Should allophones be taught in intro linguistics?

Hello, I just finished teaching UCLA’s “Introduction to Linguistics” course.  This is ten weeks of syntax, morphology, semantics, phonetics, phonology, and historical, and since there are so many topics it all goes by pretty fast.

In the phonology section, I have been dutifully teaching the classical phoneme and how to discover it (that is to say, the collection of minimal pairs and collation of complementary environments for similar sounds).  I would imagine that this is the practice in many other intro courses.

What occurred to me while I was teaching this was that phonemic analysis might better be postponed to a later course such as (at UCLA) “Introduction to Phonology”.  The alternative that I have in mind would be to let the phonology section of Intro Linguistics focus exclusively on phonological alternations and neutralizing rules. 

The advantages of a “no phoneme” Intro, as I would imagine, are:

(a) Rules that observably “turn one sound into another” are more intuitive, I think.  If you teach allophonic rules, the student has to simultaneously apprehend both the concept of rule and the concept of an abstract, reified input representation. 

(b) By starting with alternations, one could integrate one’s material better with what occurs elsewhere in the course, assuming that one has taught derivational and inflectional morphology earlier in the term.  (In my intro I’m working to achieve an “it’s all one grammar” perspective, tying the components together in analysis …)

(c) The rules involved in alternations, with neutralization, are often more vivid and interesting than allophonic rules.

My qualms are:

(a) It would seem odd for a student to have taken Intro and not know what a phoneme is.  Indeed, the -emic/-etic distinction was long thought (in the American Structuralist era) to be rather sublime, and a core concept.

(b) My students would not be prepared for other courses (General Phonetics, for example) that assume the phoneme. 

So, to turn this into a question:  does an “alternations first” approach make sense to you?  Has anyone tried it?



12 thoughts on “Should allophones be taught in intro linguistics?

  1. Michael Becker

    I agree that overt alternations are easier to teach/grasp than complementary distributions. One compromise is to focus on loanword adaptation (e.g. r/l when Korean borrows from English).

    Does an OT phonologist need to know what a phoneme is, other than to be able to read the literature?

  2. Bob Kennedy

    Bruce, my hunch is that the phonetics-before-phonology model is part of the larger bottom-up model of intro classes going from phonetics “up” to syntax. I’ve tried teaching morphology before phonology (in intro) to make alternations easier to grasp, but I haven’t done enough of it to know whether it’s been effective.

    I can think of two ways of softening the effect of “alternations first”, both of which could be stretches, but possibly worth considering: one, couldn’t a student leave an intro to linguistics course having seen only alternations (and not classical phonemic analysis) and nevertheless learned something about the phoneme, and two, can an intro to phonetics class be taught without the phoneme as prior knowledge?

    And Michael, I don’t think an OT phonologist can do phonology at all without knowing what a phoneme is. While Richness of the Base might make you think twice about the nature of an underlying representation, two sounds that distinguish a minimal pair represent different phonemes, regardless of the framework.

  3. Pavel Iosad

    As for the point on integration, don’t the students learn what an allomorph is? So the phoneme works just as well.

    The question itself is interesting. One objection that springs to mind is the following: what would the student do with these rules? What is the use of teaching them, aside from the fact that they are vivid and show just what cool things there are on offer? Rules tend to make sense in terms of features, and features emerge out of oppositions, and so on back to Trubetzkoy anyway.

    On the other hand, restricting introduction to phonology to allophones can indeed be boring, so perhaps (what a banality) the answer is in the balance.

  4. Eric Bakovic

    I’m encouraged by this post to try what I’d been thinking of trying when I teach our undergrad phonology class next quarter: starting with alternations rather than with the rudiments of phonemes, allophones, and complementary distribution. (I’ll let y’all know how it goes when I get around to it.) I’ve always found the break between teaching comp. dist. and alternations somewhat disruptive, and I think it has a lot to do with the order in which we typically teach them — not to mention the fact that allophony is often presented only in terms of comp. dist. rather than using alternations (and it’s not like only neutralizations are involved in alternations).

    Then again, my phonology students next quarter will have taken an intro course and (presumably) will have some idea about phonemes. (But I never expect them to remember much of that anyway.)

    With respect to Bob’s point about teaching morphology in intro courses first: this is standard in some intro textbooks, including Fromkin & Rodman (& Hyams). Still, even if the phonology section of said texts includes lots on alternations, I often feel stuck talking about phonemes and comp. dist. for longer than I intended, either because these are difficult for intro students to grasp quickly or because the term is too short (or both). (And I’m not sure that Pavel’s point doesn’t apply equally to the result here: what would the student do with these phonemes?)

    Finally, I disagree with Bob in his response to Michael. I don’t think even rule-based phonologists need to know what a phoneme is. We all need to know about contrast, but that’s not necessarily the same thing — at least, that’s what I take Michael to mean, even though I disagree with the restriction of his comment to OT phonologists.

  5. Michael Becker

    Yes, Eric, what I meant is that contrast is the notion that phonologists need. Whether it is expressed in terms of phonemes or not is a part of one’s theory.

    Some version of ROTB goes back at least as far as SPE, so the decline of the Phoneme started only very shortly after its rise.

  6. Bob Kennedy

    I suppose I conflate phonemes with contrast (or contrastive sounds), or maybe we have different working definitions of the phoneme. Like Eric, I was really responding primarily to the restriction of Michael’s comment to OT phonologists. Assuming “phoneme” to mean “abstract underlying contrastive segment of sound”, and assuming OT and other models of phonology to explore the relationship between underlying and surface representations of strings of segments, I don’t think any input-output phonologist can practice without underlying representations, which implies appealing at least to contrastive underlying segments, if not phonemes.

