Language 81.4 (december 2005) has an article by Robert F. Port and Adam P. Leary from Indiana University. Indiana is going to host a PhonologyFest this summer, but Port and Leary do not seem to think that there is much too celebrate; the title of their article is ‘Against formal phonology’.
The title is provocative, and so is the rest of the article. Here is how the authors state their views in the introduction (p. 927):
The goal of this article is to develop one general criticism: that a fundamental mistake of the generative paradigm is its assumption that phonetic segments are formal symbol tokens. This assumption permitted the general assumption that language is a discrete formal system.
In their summary, the authors mention ‘three kinds of evidence’ against these assumptions:
first, phonologies differ incommensurably. Second, some phonetic characteristics of languages depend on intrinsically temporal patterns, and third, some linguistic sound categories within a language are different from each other despite a high degree of overlap that precludes distinctness.
At the end of the article (p. 959), Port and Leary say:
There is only one route left to justify doing traditional generative phonology or for studying only the abstract sound structures of a language and deny the relevance of articulatory, acoustic and auditory details. It is to claim: We don’t care about linguistic behavior, only about linguistic knowledge. But there is no assurance that a coherent static description of knowledge exists just because that is what one wants to study.
It would be good if this article would provoke discussion among phonologists, especially those who are interested in ‘the abstract sound structures of a language’. The authors clearly state an extreme point of view, which may help to clarify certain things. For me the last sentence I quoted is a very important one. Of course there is no guarantee that we will be able to understand X just because we want to. That seems to me inherent in the nature of doing research — or of human existence, and it can hardly be a reason to give up. Some of the other reasons Port and Leary mention might lead some people to do that, of course.