`Rich Phonology’:

Reasons for Rejecting Phones and Phonemes.
Some of the Evidence: Read it for yourself
Robert Port
Indiana University

Jump to Supporting Materials.


For the past century scientists of language have believed that words are composed from an inventory of phonemes (or phonological segments) which are selected from a larger set of universal phonetic units called phones.  Many linguists further assume that all phones and phonemes can be fully represented as vectors of phonetic features selected from a small, universal set.

Unfortunately, despite the strong intuitive appeal of this description, there is essentially no behavioral evidence supporting this idea.  The purpose of this webpage is to provide a selection from the experimental evidence supporting my seemingly radical claim, and to make the material easily accessible.

I am working out a theory called `Rich Phonology'. It is an approach to linguistics that assumes words and phrases, etc. are stored in memory using a much more detailed code than the traditional view allowed -- representations specified in continuous time rather than in discrete time. Alphabet-like representations are useful and practical for those of us trained in their use, but  they apparently play a very small role in everyday, real-time use of language by our brains.  This means that the bit-rate of linguistic memory is larger by at least an order of magnitude than previously imagined based on a speaker-independent, abstract segmental representation.  One implication is that exemplar theories of memory and episodic memory models are much better models of our linguistic memory than we thought.  They are certainly better models than any abstract alphabetical representation.   The strong appeal of letter-based abstract representations, and the sense that this is all the information speakers and hearers really need are intuitions that reflect primarily our lifelong experience translating letters into speech and speech into letters.


Some Papers

Port. R. F.   How are words stored in memory? Beyond phones and phonemes. (2007). New Ideas in Psychology 25, 143- 170 (Elsevier)


This paper presents the central story of this webpage and reviews all the arguments made here.  The rest of this site can be viewed as an elaboration on the argument in this paper.

Port, R. F. (2008)  All is prosody: Phones and phonemes are the ghosts of letters. Keynote address for Prosody2008, Campinas, Brazil, May, 2008. To appear in the conference Proceedings.

This is a much shorter version (10 pages) of the same central story - but the telling gets a little clearer  each time I write it.  So one might like to read this short version before the longer one above.  This version, as suggested by the title, is oriented toward participants in the prosody conference.

 Port, R. F. (2007) Phonology is not psychological and speech processing is not linguistic. Mspt submitted to the Society for Philosophy and Psychology annual meeting in Toronto.   (About 5-pages)

This article shows how my distinction between Phonology and Speech-Language Processing differs from Chomsky's distantly related notion of Competence vs. Performance.

Every language requires a very high-dimensional  space of phonetic properties (relative to the size of any phonetics previously proposed).  This space includes indexical speaker- and voice-dependent properties, speaking rate information, etc. along with all the usual phonetic and phonological parameters.   Since the acoustic features employed in these representations are acquired independently by each speaker from their auditory and linguistic experience, the features employed will be different from speaker to speaker (rather than fixed and universal).  Furthermore, any given word or phrase will have many independent representations in memory.   The evidence for these ideas comes from surprisingly many directions, while actual experimental data in support of our intuitive description of speech (based on  letter-like segments) is essentially nonexistent, as far as I can tell.

Port, R. F., & Leary, A. (2005). Against formal phonology.   Language 85, 927-964. 

This paper argues that an alphabet cannot capture most of the important structure in speech, thus providing the foundation on which the later papers rest.  An alphabet provides a very poor model for speech perception although it is a very useful technology for reading a language one knows well.  Languages differ in far more ways than any learnable alphabet could represent.  For example, speech sounds differ in timing details for which symbol tokens are particularly poor descriptive devices.  Furthermore, there is no evidence that speech sounds across languages differ by discrete jumps, as required by the formalist views.  Much of the evidence about the inadequacy of traditional transcription has been available for a long time, but most of us have ignored it or made excuses for it.  Since all formal models of language are built on a foundation of discrete, apriori phonetic symbols, the very idea of a formal model of language is rendered impossible, unless someone figures out a way to provide a genuinely discrete universal phonetics.   But there is little hope for that.

Port, Robert (2006)  The graphical basis of  phones and phonemes.   In Murray Munro and Ocke-Schwen Bohn (eds.) Second Language Speech Learning: The Role of Language Experience in Speech Perception and Production.  Benjamins, Amsterdam. pp. 349-365.  

Argues that our lifelong experience with the alphabet biases our perceptual experience of speech.   Segmental descriptions of speech present powerful and compelling intuitions to us. But these intuitions are largely an illusion. Chomsky's insistence that we need only trust our intuitions to find reliable linguistic descriptive tools has been a costly error.   We CANNOT trust our intuitions to report what the real structure of language is.  The nature of our linguistic intuitions, along with their origin, should be viewed as just another empirical problem requiring careful investigation. 

To Supporting Materials.

If you are interested in reading some of the background material which supports these surprising claims, please follow the link.

ancient Egyptian school

Robert F. Port,  February 24, 2008

First put up in September, 2007