  7. Nancy Hall

    When I teach phonology as part of an intro course, I leave allophones, phonemes and complementary distribution for the last topic, because in my experience it’s the most difficult. But I actually start not with alternations, but with a little historical phonology, like giving lists of Old or Middle English words and having students write rules to describe how the words changed coming into modern English. Students are generally familiar with the concept that people used to talk differently, so they can easily understand what the input and output of historical rules are. This lets them concentrate first on learning to recognize and describe common processes, before getting into the abstractions of underlying representations, systems of contrast, etc.

  8. Bruce Hayes

    Thanks for all the replies. Three quick comments:

    (a) Wow, I didn’t expect that anyone would actually trash the phoneme! I, for one, am fascinated with the phoneme as a scientific hypothesis – specifically, with the idea that people really do group phonetically similar sounds in complementary distribution into unitary cognitive categories. In fact, I think this hypothesis actually has a good chance of being true. The contemporary Richness of the Base doctrine, while interesting and fruitful, has led us to neglect investigation of this hypothesis.

    (b) One bit about teaching morphology first: it makes it much harder to find nice morphology problems where there is no phonological alternation!

    (c) Re. Nancy Hall’s comment: interesting idea. I prefer to teach phonology before historical because I dread and abhor synchrony-diachrony confusions (which, discouragingly, appear today even in published work – e.g. justification of underlying forms based on
    dialect comparison). If you cover phonology first, then the students might have a clearer idea of what a phonological rule is before they get the same material from the (potentially confusing) diachronic perspective.

  9. Claire

    I teach morphology before phonetics and phonology when I teach intro. We start with some general stuff and the idea of what a word/sign etc is, then move onto lexical categories (including informally using morphology to justify lexical classes), then word formation rules and concepts like morphemes. That’s all based on English for the most part. Then we do some phonetics (IPA and transcription practice, mostly), allophonic variation, and then we do a heap of stuff on morphophonemics. I’ve done this a couple of times now and I think it works quite well. It limits what you can say about morphology in the first place, but in an intro class there’s not much time anyway. It also means they’ve seen something of the following topics, at least informally, so there’s a bit of scaffolding. The main disadvantage is that if they get lost, they get really lost, since everything’s very interconnected. Also, the hardest thing my students seem to find in all this is conditioned allophony (e.g. aspiration). They either don’t hear it, or they don’t get the “one underlying representations can have multiple surface realisation” idea (actually, probably both, since it’s hard to believe in multiple surface realisations if you can’t hear them!)

    I do historical much later in the semester, after syntax, typology, pragmatics, and variation/sociolinguistics. We have a 15 week semester where the intro course covers “everything”.

  10. Rob Hagiwara

    Bruce–actually, I have found the opposite. Maybe it is a bottom-up/top-down thing since I usually do morphology first (Vicki would be pleased at her enduring influence). My students don’t have any trouble abstracting to X becoming Y in some context. On the other hand, they have a hard time going the other way. That sometimes [Y] is /Y/ and sometimes it’s /X/. So if it’s velar place assimilation or high vowel devoicing, and they have a clue about features, seeing the alternation and expressing that as one thing ‘turning into’ something else isn’t a problem. But trying to work out a final devoicing problem, where sometimes [t] is /t/ and sometimes /d/ is often beyond them. Rabbits turn white in the winter, but if you have a bunch of white rabbits, how do you know which ones turn brown in the summer?

  11. Rick Wojcik

    How can you possibly teach an introduction to linguistics without teaching the basic concept of the phoneme? The point of an introductory class in linguistics is not to begin teaching people advanced analytical techniques, but to teach the rudiments of language. It is the first time most students will have encountered articulatory phonetics and become conscious of the essential difference between spelling and pronunciation. The most fundamental insight that a student can have about pronunciation is that there is a difference between the sounds that they think they are pronouncing and the sounds that actually come out of their mouths. It is a time for the class to become conscious of the differences in dialects. That is why almost every introductory text starts out with the psychological phoneme (the fundamental insight of Baudouin de Courtenay in the 1870s) and progresses to a more classical version. The best that you can do in the short time that can be allotted to this subject is just to brush up against some of the problems with more classical versions of the phoneme. Leave it to an introductory course in phonology to get into more abstract phonological analysis. Allophonic variation needs to be taught in an introductory class simply because it is an interesting linguistic phenomenon to become aware of. Why don’t alphabetic spelling systems distinguish allophones? Why do words rhyme even when the phonemes are pronounced with different allophonic variants? Let them puzzle over those questions, not some dry lecture on distinctive features.

  12. Charles Reiss

    I am a BIT behind in my reading of this blog, but I wanted to do some shameless advertising after seeing Bruce Hayes’ comment:

    “I, for one, am fascinated with the phoneme as a scientific hypothesis – specifically, with the idea that people really do group phonetically similar sounds in complementary distribution into unitary cognitive categories.”

    Dana Isac and I have a textbook coming out this month (March 27, 2008) that uses this idea of “unitary cognitive categories”—we call them “equivalence classes”—as a theme to draw parallels among the modules of grammar, and even among various cognitive systems like vision and audition.
    I-Language:An Introduction to Linguistics as Cognitive Science

    We use the allophones of North American English /t/ as one of our primary examples of equivalence classes—each allophone is an equivalence class, and so is each phoneme. Another example draws on reduplication, and another presents an underspecification analysis of Turkish vowel harmony, so there is a fair bit to appeal to phonologists in the book.

    We teach this stuff to students with no linguistic background at all, in a general education course—sometimes we even succeed in recruiting them into linguistics. I agree with Bruce that these ideas represent fascinating scientific hypotheses of the kind that we want our students to know about, although I also have problems teaching the classical phoneme.

    Comments on the book, as well as suggestions for the webpage we are setting up, will be appreciated.

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