Links to pages: 277, 278, 283, 284, 286, 287, 289, 290, 293, 297, 301

Comments Welcome

George W. Grace

University of Hawaii

November 23, 1983


Series 3, Number 17


For some time I have been concerned that the theories of language which have been developed by linguistics give a misleading view of the nature of the abilities which language presupposes and hence, ultimately, of the nature of the mind. In various previous writings I have tried to show that the assumptions underlying some of these theories are not literally true. However, so far I have said very little about what have perhaps been the most influential of all of these theories--the theories of phonology. Therefore, it is my purpose here to turn to phonology and to propose a different kind of hypothesis to account for the abilities which it requires. If it should prove to be valid, this hypothesis will throw a quite different light on the question of the nature of mind.

Human language is a phenomenon of great importance. It is also one which is very inaccessible to direct observation. It is manifested only in its results, and it is only through those results that we are able to study it at all. There is not even unanimous agreement among linguists as to where it is located. Some hold that it is a phenomenon of the human mind--that its locus is the minds of its speakers (although the mind is, in its turn, also observable only through its own results). Others would seemingly opt for the idea that language--or at least individual languages--are superorganic phenomena. It is not clear to me whether or not superorganic phenomena require any locus at all.

In any case, it seems clear that language, whatever and wherever it is, is not directly accessible to observation. Under these circumstances, the only strategy available is to observe the phenomena which result from it and then to construct models to account for them. That is, we must contrive some way of talking to use for talking about language (for ways of talking about things, cf. Grace 1982b,c).

The crucial point is that the observable results of language--those phenomena which we are actually able to observe- are at a very great remove from human language, itself. Under such circumstances, the kinds of models which one actually constructs will depend relatively much on the state of mind in which one approaches the task, and relatively little upon the nature of the object--in this case, language--itself.

There is no serious harm in that as long as the models serve the purposes for which they were designed. Where the harm comes is when they are converted to quite different, and unanticipated, purposes. I think that that is happening in the case of linguistic models of language.

The fact is, linguistic theories as presently constituted are not an accurate guide to the nature of human language and, in fact, were never really designed to be one. The primary concern of linguistics throughout most of its history has been with the differential characteristics of individual languages, and recent attempts to construct a theory of the nature of language in general are still heavily influenced by that earlier concern.

But there are questions for which the nature of language becomes a serious concern. Consider, for example, the problem of determining in what ways particular abilities which animals of other species have shown themselves capable of acquiring differ from the abilities required by human language. Or, for that matter, consider the whole problem of the evolution of language, that is, the (presumably gradual) accumulation of those abilities which language requires. Or, more generally, consider the recently growing interest in the part language has played in the development of those abilities, especially the intellectual abilities, which characterize the human species. These new concerns have aroused a more general interest in the abilities which underlie language--i.e., the abilities which are presupposed by language.

At first glance, linguistics would seem to be in a good position to contribute to such inquiries. As it happens, contemporary linguistic theory has accorded particular status to what has been called "linguistic competence", which is conceived of as "knowledge" which underlies the ability to speak a particular language. This language-specific competence, in turn, is supposed to be underlain and shaped by certain native abilities. It is upon these native abilities that the capacity for language rests. It is quite natural then that these native abilities, and linguistic competence in general, should be considered important evidence in the identification of the human syndrome. And yet, I want to claim that this competence is representative of only a hypothetical idealized speaker, and that the abilities required of this idealized speaker are quite unrepresentative of the abilities of real speakers. Consequently, I believe, current linguistic conceptions of the abilities involved in the capacity to use language are likely to constitute as much a distraction as an aid to attempts to discover the nature of human abilities.

"Pictures" of How Things Work

My whole point in this paper turns on the claim that the conclusions which we reach are significantly shaped by the assumptions which we bring to the inquiry in the first place. Therefore, the kind of argument that I will be presenting will several times require me to attempt to describe sets of underlying assumptions, or as I prefer to put it, "pictures" of how the things in question work or of the basic principles according to which those things are organized.

However, I need first of all to say something about the problem inherent in attempting to describe such "pictures". The main problem is evidenced by the fact that the very people who are supposed to operate with any particular such picture usually reject whatever description is proposed to represent it. A familiar example would be Noam Chomsky's descriptions of the assumptions of American structuralist linguistics. I do not find it surprising that such descriptions are usually rejected. Presented in such skeletal form, they seem extremely simplistic- so simplistic that it would be embarrassing to have anyone imagine that they accurately described what any experienced professional actually believed. And certainly no experienced professional does believe that they represent the whole story; if they did, there would be nothing further left to do.

