The Phonemic Grail

A.C. Gimson

  • The Sound Shape of Language by Roman Jakobson and Linda Waugh
    Harvester, 308 pp, £13.50, September 1979, ISBN 0 85527 926 5

Our technological prophets warn us that the present enthusiasm for sound and picture in communication inevitably heralds a decline not only in the use made of the written word but also of the prestige in which it has been held for so many centuries. Whether or not this pessimism is justified, it has to be admitted that the magical property associated with writing has in many respects obscured the analyses made of the spoken forms of language, despite the fact that speech precedes writing in history and in our individual lives and the clear evidence that we speak and listen far more than we read and write. Without the influence of alphabetic writing we might not have been so quick to assume that speech could be neatly segmented into sound units matching in sequence the letters that we write. In fact, most early European grammarians fell into the habit of confusing sound and letter. In the last hundred years, however, and particularly since facilities became readily available for observing the articulatory activity involved in speech and the related physical output, it has become obvious that the flow of speech manifests no readily discernible discrete segments such as might correspond to what have been called ‘phonemes’: the movements of the vocal organs are complex, rarely precisely synchronous and often without a measurable steady state. The resultant speech wave exhibits a mesh of overlapping features. The analysis of a word such as rail reveals an ever-changing pattern of movement, with no obvious sound boundaries.

None has sought more tenaciously and persuasively than Roman Jakobson to establish another (universal) level of analysis which would correspond more faithfully to the way in which we perceive spoken language. Jakobson, born in Moscow at the end of the last century, has been a dominant figure in international linguistics for more than fifty years. He has continued and developed the theories of Baudouin de Courtenay and Trubetzkoy and of the Cercle Linguistique de Prague, founded in 1926 and especially active and innovative up to the Second World War. His interests have led him into many linguistic fields: child language acquisition, neurolinguistics (notably the study of aphasia) and poetics, to mention but some of them. The present book, written in collaboration with Linda Waugh, sets out to assemble many of his more important theories as well as those of an astonishing number of his contemporaries. It is as if the authors wish to overwhelm the reader with the testimony and support of Jakobson’s fellow linguists: in a book of just over 300 pages, there are no less than 50 pages of bibliography.

For Jakobson, the primes of the sound shape of language are the distinctive features – the ultimate constituents of phonemes. Since our perception (decoding) of speech precedes our ability to produce it, our analysis must be concerned with those perceptible components of the speech continuum which serve to distinguish meaning. Thus, in the case of the English opposition between seal and zeal, we are concerned with a distinction based on one feature – that of voicing. In the case of the pair seal and veal, however, we are dealing with a complex of two distinguishing features – one relating to voicing and the other to place of articulation. The phoneme may be said to be a bundle of such distinctive features – ‘a complex, simultaneous construct of a set of concurrent units’. On the other hand, the syllable – a difficult concept that Jakobson does not define – is to be regarded as ‘a constructive complex unit within the verbal sequence’. Evidence from the child’s acquisition of language supports the importance of the role which distinctive features play. Since sense-discrimination is, of course, the major criterion in determining distinctive features, the theory is applied most rewardingly to a single language. However, most linguists now seek to establish a set of universal distinctive features from the examination of a large number (if not the totality) of languages. The resultant inventory of features utilised in human languages turns out to be remarkably small. As Jakobson remarks, ‘the highly restricted number of distinctive features extant not only in a single language but also in the world’s languages as a whole shows that in comparison with the great variety of acoustico-motor productions, only a very small number appear to be utilisable as discrete perceptual values.

Phonological analysis in terms of component features is now generally accepted as a useful and realistic solution to problems of segmentation. There is a great deal more disagreement over two other aspects of the Jakobsonian position: the dyadic principle of the opposition and the labelling of the features themselves. At the head of their chapter ‘Quest for the Ultimate Constituents’, the authors quote Balzac: ‘Tout est bilatéral dans le domaine de la pensée. Les idées sont binaires ... Il n’y a que Dieu de triangulaire’; and this remarkable sentiment is reinforced by the slogan attributed to Pierre Delattre: ‘economise and binarise.’ The simultaneous search for economy and generality of statement has often led modern linguists, wishing to delve below the surface in order to discover underlying rules and patterns, into formulating instructions of the utmost complexity for the return journey to ground level. In the case of the binarity of distinctive features, many would now not accept Jakobson’s thesis that this is a necessary principle of simplicity in feature analysis. Certainly, binary oppositions do not always operate comfortably in vowel systems or in distinctions based on stress or pitch values. Some writers, notably Ladefoged, would prefer the freedom of a multi-valued approach involving articulatory criteria. It is in this respect – the introduction of articulatory features – that the second disagreement arises. Jakobson follows Delattre: ‘In our quest for the Grail of phonemics, that is, for the Distinctive Features by means of which phonemic perception operates, there are good reasons for starting with acoustic correlates rather than with articulatory correlates.’ It certainly follows that, if listener experience is taken as the base for discrimination without recourse to a motor theory of perception, i.e. one which decodes a signal in terms of shared articulatory habits, it is logical to describe the component features in acoustic terms. Thus Jakobson’s features include such labels as compact and diffuse, sharp and flat, grave and acute, all of which are to be related to acoustic characteristics of the speech wave. It is notable that others, such as Chomsky and Halle in The Sound Pattern of English, though enthusiastic proponents of distinctive feature theory, have felt the need to introduce articulatory features, such as anterior and coronal for consonants.

It comes as no surprise in a book of such wide-ranging interest that a sizable final chapter is devoted to less tangible and quantifiable aspects of speech: sound symbolism, onomatopoeia, synaesthesis, glossolalia, sound as a basis of verse (with a phonological appraisal of the poem ‘love is more thicker than forget’ by E.E. Cummings). Understandably, the claims in this section lack the force and cohesion of the earlier pages of purely linguistic argument. The additional chapter also increases the difficulty of imagining the precise audience for which the book is intended. There is little new here for Jakobson’s colleagues and disciples. On the other hand, the reader is assumed to be equipped with considerable knowledge of the acoustic and articulatory aspects of speech. Perhaps the greatest value of the work lies in the new horizons of research hinted at on so many pages, particularly research into the relation of language and the functions of the brain.

This is essentially a good-humoured book. One feels that Jakobson, with the help of Linda Waugh, is standing back to survey his life’s linguistic aspirations and achievements. No doubt, many non-expert readers will find the numerous supporting quotations and references distractingly anecdotal, intriguing though they are for the professional phonologist. Despite the profusion of names, there is no bitter conflict: almost every author quoted is accorded an urbane compliment – ‘the sagacious linguist’, ‘the expert observer’, ‘the eminent phonetician’, ‘the sagacious psychologist’ and so on. The style, in comparison with the turgidity and acidity of much contemporary writing in linguistics, is literate and cultured, warm and persuasive, full of zest for future inquiry.