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PLM2007 Abstract

An interpretive history of phonological science

John J. Ohala


Considering the difficulty of studying the structure and behavior of speech sounds which are complex, involving physical, physiological, psychological, and social mechanisms, most of it hidden from direct view, ancient descriptions of speech sounds and their behavior were remarkably advanced (e.g., by Pāņini (5th c BPE), the Greek grammarians (2nd c BPE), al Khalil ibn Ahmad and Sībawaihi (8th c), the Icelandic grammarian (13th c), and the Korean King Sejong (15th c)). This contrasts with the fanciful theories in biology, physics, astronomy, and other natural sciences, which only reached empirical maturity in the 17th to 19th c. Important studies elucidating the mechanism of speech and the nature of speech sounds were done in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, starting in the early decades of the 20th c, phonological science took a different path or, perhaps, two different paths. One, an empirically and scientifically worthy tradition (known as experimental phonetics and phonology or laboratory phonology) which continues, but the other, the mainstream, which has wandered off into what amounts to speculative philosophy where theories are only expected to function on paper, not in the real world. After this interpretive (admittedly, some might call it a ‘biased’) history I will illustrate the flaw of focusing almost exclusively on paper representations of speech sounds. Examples will be drawn from the shift in place of articulation of obstruents before specific vowels and from the chameleon-like behavior of labial velar stops such as [kp].