However, I believe that what we as scientists do constantly do is to accept some simple model such as those which I will sketch in this paper as representing the essential nature of the relationship--the principle upon which the system is organized. Once such an assumption has been made, we are apt to regard all instances which the principle does not seem to fit as elaborations upon what continues to be regarded as the general rule. One can even imagine two individuals or two schools of scholars who agree in detail about the interpretation of all individual cases, but who are in fundamental disagreement as to what the organizing principle of the system is. Therefore, I feel that if I am creating straw men in the sense that no sophisticated person would believe that the pictures I will sketch accurately represent the whole truth, such pictures can nevertheless exercise a very serious influence upon the conduct of inquiry.

Thus, then, I think that the following picture, even though it is doubtless an oversimplification of what any individual linguist actually believes, represents an approximate consensus about the general principles according to which language is organized. I think it is a fair representation of the picture which we would present, if not to fellow intellectuals, at least to the person in the street or the beginning student.

In this paper I will be dealing only with the third of the three points below, that dealing with the nature of phonology. The first two points are given in order to establish the context within which our theories of phonology were designed to perform. My limiting the discussion to phonology should not be taken to suggest that I believe that the problem of misrepresenting the nature of language is limited to phonology, or even that it concerns phonology in a more serious way than the other aspects of language. In fact, a large part of what I have written over the past few years has dealt with this same misrepresentation by linguistic models for the other half of the linguistic sign.

However, phonological theories, and particularly the concept of the phoneme, have provided a cornerstone for linguistic theory generally. If for no other reason, then, they seem to merit more careful scrutiny.

The main points of what I propose as linguistics' picture of how language is organized are as follows:

(1) Language exists in the form of a (largish) number of units called "languages". The individual language is what we might call the domain of systematization--i.e., the principal systems of phonology, syntax, lexicon, and whatever else one recognizes--morphology, semantics, pragmatics--are attributable to particular languages. Differently put, they are organized by individual language. [2]

(2) The main task of linguistics is to describe these units, or at least to determine how such units should be described- specifically, what sort of formal properties are called for in the language of description.

(3) One part of a language is a lexicon, which consists of entities (call them "words") composed of a form and a meaning. The form is not a written form, but a spoken one. I call it a "lexification". Specifically, each lexification consists of a particular sequence of segments, and--this is particularly clear in structuralist theory--all of the segments in the lexifications of all of the words of a given language are drawn from a small fixed inventory of such segments, called "phonemes". Phonemes are thus analogous to letters, the phonemic inventory of the language is analogous to an alphabet, and the phonemic representation of a particular word is analogous to its spelling. A major part of what I want to question is that such phonemic alphabets are actually part of languages.

Plan of this Paper

What I will attempt to do here is as follows:

1. I will attempt to explain the principal assumptions of phonological theory, at least in part, by showing that they derive from deeper-lying assumptions which are part of our particular cultural tradition.

2. I will present a much simpler hypothesis of the nature of phonological competence--a hypothesis which I believe still accounts for all of the relevant facts.

3. I will discuss certain other facts which seem to be better explained by my hypothesis.

Assumptions Underlying the Principal Assumptions of Phonological Theory

I will attempt here to explain some of the assumptions of phonological theory as due in part to the influence of further, underlying, assumptions. That is, the package of assumptions involved in the concept of the phoneme become more understandable if we assume that those who first made them were influenced by certain implicitly held pictures of how things work. I will point out three key assumptions of phonological theory, and attempt to identify the sources of each in our cultural tradition.

1. An assumption that phonological segmentation is a given, that is, that there is a correct segmentation which is obvious to all. (For this assumption and all of the others here, there is of course the qualification that the assumption as stated is not regarded as precisely true in all cases. The actual assumption is that it is near enough to being true to be considered an accurate characterization of the general structural principle involved.)

I attribute this assumption primarily to the influence of the alphabetic writing tradition. The phonological segmentation which we attribute to linguistic expressions ordinarily closely approximates what would be expected in an alphabetic system of writing for the language.

2. An assumption that the phonological segments in the expressions of a particular language are tokens of types, and that these types are categories which stand to one another in a relation of categoric exclusion. That is, they do not overlap. (In generative phonology there can be overlap in surface representations, but underlying representations are characterized by distinctive features specifications).

