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Sounds – or letters?

Not the same thing

By the discovery of one scholar working in the Middle East about 3,200 years ago, the root form of every word in the language could be broken down into a sequence of consonants because then, as now, the languages in this area have the cross-linguistically unusual property that vowels are mainly or only inserted by derivation – essentially for speech – rather than being part of the lexical entry. About 300 years later, it was discovered that this could be applied to the full spoken form of all speech sounds or ‘phonemes’, including the vowels in more typical languages like Greek.  About 300 years after that it seems to have been worked out, possibly by an Etruscan scholar, that the phonemes can be broken down further into constituent gestures or features, at least with respect to M, B, N and D. By a more modern discovery, probably by Islamic scholars in Southern Spain in the early 13th century, it was realised that there were deep commonalities between Arabic and languages like English, French, Spanish and German. From a first suggestion by William Holder in the 17th century, more studies by William Jones in the 18th century, and then by much more extensive work of the 19th  and 2oth centuries it became clear that the commonalities were across languages, and the notion of commonalities across languages and  of phonemes differing by a universal set of features was hugely developed and refined.

Taxonomy and articulation

By what might be called a taxonomic view (not adoptedhere), the phonemes are grouped by the smallest possible number of their constituents, most commonly the place in the vocal tract where they are articulated, the relative timing of any activity in the larynx or voice-box, and the manner in which the articulation happens. This gives a large number of places, the two lips, the lower lip and the upper teeth, the tongue tip and the upper teeth, and so on, and a large number of manners, as a single articulation, as in tea, or a transition between two, as in chore, or an articulation which is neither a vowel nor a consonant, like the Y in yew, or both a vowel and a consonant like the L in law.

This approach describes the phonemes, but does little to clarify why children make the quite narrowly-defined set of errors which they commonly do, replacing K by T and G by D, R by W, and Y by L, but rarely replacing R by Y or T by K.

By another approach, known as ‘articulatory phonology’, the alphabet is just a convenience, reflecting what are really just overlapping sequences of gestures within the vocal tract. If this theory is correct, the alphabet is just an artifact of perception. To my mind, this does not illuminate the actual distribution of speech errors, neither children’s nor adults’.

The lost insight of the alphabet

By the hypothesis here, as by Nunes (2002), it is necessary to consider how and why the phonemic structure evolved in the way it has, and how this is reflected in human development. Part of the story here is obviously the anatomy and neurophysiology of the vocal tract. But that is only part of the story. It is also necessary to consider the interaction between the features, with the phoneme ‘built’ by successive steps of feature combination.

The letters of the alphabet represent the notion of the phoneme as this was originally and brilliantly conceived in the Middle East and ancient Greece. To Gallileo and to Noam Chomsky, the discovery of the alphabetic principle is one of the crowning achievements of human thought. But as speech and languages developed over centuries, the profound and original notion of the alphabet was obstructed by a common reluctance to update spellings and by a common preference for some prestigious system, as represented by Latin or Greek . So English makes do with five single letters for a system with the six short vowels in him, hem, ham, hum, hod and hood, because that is the system bequeathed by Latin.

In 1875 the Polish scholar, Jan Baudouin de Courtenay, reawakened interest in the original insight, and in the 1920s opened the world’s first institution dedicated to the training of speech and language pathologists in Warsaw.

It would seem that Baudouin de Courtenay was the only linguist to have ever been nominated as the president of his country.

(See Phonetics, Phonology and Phonotactics)

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