract structure organised as a spine, and with no rules, this hypothesis needs to be reworked and restated.