Formal phonology and assurance

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.

13 thoughts on “Formal phonology and assurance

  1. Travis Bradley

    This is a very interesting and timely discussion in light of the point that I was trying to make in this post. When I had suggested the possibility of a more general bias against formal phonology on the part of some phoneticians (as opposed to a specific disposition against OT in particular), I had the Port and Leary article firmly in mind and should have cited it then.

  2. Bob Kennedy

    I’ve only had a short time to scan the article so far, but I’ll note a crucial point: the authors conflate phonology with the pursuit of a “universally fixed phonetic inventory”. Much of the article then focuses on fleshing out the following points:

    “Evidence against a fixed phonetic inventory
    a. transcription is very difficult, inconsistent, and errorful
    b. phonetic spaces are highly asymmetrical
    c. language-specific categorization appears very early in language acquisition
    d. many language-specific phenomena are incompatible with serially ordered phonetic symbols” (p. 940).

    This leads ultimately to the claim that “Our primary conclusion thus far is that THERE IS NO DISCRETE UNIVERSAL PHONETIC INVENTORY AND THUS PHONOLOGY IS NOT AMENABLE TO FORMAL DESCRIPTION.” (p. 952).

    I have to disagree with the characterization of phonology simply as the pursuit of a “discrete universal phonetic inventory”, though each of the words in that phrase is relevant to our field.

    There is another way to organize these ideas. Let’s define phonology instead as the study of inventories and distributions of discrete phonemic symbols within and across languages. (aside, I have not seen any argument against the concept of the phoneme.) The notion of universality plays a role in phonology in the additional goal of explaining the origins of common tendencies among such inventories and distributions. We sometimes refer to these commonalities as “universals”, a term bequeathed to us by earlier scholars and now subject to a multitude of interpretations. Phonetics plays a role in phonology in that abstract phonemes have analogs in phonetic space, and in that the gaps in inventories and distributions within languages sometimes have phonetic explanations.

    Even the phonetically substantive components of phonological grammar, for those who espouse them, are not so much “phonetic symbols” as phonetically shaped phonological symbols and operations.

    So my instant reaction is that the formal phonology they argue against is not the formal phonology that, as far as I know, any phonologist subscribes to. It’s an elaborate straw man – that said, I don’t think it’s time for us phonologists to pack it in yet.

  3. Bob Port

    Adam and I are delighted to see some response to our paper. Thanks for Marc Ostendoorp for bringing this up.

    Unfortunately the two critical remarks thus far seem to miss our point. Marc quotes the last sentence of our paper but then seems to misunderstand it. And Bob Kennedy says that we (Port and Leary) characterize modern phonology as “the PURSUIT of a discrete universal inventory”. Actually, we claim that formal phonology must ASSUME the apriori existence of a discrete universal inventory before it can even get started. Noone seems to be pursuing a discrete universal inventory except a few phoneticians hoping (in vain, we would say) to make good on Chomsky and Halle’s assumption of the formality of phonology. Why is the assumption of an apriori list unavoidable? Because formal systems cannot, in principle, account for their own formality. They ASSUME formality – and that means assuming a set of apriori symbol tokens – which in this case is cashed out as a set of apriori phonetic symbols. And the utter lack of any evidence supporting such an apriori token list poses an unbearable empirical burden on formal phonology, in our view.

    Adam and I are happy to respond to any questions.

  4. Adam Leary

    Yes, Bob and I are very pleased to see the issues in our paper being discussed and tossed about.

    It is even more interesting to see how our thinking about phonology is shaped by the need for ‘discrete units’. Bob’s point is crucial-most phonologies assume a discrete universal inventory; even OT does.

    I would like to address a few points that Bob Kennedy raises in his comments. You write, “Let’s define phonology instead as the study of inventories and distributions of discrete phonemic symbols within and across languages. (aside, I have not seen any argument against the concept of the phoneme.)”.

    My reading of your comment is that phonology must deal with discrete phonetic units. Our argument points out that phonology as a separate, abstract formal system requires discrete units to work! It would also require operations on these symbols to produce an output that matches what you observe in the real world.

    There are two important problems with this type of phonology. First, unfortunately, many linguists have the tendency to view such systems as ‘what is actually happening’ rather than a model. Second, starting with a discrete symbolic model of phonology requires rules to produce the phonetic output as well as some sort of clock to place these abstractions back into real time.

    We are saying turn this model on its head. You don’t need discrete phonetic units to produce symbolic like behavior. It can and is done with a dynamic system that can handle timing issues and operations are a state of the attractor space. Such a system means that phonetics and phonology as separate levels of analysis is unnecessary as the separation is a matter of time scale within the same state space.

    I think most importantly what we discuss is not a straw man at all. Rather, the fundamental assumptions of phonology, in whatever permutation that you may use, rest on the notion of a discrete universal set of phonetic parameters. Further, this assumption leads us to a restricted range of phonological theories. We also do make suggestions as to how we view a theory of phonology in our article as well as in other works of ours individually.