I attribute this assumption also in part to the influence of the alphabetic writing tradition.

However, I believe that there is a much more general and more fundamental picture that is at work here. The organizing principle depicted in this picture applies only incidentally to phonology, but I believe that it has some effect here as well. Although I have alluded to it previously--e.g., in Grace 1982a, 1983a, 1983b --I have never given a very clear description of it. Therefore, I will try to describe it more fully here even though its applications to phonology are only peripheral. It is, in fact, a picture of the epistemological functioning of language.

In this picture the universe is a closed system, or near enough to being one for us to act as if it were. That is, there is a single finite universe which is common to all of mankind and, therefore, to the speakers of all languages. Any given language is analogous to a map for that universe. That is, the language stands in a relation to that universe which is like the relation between a map and the territory which it is a map of. This is true because the language (by means of its vocabulary) divides up the real universe in much the way that a political map divides up the earth's surface--it represents an exhaustive partition of reality.

Each political unit which appears on a map corresponds to a defined territory. Analogously, a lexical item in a particular language corresponds to a certain territory within the real universe. Therefore, it follows that a word can be defined by giving an exact specification of the boundaries of the real world territory which it represents. Translation from one language to another is essentially a matter of expressing the same points in reality in terms of the categories of the second map rather than those of the first [3]

I think it is obvious that this picture is reflected in our current phonological theories. We have seen that phonological theory assumes that words are naturally divided into segments and that these segments group into phonemes. Beyond that, we may say that, at least in structuralist phonology, the set of phonemes constitute a mapping of phonetic space (with, perhaps, some margins of security, and some unmapped territory such as clicks on the maps for most languages). It seems also generally to be assumed, although that is not required by the theory, that the way in which a foreign word will be perceived (as when it is to be borrowed) can be determined just as translation equivalents are to be determined--i.e, by "translating" each segment from one phonemic mapping into the other.

I think that the influence of this mapping picture of the world can also be discerned in the concept of distinctive features. One characteristic of this picture is that it focuses what I think is clearly an excessive attention on the drawing of boundaries--on fixing the line of demarcation between one category and another. No doubt it is semantics which has suffered most seriously from this misguided concern, but, if my interpretation is right, it has also affected phonology.

3. An assumption that the phonological competence required of speakers of a language involves both an analytic knowledge as well as a holistic knowledge of the lexifications of its words. I refer here to the two modes of knowing for linguistic forms which I distinguished in Grace 1981. There is holistic knowing, i. e., knowing whatever it is as a unit--that is by memorization--and analytic knowing, which is to know it in terms of its constituent parts. It is obviously the case that all lexifications must be known holistically. We must know, for example, that "dog" is the lexification for the category Canis familiaris. However, it is not obvious that any kind of analytic knowledge is required. All that is necessary is the ability to recognize the word (in context) and the ability to pronounce it.

The explanation which I propose for our attributing analytic knowledge of lexifications to language speakers is that we are accustomed to making a particular assumption about how the mind works. The assumption which I have in mind is an assumption that skills--what Gilbert Ryle has referred to as "knowledge-how"--can be analyzed in terms of underlying knowledge-that--knowledge of entities and rules of operation. The exercise of the skill is then conceived of as the appropriate application of the rules.

In his classical paper, "Knowing how and knowing that" (Ryle 1946 [page citations from the 1971 reprinting]), Ryle argued that "Philosophers have not done justice to the distinction... between knowing that something is the case and knowing how to do things. In their theories of knowledge they concentrate on the discovery of truths or facts, and they ignore the discovery of ways and methods of doing things or else they try to reduce it to the discovery of facts." (1971:215) That is, they have tended to make the unwarranted assumption that some kind of knowledge of principles, rules, or the like, must underlie and account for skilled performance. However, to make such an assumption, he argues, is to violate the canon of scientific parsimony. That is, it adds entities beyond those which are necessary to account for the facts.

The reason why this is non-parsimonious is that we must in any case postulate the existence of knowledge-how. If we assume the existence of principles, rules, or whatever, to govern the performance in question, it will still be necessary to postulate a skill in translating the principles into performance, since it is obviously possible to know the rules for doing something without being able to put them into execution.

