Phonetics in grammar

New discussion initiated on LINGUIST List by Heriberto Avelino:

Recently, I was part of a discussion regarding an issue that I thought was uncontroversial. However, it seems that this is not as straightforward as I first thought. The debate is about the place of phonetics in the study of ‘grammar’. More precisely, whether the study of sound patterns using phonetic methodologies and techniques falls within the broad scope of the term ‘grammar’.

My position is that phonetics, indeed, belongs and should be included in ‘grammar’, whatever notion we may have of it, either as the more abstract idea of grammar as universal grammar or the more practical notion of grammar as the grammatical description of a given language. The antagonistic view to my own seems to be rooted in the fact that some traditional descriptive grammars have not included sections of the sound patterns of similar length to those dedicated to morpho-syntactic aspects of the language. While this is true and we often find that the phonology section of many grammars are reduced to the inventory of phonemes, I believe that this is, in part, because in the past the access to the tools and techniques was limited and linguists didn’t have the training to provide more detailed descriptions of the sound patterns (Maddieson (2003) shows the low proportion of phonetics in 20 recent grammars). However, it is clear that many earlier and quite solid grammars, which have been praised as exemplars in the field, such as Sapir’s Southern Paiute, Dixon’s Yidin or Aoki’s Nez Perce contain rich sections devoted to the fine phonetic description of the sound patterns of the languages. (I always wondered whether Sapir would have included acoustic analysis of the remarkable glottal processess in S. Paiute and corresponding illustrations if he had had expedite access to a sonograph.)

Another point to consider supporting the inclusion of phonetics in ‘grammar’ comes from languages with complex phonological processes which indicate grammatical categories, such as tone, non-modal phonation, nasalization and consonant mutation processes, among others. In these languages is especially clear that the instrumental study of the sounds might help to a better understanding of the nature of these processes and the interface of the different levels of linguistic analysis. Just to mention an example, a phenomenon called a ‘ballistic syllable’ has been described for several Otomanguean languages. The descriptions (as well as my own impressionistic observations) suggest processes related to the control of tone, non-modal phonation, intensity and overall ‘effort’ in the implementation of the contrast. Interestingly enough, the contrast is not only lexical but also is exploited in inflection of verb and noun paradigms. However, even with the heroic efforts of several scholars, we still do not know completely what the nature and appropriate description and analysis of ‘ballistic syllables’ is; in fact, we don’t even know if the term refers to the same phenomenon across languages or covers several distinct processes. Nevertheless, how to produce a ballistic syllable has to be part of the speaker’s knowledge, and thus grammar. I think that with languages of this type the study of phonetics shows particularly clearly that it merits being included in ‘grammar’.

One further domain where the need of phonetics is evident is in the study of intonation. Prosody is one of the less well-known areas of many languages and one where grammars do not abound in basic facts. However, I believe, nobody could deny that intonation is, indeed, a crucial component of grammar. Perhaps, its exclusion from descriptive grammars is due first to the limited access to tools that could adequately capture the phonetic nature of the phenomenon, but also (and maybe derived to some extent from the latter) to the absence of a descriptive framework within which to describe the patterns and handle the relationship between prosody and syntactic/semantic aspects of the language. With the development of better models and methods for the study of intonation, there has been a clear advance in knowledge of universal and language-specific patterns in this area but so far this is not typically reflected in descriptive grammars.

In sum, I would like to see the grammars of the future including rich informative sections dealing with the phonetics of languages, including as far as possible instrumental measures of the basic acoustics and the most prominent phenomena of their sound patterns. Now we have the conditions to produce these more complete grammars: A basic grounding in phonetics is taught in most linguistic programs, acoustic analysis tools are accessible to almost anyone with access to a computer and internet, and – just as with any other aspect of grammar – the data to construct typologies of phonetic phenomena must come from descriptions of individual languages. Describing the grammar of a language entails necessarily describing its phonetic structures.

Anyhow, because it seems that not everybody shares the idea that phonetics should be considered a substantive part of grammar, I’d like to hear the reactions from the community. I would appreciate very much your comments and views.


Maddieson, Ian. 2003. “Field phonetics.” In J. Larson & M. Paster, eds., Proceedings of the 28th Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society, 411-429.

Dixon, R.M.W. 1977. A Grammar of Yidin Cambridge. Cambridge studies in linguistics ; 19) New York : Cambridge University Press,

Sapir, Edward. 1931. Southern Paiute, a Shoshonean language. Texts of the Kaibab Paiutes and Uintah Utes. Southern Paiute dictionary, (Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ; v.65)

Aoki, Haruo. (1970). Nez Perce grammar. University of California publications in linguistics (Vol. 62). Berkeley: University of California Press. (Reprinted 1973, California Library Reprint series).

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