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The Sound Pattern of English

In 1968 Noam Chomsky and his then colleague, the late Morris Halle, published the Sound Pattern of English, standardly referred to by admirers and detractors alike as SPE. Arguably it is the most talked about work in linguistics. It is one of the few books to have been republished in paperback after both authors had discarded most of its main theses. By one of these theses both speech and language use a common apparatus. Because this apparatus is used cyclically, the system is economical. Although both Chomsky and Halle changed their minds on the desirability of a common apparatus, I think that this idea should be sustained in order to explain various aspects of children’s speech and language acquisition which would otherwise be inexplicable. By one thesis whicfh has been generally retained, SPE proposes that speech sounds are derived from their properties, where they are articulated in the mouth, with what sorts of effects, and more, what it calls ‘distinctive features’. This. I maintain, is crucially relevant for the study of speech errors and children’s speech, as for understanding the histories of languages from their ancestral forms a thousand or more years ago and variations between the dialects of the language as spoken today. This greatly develops the work of Holder and Bell, discussed here in the context of child centeredness.

By an alternative approach, the defining elements are the speech sounds themselves as categorised in the inventory, rather than the features whch keep them apart from one another. This seemingly subtle difference in the order of definition has huge effects on the scope of analysis, as shown in A problem saying S and Z.


One of SPE’s achievements was to give 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 their child centered predecessors 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.