Turning to the question of the nature of phonology, it is obvious, I believe, that it is possible for someone to have memorized the entire phonological description of a language- underlying representations with full feature specification, rules, etc.--and still to be unable to pronounce the language skillfully and fluently. The latter skill would still need to be acquired. My argument, therefore, is that there is no need to postulate knowledge of this phonological information at all--that to do so is a violation of the canon of parsimony. Therefore it seems to me that the only phonological equipment which it is necessary to attribute to the fluent speaker of a language is a knowledge of the lexifications of the language and the physical skills necessary to pronounce them.

An Alternative Hypothesis of the Nature of Phonological Competence

From what has just been said it seems reasonable to hypothesize that it is not necessary for speakers of a language to have analytic knowledge of the lexifications of the words of their language. On this basis I can propose a simpler hypothesis of how humans organize sounds in their minds that is adequate to explain all of the facts I am aware of which are not attributable to literacy. My hypothesis is as follows:

First of all, pronouncing a language is a kind of skilled behavior. In order to pronounce a word one must coordinate a number of different muscular movements, which must be correctly executed and correctly sequenced. The amount of acquired skill involved is apparent from the existence of foreign accents in the speech of persons who have not adequately acquired the skills peculiar to a particular language (or dialect, etc.).

This skill, I propose, involves "chunking" of coordinated sequences of movements of the speech organs. The pronunciation of each chunk can be governed by a single conscious instruction. This instruction calls for the execution of the coordinated set of muscle movements required for the pronunciation of that particular chunk of sound. If I were to suspend my disbelief and imagine for a moment that the phoneme is the unit which corresponds to a chunk, then I might say that we have a subroutine for the pronunciation of each phoneme. Thus, if I wanted to pronounce "pot", I would have my brain send out instructions something like this: "Execute /p/, /a/, /t/" (meaning, execute the subroutine for pronouncing /p/, then that for /a/, then that for /t/).

However, that is not exactly the way I see it as working. I do think that the same chunks must recur in more than one word. I imagine that that has been the case since long before the beginning of anything deserving of the name language. I cannot imagine any vocal-auditory system in which there was more than one possible utterance where the skills required for the pronunciation of each were totally independent. And I feel sure that even today there are pronunciation skills which apply to a sound system as a whole. (That is why it is hard to pronounce a French word in an English sentence without either pausing to get one's speech organs set for the task or pronouncing it with an English accent).

But in addition to the global package of skills, I imagine that as the vocabulary (inventory of utterances) of our pre language grew, it quickly became impractical to maintain entirely distinct subroutines for each vocabulary item, and soon we had the situation where vocabulary item A began with the same subroutine as item B, although not the same as item C, etc. That is, as the vocabulary grew, the number of distinct subroutines required was maintained at a manageable level. So far, that seems quite in accord with the phonemic hypothesis. However, I do not think any more of that hypothesis is required, and my own hypothesis would make the following changes in its assumptions:

First, it would not assume that the chunks for which subroutines exist correspond to what the phoneme hypothesis recognizes as segments.

Second, it would not assume that instances of what would be analyzed as different allophones of the same phoneme would necessarily belong to the same subroutines.

Third, it would not assume that what we would consider different speakers of the same dialect would necessarily have the same chunks in their systems.

Fourth, although I assume that there would be miminal pairs distinguished by the difference in one pair of chunks, I do not assume that it is the business of chunks to be different, or that speakers know them in terms of their contrasting features. I imagine the distinctions to be an incidental result of the way the chunking came about.

Facts Seemingly Better Explained by my Hypothesis

I now turn to observations about phenomena which surely belong to the realm of phonology, but which phonological theory seems not to explain or not to explain as satisfactorily as my own hypothesis.

1. Informants who simply cannot seem to make sense of questions which assume that phonology is discretely organized. I am not sure how even one such case can be compatible with traditional phonological theory. I think of one informant in particular who had trouble deciding whether or not any two words shared a common sound, and he showed no evidence of expecting that they ever would. The particular case I have in mind was in New Caledonia in 1955. His language was not written. It, like other New Caledonia languages, has a difficult phonology. The man in question was what I regarded as a poor informant, but he was the only informant available for his language that I had access to so I stuck with him. Some of my New Caledonian informants (for other languages) sometimes made some attempt to write in their languages, basing their spellings on French. I do not think this one ever tried that. Moreover he seemed (all of this is thinking back as best I can) the type of person who would not have done much reading, and presumably writing, in French either.

