How can you possibly teach an introduction to linguistics without teaching the basic concept of the phoneme? […] Let them puzzle over those questions, not some dry lecture on distinctive features.
Bruce’s post asks a sincere question, and the causticness of Wojcik‘s comment, clear enough just from the two sentences quoted above, seems unwarranted as a response (to say the least).
First: I don’t appreciate the presuppositions snuck in by the “basic concept of” and “dry lecture on” — in my experience as an undergraduate, the noun phrases modified by these words could well be switched: “How can you possibly teach an introduction to linguistics without teaching the basic concept of distinctive features? […] Let them puzzle over those questions, not some dry lecture on the phoneme.”
Second: as if “the phoneme” and “distinctive features” were the only two options on the table! There are plenty of other phonologically-relevant topics that can be presented as a unit in an introductory linguistics course in such a way that deep and important issues in the field are conveyed in an accessible manner to students whose exposure to linguistics before that course (or ever again) is close to zero.
Below the fold, I take apart the middle part of Wojcik’s comment, breaking it into bite-sized chunks in order to either question the relevance of the phoneme to that chunk, or to point out the relevance of at least one topic other than the phoneme (or distinctive features, for that matter) that I think would make a fabulous phonology unit in an introductory linguistics course.
The point of an introductory class in linguistics is not to begin teaching people advanced analytical techniques, but to teach the rudiments of language.
As other commenters on Bruce’s post pointed out, it’s the notion of contrast that is a “rudiment of language” — phonemic analysis is an “advanced analytical technique” used to express the difference between contrastive and non-contrastive elements. So why not a unit on contrast, emphasizing the importance of phonetic context and so forth?
It is the first time most students will have encountered articulatory phonetics and become conscious of the essential difference between spelling and pronunciation.
I’m not sure how awareness of this “essential difference” leads naturally into phonemic analysis. On the one hand, if what you’re calling “pronunciation” is closer to the phonetic level, with allophones of phonemes distinguished, then talking about phonemes just adds a layer of complexity between spelling and pronunciation. (I’ve found this to be especially true when teaching Spanish phonetics and phonology using a typical structuralist textbook, which often includes rules for relating orthographic and phonemic representations as well as phonetic and phonemic representations.) On the other hand, if “pronunciation” is closer to the phonemic level, then the layer of complexity is added between pronunciation and finer-grained phonetics.
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.
This can be taught showing (not necessarily allophonic) alternations, the most often used example (I think) being the past tense and plural suffix alternations in English.
It is a time for the class to become conscious of the differences in dialects.
Of course — but how is the phoneme necessary to achieve this?
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.
I’d say that almost every introductory text starts out with the phoneme because … every introductory text has always started out with the phoneme. I take this to be the question Bruce’s point was meant to raise: should we teach things the way we always have?
(Also, I don’t really see what Wojcik’s initial “That” in the above chunk refers to — certainly not the immediately preceding “differences in dialects” bit?)
Leave it to an introductory course in phonology to get into more abstract phonological analysis.
The phoneme itself is a fairly abstract analytical concept; personally, I’d have a hard time telling you which is “more abstract”, the phoneme or the syllable — and I find that very basic syllabic analysis is easier to teach to novice linguistics students than phonemic analysis is.
Allophonic variation needs to be taught in an introductory class simply because it is an interesting linguistic phenomenon to become aware of.
“Contextual neutralization needs to be taught in an introductory class simply because it is an interesting linguistic phenomenon to become aware of.”
“Syllable structure needs to be taught in an introductory class simply because it is an interesting linguistic phenomenon to become aware of.”
“Linguistic meter needs to be taught in an introductory class simply because it is an interesting linguistic phenomenon to become aware of.”
“Utterance intonation 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 alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems both exist? Why does German orthography not encode word-final devoicing (Rad [rat] ~ Rade [radə]) while Turkish orthography does (kitap [kitap] ~ kitabɩ [kitabɨ])?
Why do words rhyme even when the phonemes are pronounced with different allophonic variants?
Rhymes are interesting for so many other reasons. For example: why must legitimate rhymes (in English) start from the stressed nucleus? (manila [mə’nɪlə] rhymes with vanilla [və’nɪlə], but neither rhymes with Pamela [‘pæmɪlə] or canola [k.ə’noʊlə].)
Or: why can some contrastive distinctions be ignored in rhymes? Recall (if you will) Tom Lehrer’s lyrics to “The Folk Song Army”, with Tom’s tongue firmly in cheek:
The tune don’t have to be clever,
And it don’t matter if you put a coupla extra syllables into a line.
It sounds more ethnic if it ain’t good English,
And it don’t even gotta rhyme–excuse me–rhyne.
In sum: I’m convinced the phoneme’s important, but it’s not that important. Someone will have to do better to convince me to teach it next time I teach intro.