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Res: Do phonemes = sounds?

We have in my language (Brazilian Portuguese) an interesting example concerning the question (especially the post by Dr. Port). Generally, our vowel system is described as containing seven vowel phonemes, the contrast between + ATR and ?ATR mid vowels being functional only in the stressed syllables.

However, in spite of the few minimal pairs for the -/+ ATR contrast, we have words (many of them high frequency words) in witch we can employ both the ? ATR and the + ATR vowel in the stressed syllable (examples: cr[o]sta/cr[O]sta, p[o]ça/p[O]ça, [e]xtra/[E]xtra?). Additionally, the employment of these vowels shows some predictability in certain cases (but we have always the counterexamples). I?m less then a novice, but I think patterns like this challenge the notion of ?phoneme?.

-------Mensagem original-------
Data: 06/07/05 15:58:56
Assunto: Do phonemes = sounds?
I can't resist responding to this issue. I have spent my career trying
to figure out what words are made of. I have finally come to the
conclusion that:
Speech sounds are very short (15-20 per second), and the relevant
motor gestures are mostly invisible (tongue, glottis, velum, etc). And
those of us in the European cultural tradition learn to use letters
beginning as young as 2. Letters are a great engineering solution to
preserving language in graphic form and our education system assures
that we all become proficient at thinking about speech in letter-like
terms from an early age. But phones and phonemes inherit many
graphic properties from letters:
        * SERIAL ORDER (no temporal patterns allowed),
        * NONOVERLAPPING (hence the artificial `coarticulation problem'),
        * PERFECTLY CONTRASTIVE FROM ONE ANOTHER (no near contrasts or
partial contrasts)
        * STATIC (diphthongs, glides and affricates present awkward
In the late 19th C, de Courtenay proposed the notion of the `phoneme'
which was very quickly adopted by phoneticians and linguists and
treated as a great discovery about human language. In fact, all that
happened is that scientists began to think seriously about the
psychological representation of language (which had been largely
ignored earlier) and thought `Maybe we have something in our heads
that represents words the way letters do. There must be something
analogous to letters to keep words distinct from each other. There
must be PHONEMES!'  The phoneme was not discovered, it was just
postulated by analogy with alphabetical written language.
So how ARE words `represented' in the head?: By gestures and gesture
components of various sizes - from feature size to syllable size to
HAPPEN TO PICK UP as they learn how TO talk.  Each language has its
own conventional solution to keeping utterances distinct.  Of course,
languages have a phonological system, something a little like an
`inventory' of possible sound contrasts in various positions. This
system should be thought of as a social institution that children
learn to adapt their speech habits to. But these inventories are very
different from a cognitive spelling system.  Eg, they always have many
uncertainties, places where you cannot tell which phonemes (letters)
to employ: what is the V in `beer'? (same as bead or same as bid?),
what is the stop in `stow'?  Same as tow or same as doe?  What is the
pstop butter?  Same a butt or same as Bud? Or neither? (But the data
show two slightly different flaps are used in ladder and latter!)  If
language were REALLY spelled with a phonological alphabet, then these
uncertainties could not happen.
        I have a couple mspts on my website addressing these
issues. Obviously there are a great many empirical implications of
this iconoclastic hypothesis: implications about how speech can be
recognized (by humans or machine), for how languages are learned, how
they change over time, differences between the linguistic intuitions
of alphabet-literates vs. nonalphabet-literates, constraints on
phonological language games (like pig-latin), etc etc. Basically ALL
the data come out just as this hypothesis predicts.  I claim, in fact:
        NO DATA WHATEVER, (aside from the powerful intuitions of lay
people and linguists educated in the alphabetic tradition) SUPPORT A
I would like to hear the evidence if anyone wishes to challenge this
        I have a couple papers on my website presenting these
arguments in more detail.
        Bob Port
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                       Lingstcs/Comp Sci/Cogntv Sci
   ROBERT F. PORT      330 Memorial Hall, Indiana University
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