The point is, he seemed to me always to be thinking in terms of continuities rather than the quantum mechanics (Joos's term) that linguistics assumes we have in our heads. I now wonder whether he is the exception, or whether it is the "good informants" who are. In any case, if I have interpreted the case accurately, it is not clear how theories which assume that phonology is organized in terms of discrete entities can tolerate any such exceptions at all.

The hypothesis which I have proposed, of course, does not assume the existence of discrete entities, or well-definedness of boundaries.

2. Different speech organ sets in different languages. A phenomenon which I have always thought to be both striking and surely important is this: In order to pronounce correctly a word in one language in the middle of a sentence in another, it is necessary to pause and do something which feels like re-setting the state of the speech organs. I think an adequate theory of phonology should account for this. In fact, I am convinced that we will never have more than a very limited understanding of diachronic phonology until this phenomenon is adequately understood.

I believe that the hypothesis which I proposed does accurately represent this aspect of the nature of language. However, it is likely to strike linguists as deficient because it does not provide a way of talking about the specifics of the differences in the sounds used in speaking different languages- the main thing which current phonological theories do provide a way of talking about. As I pointed out above, these phonological theories (like linguistic theories generally) have their roots precisely in a concern with the differential characteristics of different language systems.

However, my contention is that their way of talking about the differences misrepresents the essential nature of those differences. Most specifically, I do not know how these theories could characterize the speech organ sets which we are discussing here. Current phonological theory is simply designed for a different purpose from that of my hypothesis.

3. Difficulties in recognizing the "natural" segmentation.This difficulty shows up in various guises. Consider, for example, the difficulty we have had in determining whether certain English vowel nuclei were single segments or diphthongs. My suspicion has been that the best answer for one dialect may not be the best for others. There is also obviously much uncertainty about the status of such phonetic concepts as "affricate" or "aspirate".

For a more personal example, I have run into some problems in trying to interpret my own dialect in terms of mainstream analyses of the phonology of the English language. One example is this: Some linguists analyze words such as "boy" as having an open o preceding the glide: others analyze it as having a closed o. I had a strong feeling that the closed o interpretation was wrong for me, but for a long time could not find clear evidence as to why. (I have since found such evidence, but that is irrelevant to the present point).

One pair I considered in trying to resolve this problem was boy/bowie (before I found that bowie is "correctly" pronounced like buoy [as I (incorrectly, I believe) pronounce the latter]). One could substitute (Myrna) Loy and (Robert) Lowie. But people told me the second member of each pair was a disyllable, while the first was a monosyllable. I could never figure out whether that was the case or not. I think that in my dialect many, if not most, monosyllables can be pronounced alternatively as disyllables. Incidentally, in pursuit of this matter, I found several cases where speakers of other dialects proposed phonemic analyses for particular words that were quite different from what I was proposing even though our pronunciations had seemed quite similar to me.

There is one kind of evidence which I would like to make more of, but unfortunately what I have been able to find is very skimpy. I said above that, as I understand it, the established view in linguistics is that when speakers of one language attempt to interpret the pronunciation of a lexification of another language, the principle which they follow is to translate segment by segment into their own phonemic mapping of phonetic space.

If an actual study were made with naive speakers--that is, speakers who did not know how the word was spelled or how it was analyzed phonemically in the source language--I do not believe that it would bear that view out with anything approaching consistency. What I think it would show is that naive perceptions of phonetic similarity between pronunciations in different languages, would accord very poorly with the officially determined numbers of segments in the pronunciations being compared. One experience which I have in mind consists of the pronunciations that World War II American soldiers made of words from European languages when they did not know the official analysis of that word in the original language--particularly, when they did not know what the analysis into segments was supposed to be.

I can not cite any specific examples now. I only remember noticing that it was the case. However, one more recent experience bears on the same point. It relates to something said to me by a man from Biak Island in Cenderawasih Bay in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. This man had been adopted by an American army unit in World War II and had traveled with them to Japan where he had remained during a part of the occupation. During this time he had acquired a fairly fluent command of colloquial American English. I do not know to what extent he could write the language. Anyway, he once remarked to me that the Biak language and English shared one word--the word "water". Now, the Biak word is analyzed as consisting of just three segments /war/. The English word is analyzed as consisting of five--perhaps a surface representation of four. Moreover, the English word presumably is a disyllable, while the Biak word is a monosyllable. Still, I had to admit that the two did sound a good bit alike.

