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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.


Dr John Coleman | talks | www


Date and Time:

16 November 2006 at 5:00 pm


1 hour 30 minutes



LG17, The Faculty of Law
10 West Road
Sidgwick Site

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Organised by:

Cambridge University Linguistic Society, University of Cambridge
See other talks organised by Cambridge University Linguistic Society, University of Cambridge...



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This is a members-only event

Membership is £6 a year or £5 for students. You can send your subscriptions to the Treasurer (cbl23@cam.ac.uk), or pay at one of the meetings.

Additional Information:

Cambridge University Linguistic Society aims to bring together people with an interest in language. We meet three times a term on average, attracting speakers from a variety of departments and institutions both inside and outside Cambridge. The meetings are held on Thursday afternoons in the Faculty of English, 9 West Road. Tea and biscuits are served from 4.30pm and the paper begins at 5pm. The talks last about an hour with time afterwards for questions from the audience. The Society's officers then take the speaker out for dinner at a nearby restaurant, along with any members of the audience who wish to join us. These dinners are very popular and offer the opportunity to talk to the speaker and other members of the society in an informal atmosphere. Membership is £6 a year (or £5 for students). This money goes towards paying speakers' travel costs and accommodation. You can send your subscriptions to the Treasurer, or pay at one of the meetings.

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