Propreantepenultimate Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know—Madalena Cruz-Ferreira SpecGram Vol CLXXVI, No 3 Contents A Venery of Terms—Part II—Collective Nouns for Linguists—X. Altaysh & Uvlarr Ksss

Against Hermogenes

Anders Horn

The traditional account of the relationship between phonetics and meaning holds that there is a “duality of patterning” (Bloomfield 1933). Phonemes are individually meaningless and are separated by an iron wall from morphemesthe smallest unit of meaning. However already by the 50s cracks were beginning to show in the account (Bolinger 1949). Phenomena like “sound symbolism” could not be placed on either side of the divide. Even old-fashion sound changes, once the key proof of the arbitrariness of the relation, were found to be conditioned by meaning. For example in many English dialects [ŋ] has changed to [n] in the morpheme ing but not in words like sing or thing.

The tools to resolve this difficulty have been sitting in front of us almost as long, but have been blocked by a slavish adherence to surface forms. It is well known that a single phoneme may have several different realizations. For example the English /p/ is aspirated word initially but unaspirated after a sibilant. In German some think that the same phoneme may be realized as [h] in the syllable onset but [ŋ] in the coda. In some American dialects /t/ and /d/ have the same phonetic surface form of [ɾ]. The assumption of a simple one-to-one relationship between phonetics and phonology has been repeatedly proven false. I think it is time we stepped back to reevaluate the phoneme-morpheme relationship in light of this failure.

I propose that sound symbolism is the default and unmarked case. Instances where the phoneme meaning is harder to divine can be seen as examples of homophony where different phonemes have the same surface realization. You can imagine the difficulty a theory of lexical semantics would have trying to account for the meanings of both wear and where in the same word. Furthermore, once we properly distinguish between the fundamental phoneme and mere accidents of production, we can see that morphemes are actually compositionally produced from both the sound and the meanings of their component phonemes. For example, /gl/ is traditionally thought of as a two-phoneme sound symbol found in such words as gleam, glitter, glisten and glow. Conspicuously absent from the the usual account are gilt and gold, which are clearly closely related but present the phonemes separately. We can find a clue to the separate meanings of these two phonemes in words like grab, get and good; clearly /g/ here means something like “desire”, while /l/ appearing in light, flash and flicker means something like “specular luminosity”.

A critic may charge us with spurious duplication of meaning. Why should a word have so many phonemes if just one or two would be enough to specify its meaning? The reason for this redundancy is that there are a limited number of distinguishable sounds, so in the noisy production environment different phonemes can be confused with each other. Mandarin Chinese, faced with a similar problem of massive homophony, solved it by compounding words with extra morphemes to disambiguate; for example, (“tiger”) was expanded to lǎohǔ (“old tiger”). The same process could have occurred to give us our multi-phonemic words.

Someone might complain that a particular phoneme may appear so rarely that a child would not have enough time to learn its meaning before learning the meaning of the whole word. This objection can be trivially answered by positing a Universal Phonology. The set of semantic phonemes is fixed in the human blueprint. A child merely has to learn the language-specific surface form of the pre-existing phoneme.

In conclusion, Socrates was fundamentally right. There is a direct, non-arbitrary relationship between the phonemes in a word and its meaning. However, just as the ancient Greeks lacked modern science’s highpowered electron microscopes and so falsely rejected Democritus’s theory of atoms, so too did they have to wait for modern linguistics’ distinction between phonetics and phonology for the true nature of phonemes to be proven.

Propreante­penultimate Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t KnowMadalena Cruz-Ferreira
A Venery of TermsPart IICollective Nouns for LinguistsX. Altaysh & Uvlarr Ksss
SpecGram Vol CLXXVI, No 3 Contents