I would argue that an adequate theory of phonology should have made it possible to predict that the two words would sound similar. Now, it is true that I can give a sort of ex post facto phonetic explanation which I think makes the fact that they did sound similar more understandable. In that explanation I would ask you to bear in mind that we were, of course, speaking of a typically American pronunciation of "water", and I would point out that the Biak /r/ is quite noticeably trilled.

The hypothesis which I have proposed, of course, does not assume that there is any correct segmentation.

4. "Defective" phonemic distribution. Considered from the perspective of the traditional theory, it is difficult to understand the failure of certain phonemes in certain languages to occur in certain phonological environments. For example, English (ng) {no phonetic symbols available here} does not occur pre-vocalically; h does not occur post-vocalically; s does not occur initially before r, while (sh) does not occur initially before most other consonants; (ch) occurs initially, while ts does not; b, d, and g do not occur after initial s, etc., etc.

These distributional gaps seem to be largely unsystematic and, if one adheres to the usual conception of phonological knowledge, to constitute an uneconomical utilization of the phonological resources of the language. However, the conception which I propose, since it allows for units (articulatory chunks) which are generally longer than the traditional segment, and since it does not require collation of phonetically similar segments occurring in complementary environments into single entities, does not make the kinds of distribution I have described appear to be in any way "defective". It is not clear what a defective distribution might be because it is not clear what a non-defective distribution might be.


I have proposed here that our phonological theories give a misleading view of the nature of language. More precisely, what is misrepresented are the abilities which underlie language- abilities which are presumably an essential part of the definition of humanness.

I have proposed that the lexifications of linguistic signs are not naturally segmented, and that the idea that they are was inspired by our familiarity with alphabetic writing. I have proposed further that our knowledge of the lexifications of our languages does not emphasize oppositions or distinctive features as phonological theories assume that they do, and that the idea that they do has also been inspired by alphabetic writing and by a conception of categorization as being a particular partition of a common universe. Finally, I have proposed that speakers of a language do not necessarily have any sort of analytical knowledge of the lexifications of that language. That is, their only knowledge (if skill in pronouncing and recognizing--knowledge how--is not to be counted as knowledge) of the lexifications may be a holistic one.

Of course, none of this is intended to suggest that it is not possible to teach people to talk about the lexifications of their own languages using the way of talking which linguistics has devised. Certainly it is. In fact, the way of talking about orthography which is generally associated with instruction in writing in an alphabetic system is very similar mutatis mutandis to the way of talking of phonemic theory.

Furthermore, I imagine that sometimes, even without formal instruction, individuals who have had sufficient informal exposure to alphabetic writing have worked out similar analyses for themselves. Indeed, if this sort of analysis is as natural as it is sometimes represented as being, perhaps speakers--perhaps even great numbers of speakers--throughout human history have hit upon it without even having had the stimulus of exposure to alphabetic writing.

However, any abilities which are not required of all language-bearers cannot be part of the abilities which were prerequisite to the existence of language. They must be left out of account in any determination of the nature of language. And it would be doubly true that any abilities which are to be explained only as consequent upon exposure to alphabetic writing have nothing to contribute to the definition of language.

I am likewise not suggesting that our way of talking and the concepts that it provides are not useful for analytic purposes. Surely they are. They provide a useful way to characterize particular phonological systems (even though I am proposing that these systems are really only systems of articulatory gestures) so as to be able to compare and contrast them. And as Ryle pointed out in the work referred to, analyzing knowledge-how as knowledge-that is a well-established and useful pedagogical device. It has a quite natural role in what Stephen Krashen calls language "learning" as opposed to "acquisition".

But to say that certain concepts are useful analytic and pedagogical devices is not the same thing as saying that they represent something which really exists. It is perfectly proper to talk as if these terms refer to things that really exist as long as we are playing the same game--as long, that is, as we are using them for the purposes for which they were intended.

But sometimes it matters whether they really exist or not. One such time is when we are interested in determining what can be learned about the nature of the human species from the abilities which language presupposes. At such a time we must shift our attention to the conditions of the real world as nearly as we can determine them. I believe that when we examine them in the right light, we will find that our phonological theories as well as most of the rest of our theories of language structure give us a seriously over-intellectualized picture of the abilities involved in the knowledge and use of language. And this over-intellectualization of language has had a part in leading scholars in a variety of fields to an over-intellectualized picture of the workings of the human mind. That, I believe, places a serious responsibility upon the discipline of linguistics.


