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Lecture | LUCL Colloquium - Fall 2014

LUCL Colloquium: 'Leaky' Phonology and the Design of Language

  • Bob Ladd (University of Edinburgh)
Friday 24 October 2014
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden
Room 147

'Leaky' Phonology and the Design of Language


Recent work on sign language - notably the work of Sandler and colleagues, on Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language - has shown that phonology emerges in a new language. There does not appear to be a clear transition point from not having phonology to having it. Rather, the phonological organisation of signs becomes gradually more systematic, and even mature sign languages continue to show a variety of features that are difficult to analyse in terms of a smallish finite inventory of phonological elements. In this paper I suggest that the same is true of spoken language phonology as well, and that spoken languages exhibit phonological phenomena analogous to the hard-to-analyse features in sign phonologies. 

Sapir famously said that "all grammars leak". We are used to thinking that phonology does not leak, and that all phonetic aspects of an utterance can be analysed in terms of a language's finite inventory of phonological elements, independently of grammatical structure. "Leaky" aspects of spoken language phonology are usually idealised out of consideration in various ways (e.g. as paralinguistic or expressive, as dialect mixture or unassimilated borrowing, as historical change in progress), or simply ignored. I discuss several such phenomena, and suggest that they are comparable to what we find in sign languages. The existence of such phenomena argues against a conception of language design in which phonology is autonomous and unconnected to grammar and meaning (the design feature called "duality of patterning" by Hockett and "double articulation" by Martinet). Rather, phonology is in the first instance a property of the internal structure of signs (or words or morphemes), and it is not always possible or desirable to distinguish phonological from grammatical aspects of this internal structure. If phonology is viewed in this light, it is not surprising that it can "leak" like grammar.

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