Temporal Phenomena in Natural Phonology –

Bridging the Gap between Discrete Phonology

and Dynamic Phonetics


Geoffrey Schwartz (Poznań)


Decades of research in experimental phonetics and speech perception have shown that speech is a dynamic process. Speech production is based on continuous movements of the articulators over time. At the same time listeners rely heavily on the dynamic nature of acoustic transitions in perceiving linguistic contrasts. In fact, the lack of both linearity and acoustic-phonetic invariance in the speech signal has cast doubt on the practice in phonology of mapping discrete units (phonemes made up of static features) onto the dynamic speech signal.  While listeners clearly perceive the sounds of speech categorically, and speakers certainly place speech sounds into different categories of discrete segments, phonological descriptions rarely consider the dynamic nature of speech.


Though phonological theories occasionally employ “temporal” descriptions (to distinguish long from short vowels, affricates from stops, etc.), their features are usually static. Thus, most accounts of phonology seem unable to incorporate dynamic phenomena inherent in the sequences of segments they describe. Indeed, the degree and duration of many features can vary, sometimes regardless of phonetic context. This variation can be the key to explaining curious synchronic and diachronic phenomena.


The framework of Natural Phonology (NP), developed by David Stampe and Patricia Donegan, offers the possibility of incorporating speech dynamics into a phonological theory based on discrete units. Thanks to both context-free and context-dependent processes and implicational conditions, the framework can show how dynamic phenomena of speech work on a segmental level. In other words, in NP one can make statements about the degree and duration of various phonetic features. Thus, formalized versions of conditions like “all things being equal, X is longer than Y” are often employed. This study will investigate a number of phonetic phenomena in an attempt to build on the inventory of processes and implicational conditions of Natural Phonology. Both context-free and context-dependent phenomena will be examined instrumentally, with an eye toward providing an enriched perspective on synchronic and diachronic processes.


Phonetic studies will include some or all of the following:


1. Another look at final devoicing


In NP, obstruent devoicing is a universal process, one that is more likely in word-final position. In some languages, the process neutralizes a contrast, while in other languages it occurs, but the voicing contrast is maintained. Phonetic studies have shown that voicing contrasts and neutralizations are essentially temporal in nature, so NP is equipped to explain final devoicing in all its incarnations.


2. Contrasting hushing affricates in Polish; Secondary palatalization in Russian


The distinction between palato-alveolar and alveolo-palatal affricates in Polish has long baffled non-natives trying to learn the language (and natives trying to spell the language).  At the same time students of Russian have to learn sets of consonants paired for palatalization. We shall see that the perception and production of both contrasts depends largely on temporal differences in frication noise. Incorporating these phenomena into NP can have interesting synchronic and diachronic implications.


3. Palatalization of velars


This common diachronic change has received much attention, but only recently have people considered the possibility that its roots lie in the perception of temporal phenomena such as noise bursts, VOT, and formant transitions. These features can display context-free as well as context-dependent effects. NP has the flexibility to include both.


4. Miscellaneous


Numerous other problems in phonology, including spirantization, intervocalic voicing, distinctive tones, the phonological status of glides, and intonation, can be understood in terms of speech dynamics. NP offers a framework that allows us to model this dynamism while retaining discrete units of analysis.


Selected References


Cleary, Mirada & Pisoni, David, 1998. Speech perception and spoken word recognition:

Research and Theory. Research on Spoken Language Processing 22: 3-46.


Donegan, Patricia, J. 2002. Phonological processes and phonetic rules.


Donegan, Patricia.J., 1979. On the Natural Phonology of Vowels. Ph.D. Dissertation,

Ohio State University. Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics 23. Republished 1985, New York: Garland Publishing Company.


Lass, Norman J., ed. 1996. Principles of Experimental Phonetics.

St. Louis: Moseby-Year.


Schwartz, Geoffrey, Forthcoming. Palatalization in Common Slavic: an experimental

approach. Folia Linguistica Historica.


Schwartz, Geoffrey, Forthcoming. Temporal Phenomena in Polish Hushing Affricates.

Poznań Studies in Comtemporary Linguistics.


Schwartz, Geoffrey, 2001. Speech Perception, Language Change, and the Slavic

Palatalizations. Folia Linguistica HistoricaXXI, 1-2, 277-300.


Stampe, David, 1973. A Dissertation on Natural Phonology. Ph.D dissertation, University

of Chicago. Republished with annotations, 1979, New York: Garland Publishing Company.