  5. Bob Kennedy

    Thanks, Bob Port and Adam Leary both, for continuing this discussion. I think there’s a lot we can agree on; as I look things over, it seems that our present debate basically centers on what the term “formal” implies or entails. Everybody agrees that formal implies the manipulation of discrete symbols, but what I understood from Port & Leary’s article is that formal phonology also relies on universal (pre-ordained) phonetic symbols.

    Adam reads my earlier comment to mean “that phonology must deal with discrete phonetic units.” I do see phonology as dealing with discrete units, I don’t think those units need to be phonetic parameters themselves. My assumption about phonological units instead is that they are abstract and discrete categories which map to and from regions of continuous phonetic dimensions. (Meanwhile, I can’t fairly say whether this is what all or most or any other phonologists think).

    This mapping is probably equivalent to what Adam Leary, in his above comment, calls the “operations on these symbols to produce an output that matches what you observe in the real world”. Whether the need for these operations is a good or a bad thing, I believe, is a separate question from where those symbols come from.

    I also think it’s also possible to have a model of formal phonology in which the discrete units/symbols/categories aren’t universal – instead, they’re symbols that learners assign to clusters of observations in continuous phonetic space.

    In fact, Port & Leary make a similar statement (p. 956): “What is universal about phonology is not any fixed list of sound types, but rather the strong tendency of human language learners to discover or create sound categories out of what they hear.” How these categories emerge is a fascinating question, and it’s one that lots of phonologists do work on. I guess some of us then make the extra step of conflating those emergent categories with symbols to be manipulated in phonological operations.

  6. bob port

    Bob Kennedy is right: the big issue here is what Formal means and whether phonology must be assumed to be formal. The standard view here is that phonology really IS a formal system, just like integer arithmetic, logic and chess. So this is not an empirical issue. It is taken to be known that phonology (and the rest of linguistics as well, of course) is formal. This assumption is the justification for Chomsky and Halle postulating a long series of formal rules that are presumed to apply without error and for the OT idea that we can postulate a very large number of universal constraints that can apply simultaneously (without error) to determine a preferred output form of a word.

    Now if you are doing arithmetic or writing a computer program, you can assume that formal operations (like addition of very large numbers or the repetition of a program loop) can take place flawlessly as many times as you please. But such formal operations demand flawless reading' andwriting’ of the appropriate symbol tokens. In Chomsky-Halle phonology, those symbol tokens happen to be phonetic objects, the segmental features of their universal phonetic alphabet. So these features play a role that is formally identical to the role of bits in a computer: they can be assumed to be read and written without error. The purpose of our paper is to point out that the there is absolutely NO EVIDENCE WHATEVER (I’m following Halle’s advice to always make the strongest claim possible so that you expose yourself to the maximum range of potential criticism) that such a discrete (that is, discriminable virtually without error) and universal inventory exists. In fact there is an enormous range of data that disprove such a claim.

    Can it be that noone made this observation before? Well, it has been made by others at various points (see refs in our paper). Certainly Ladefoged (RIP) has pretty much made this observation at various points, but, probably out of politeness, avoided being as forceful (that is, as obnoxious) as we are being about it.

    So are we saying there is no discreteness in language? Certainly not. The phonological systems of language are full of instances of discreteness. These cases demand a theoretical account. How do language learners come to interpret the continuosly variable sounds in their language as discrete and contrastive?

    The issue we challenge is whether the discreteness is provided IN ADVANCE. The traditional theory simply asserts the discreteness of phonetics which then IMPLIES the discreteness of phonology. The discipline of phonology does not have to ACCOUNT for discreteness, because formal discreteness is provided by phonetics (they hope). Our claim is that where discreteness is found, we need now to find an explanation. And the traditional methods of formal phonology, presuming formality, cannot help us with this problem at all. Only empirical data and a new set of theoretical approaches (such as dynamical systems theory, for example) will be able to make sense of these phenomena.

  7. Mike Maxwell

    Coming back to the straw man issue, I think Bob Kennedy is right to ask what ‘formal’ means. But I think while ostensibly agreeing with this, Bob Port misses the point.

    Throughout the original article, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding (there, how’s that for being obnoxious, to use Bob Port’s term!) between substantive universals and formal universals. In particular, the argument seems to be that if the proposed substantive universals (distinctive = phonological features) are wrong, non-existent, or non-innate, then there can’t be any formal universals (formal system of rules or constraints, formal system for constraining rule interactions, or etc.).

    This is just plain wrong. Arithmetic works regardless of whether integers are innate, or provided in advance. And closer to language, spelling changes (like i -> y / __ e) can be formalized regardless of whether alphabets are innate (and obviously they aren’t).4a7d3d609129a9296bf7ac0608c2097

    Perhaps the best analogy is to algebra. The techniques of algebra work fine regardless of the numbering system you use–base 2, base 10, or even some irrational base. Phonology at least could be (and I suspect it is) like algebra, rather than like arithmetic: it provides the formal universals for how you manipulate symbols. What the symbol inventory is, and where it comes from, is a different question.

    In sum, a good deal of the work in theoretical phonology would stand without change if phonological features (or some other phonological atoms) turn out not to be universal/ innate.

