How Many is Umpteen?--Ura Hogg SpecGram Vol CXLVIII, No 2 Contents Book Ads

Phonological Theory and Language Acquisition

Notker Balbulus
Monastery of St. Gall

Gildea (1997:431-7) has argued that modern phonological theorizing suffers from a tendency toward over application of a particular insight. That is, a particular theory is developed to deal with a particular sort of problem, which it handles well. However, the theory's creators, emboldened by their success, and eager to win a Kuhnian victory over their rivals, then start applying the theory willy-nilly to areas for which it is not well-suited.

Gildea's analysis seems largely accurate, except in its tone of disapproval. In fact, the fact that phonological theory develops in such a fashion provides us with an exciting new insight into child language acquisition. This insight depends on the universally recognized isomorphism between ontogeny and phylogeny. That is, the particular history of phonological theory exactly parallels the child's development of phonological theories. Just as linguists constantly turn to new theories as a way of dealing with bizarre new data, so do small children progress along a genetically pre-programmed path as they learn to manipulate oral gestures and auditory input.

Plainly, the actual course of child language development completely bears out our hypothesis. Modern phonology began with the phonetic analysis of Sweet and his ilk; children begin with phonetics in the babbling stage. Later, children learn which single segments are contrastive; this is structuralist phonemics. Then, like Chomsky and Halle, they start to figure out deeper morphophonological patterns involving segments. After that, they get somewhat confused for a while, not being sure what theory they should use, so they make little phonological progress. But eventually, a combination of autosegmental and metrical phonology kicks in, making it possible to speak with normal adult rhythm, as opposed to the comical rhythm of child speech. The final stage, where the child irons out the few remaining problems and contradictions in his speech patterns, corresponds to optimality theory. Since optimality implies bestness, that's where the child stops.

That is not, however, where linguists' phonological theories are likely to stop, at least not permanently. For just as speakers eventually experience phonological degeneration, usually as an accompaniment to increasing deafness, lack of vocal control, and perhaps senility, so too will phonological theory eventually decline. In fact, it may be happening already. Certainly, many phonologists seem to have trouble noticing how things actually sound in a language, and are themselves more or less incomprehensible. And the ultimate prognosis? Millennia ago, there were plenty of languages but no phonological theories. All phonological theories in speakers' brains eventually perish, along with the speakers themselves. Therefore, it seems incontrovertible that all linguistic phonological theory must perish someday, as well as the discipline of linguistics as a whole.


Gildea, Spike. 1997. Rantings of a Short Linguist. Belém, Brazil: Museu Goeldi.

Notker Labeo. 1012. "Stop confusing me with Notker Balbulus." Letter to the Editor, Journal of the Monastic Society of St. Gall, Vol. 42, No. 7, pp. 2-3.

How Many is Umpteen?--Ura Hogg
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SpecGram Vol CXLVIII, No 2 Contents