1. This is a revision of a talk which I gave on October 4, 1983, to the University of Hawaii Linguistics Department Tuesday Seminar entitled, "Why I do not believe that languages have phonemes". Back up

2. It seems worthwhile to note the questionableness of the assumption that all major language systems have the same domain--that which we refer to as the "language". I want to argue, on the contrary, that if systems of phonemes did exist, the language is not the level of organization to which they belong.

As one kind of example, it is apparent that in the English language, some speakers make distinctions which others do not. Each of the following pairs of lexifications constitutes a minimal pair for some speakers and a homophonous pair for others: pin/pen, cot/caught, watt/what, horse/hoarse, merry/Mary, merry/marry. However, these pairs are not isolated lexical items; each exemplifies a systematic difference in the pronunciations of different speakers. In each of these cases, there are some speakers of English (those who do not make the distinction) for whom the second member of the pair as pronounced by those who do have the distinction is systematically unpronounceable.

The obvious solution to this particular problem, of course, is to say that the lexification does have different phonemic spellings in different dialects, but that there is a regularity to it all. The different phonemic systems are related by regular sound correspondences, and therefore the phonemic spelling in one system is largely predictable from that in another. We might, therefore, amend the picture described above to say that where there are different phonemic spellings of what would otherwise qualify as a single linguistic sign, and the different phonemic spellings reflect different phonemic systems, and the correspondences among the spellings are explainable in terms of regular sound correspondences, then all of the systems belong to one superordinate system, and it is to that superordinate system that the words belong. That is, the subordinate systems correspond to a level lower than the language, but they are systematically related in such a way as to constitute a superordinate system.

However, to take this course has an unexpected consequence. If we decide the question of same or different lexification (i.e., what would popularly be called same or different "word") on the basis, not of a single phonemic spelling, but any set of phonemic spellings which are related by regular correspondences, we find that there is no reason to stop at the boundaries of a single language. The spellings, both orthographic and phonemic, of (to take one example among many) Eng. sociology, Fr. sociologie, Germ. Soziologie, etc. are related by quite regular correspondences. Lexifications such as this spread very readily from language to language, and it is usually impossible to guess in which language any of them first appeared.

Thus, if phonemes and lexifications both are to be thought of as existing as part of some kind of system, the language (langue) does not seem to be the right system for the specification of either. The phoneme seems to belong to a smaller system, so that a language might consist of a family of related phoneme systems, but the lexification seems readily to assume a distribution which far overreaches the bounds of a particular language. (This seems to be further evidence of the exaggerated role that linguistics has ascribed to the units which we call languages in the functioning of language.) Back up

3 . The implications of this picture may be more clearly seen if we compare it with another, contrasting, picture, which I think has an at least equal claim to validity. According to the second picture, the universe is for all practical purposes an open system. That is, we can only know the characteristics of the universe through our experiences, but these experiences are, and presumably are destined always to be, only a very limited and largely accidental sampling of the set of experiences which the universe is capable of providing.

Given these circumstances, the strategy by which we cope with the problem of getting around and functioning in this vastness is to produce a theory of reality, and to act according to its dictates. This is, I believe, the same strategy that our closest non-human relatives, on the one hand, and science, on the other, employ. It seems, therefore, perhaps to be an inevitable strategy.

I said that other animals must employ this strategy of constructing for themselves, on the basis of their own experience, the realities in relation to which they live their own lives. However, once language has become available, individuals become able to pool their experiences and to coordinate them into a single common reality which is represented in their language. The basis of this is the vocabulary of the language. The meanings (what I call the "conventional senses") of the lexical items are the elements which make up this reality. Particular experiences, then, are interpreted in terms of these elements. Back up


Grace, George W. 1981. An essay on language. Columbia SC: Hornbeam Press. Back up

Grace, George W. 1982a. The question of the nature of language. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 4. Printout.

. Grace, George W. 1982b. Ways of talking about things. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 5. Printout.

Grace, George W. 1982c. More on ways of talking about things: Contexts. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 7. Printout. Back up

Grace, George W. 1983a. More on the nature of language: The intertranslatability postulate and its consequences. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 9. Printout.

Grace, George W. 1983b. The linguistic construction of reality. Ethnolinguistic Notes, Series 3, Number 11. Printout. Back up

Ryle, Gilbert. 1971. Knowing how and knowing that. In Collected Papers, Volume II. New York: Barnes and Noble Books. Back up

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Last updated 24 January 1996