  8. Bob Port

    Mike Maxwell correctly interprets Leary and me as saying that if there are no substantive universals, there can be no formal phonology. But his argument that we are wrong is that the techniques of algebra work with any numbering system you choose. That’s right. You can use base-10 numbers or base-sqrt2 numbers, but these are still formal tokens and any algebra does require SOME set of apriori formal tokens – and that’s the problem. There is no arithmetic without integers (or other formal equivalent) and no algebra without formal tokens for manipulation. I fail to see how formal phonology can be conducted without some apriori phonetic tokens. (Chomsky and Halle didn’t see a way to do it either.)

    The problem we pose is that if there is no formal phonetics, there can be no formal phonology. What terms would phonological descriptions employ? To be very concrete, what will replace +/- Voice if this is not an apriori universal? How can, say, +/- Voice in English be compared with the rather similar (but not identical) +/- Voice in Korean if there is no universal unit of +/- Voice?

    My view is that the only place formal systems actually exist is in artifacts of human intelligence (although many aspects of our world can be approximated using formal models). Arithmetic and algebra have been formalized using paper and pencil. We can use computers (human artifacts) to implement formal systems too. But all these systems begin with a set of formal tokens (either graphic tokens like letters or numbers, or computer bits). Formal phonology assumes (apparently) that human linguistic skill IS inherently formal. That assumption is apparently congenial to many linguists but there is little actual evidence for it and noone even bothers to make a systematic defense of it — certainly Chomsky and Halle did not. They simply asserted it.

  9. Mike Maxwell

    I’m glad to see that this discussion hasn’t just disappeared off the face of the Earth, although it is getting difficult to find. Thanks for continuing to talk!

    Bob Port asks what terms phonological descriptions would employ if there were no universal terms. I’ll try to clarify, but to summarize what I’m going to say: formal =/= universal.

    What I have in mind is that phonological features are constructed by the language learner based on what s/he hears. There is something universal in the way humans process sounds, but I doubt whether there’s a one-to-one correspondence between what goes on in the early stages of human audio processing, and the learned (under my hypothesis) phonological features.

    To take the specific example of Voice, while it’s likely that English speakers have a phonological feature we might label Voice, and Korean speakers also have a feature that we might label Voice, and the two are somewhat similar, I doubt that they’re the same in terms of some objective acoustic space.

    But the fact–if I am correct–that VoiceEnglish and VoiceKorean are not the same, does not prevent their being used in phonological rules (or constraints, or what have you) in the two languages. (Of course, the fact that these features are similar but not identical has repercussions for second language learners.)

    As for where VoiceEnglish and VoiceKorean might come from, I suspect the learner constructs them by something like the clustering learning methods in modern AI. (There is the possibility that what is constructed is not phonological features, but phonemes. This would mean a return to at least part of what the American Structuralists believed. But I won’t argue for that here, and I only believe it on odd-numbered days.)

    To return to the algebra analogy, we need formal tokens, but they don’t have to be a priori or universal. Only the rule formalism for manipulating the tokens need be universal, and phonology can (should, IMHO) be about the universals of how those rules work (whether they’re ordered, how exceptions are treated, whether there are strata of rules, etc.).

    I will add that there’s a lot of work being done in Optimality Theory that presupposes that the constraints are universal. I don’t believe that for a moment, so I won’t argue for that.

  10. Kathy Hansen

    Okay, it’s a year later (from the most recent comment), but I just discovered phonoloblog the other day.

    Bob Port’s comment of 3/28/2006 asked, “What terms would phonological descriptions employ? To be very concrete, what will replace +/- Voice if this is not an apriori universal?”

    I presented a talk at MCWOP 10 (Mid-Continental Workshop on Phonology), held at Northwestern University in October 2004, where I proposed the beginnings of a model that unites the two phonologies of signed and spoken languages into one system. Since then, I have made adjustments and refinements to it. A more recent version of the model will be published in the proceedings of the Semiotic Society of America conference of September 2006.

    In order for anything phonological to be universal, it cannot relate specifically to phonetics because that excludes sign languages. Sign languages do not have +/-Voice features. This eliminates universal phonetic features from phonological systems.

    If one were to claim that spoken and signed languages consist of separate sets of features in their phonologies, then we end up with two separate systems, yet there is no genetic basis for this, as the languages we end up using are not determined genetically.

    It is the capacity for language that appears to have a genetic basis. That capacity must be able to handle both signed and spoken languages identically because the genetic capacities are identical.

    Differences among languages must relate, at some core level, to the same genetically-endowed capacity. This indicates that there are language-specific mappings from the core phonological component (or however it is conceptualized) to the actual articulations.

    The answer that I propose for the question “what will replace +/- Voice if this is not an apriori universal?” is something like “F5” for voiced and “F6” for voiceless. But another language might use “F24” for voiced and “F57” for voiceless, depending on where they fit into the respective linguistic systems.

    Some particular sign language might use “F5” for closed fingers, “F6” for extended fingers, “F24” for a place of articulation on the hand, and “F57” for a lateral circle movement.

    This is only a small part of the model, but it answers the question, conceptually anyway, on how phonology can be universal without referring to phonetics.

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