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Problems with phonemes

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From the early years of phonological theory, various problems with phonemes were identified, and at the time were well-known and widely discussed. In consequence, many structuralist phonologists came to regard phonemes as a “convenient fiction”, useful for e.g. alphabetic notation or orthographic purposes, but without a clearly demonstrable, principled basis. In the UK, the London School of phonologists associated with J. R. Firth came to reject phonemic theory completely, and developed an alternative conception of phonological structure that came to dominate phonological thought in Britain for decades (and still attracts considerable interest today). The displacement of the nominalist (“convenient fiction”) view of phonology by generative phonologists in the 1950’s and 60’s led initially to the rejection of the phonemic level of representation (Halle 1959), although the phoneme was later somewhat rehabilitated, following Schane (1971).

Despite these problems, elementary textbooks and courses in linguistics have continue to present the phoneme construct as an established truth, and the various well-studied problems and objections of earlier years are little-studied. In this talk, I shall revisit a selection of classic studies and some more recent work on the problems of the phoneme, and review some proposals that have been advanced to address these problems. My presentation is addressed in particular to those who work on language (e.g. linguists, psychologists, educationalists, speech technologists) who are not normally particularly exercised by matters of phonological theory.

This talk is part of the Cambridge University Linguistic Society series.

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