Phonetic arbitrariness and its consequences
Tobias Scheer
April 2019

This article discusses the consequences of phonetic arbitrariness, i.e. the fact that the relationship between a phonological category and the way it is pronounced (its phonetic exponent) is arbitrary. It is shown that (if phonology and phonetics are indeed two distinct modules), phonetic arbitrariness is a necessary consequence of modularity: anyone who subscribes to modularity must also endorse phonetic arbitrariness. In turn, phonetic arbitrariness necessarily entails substance-free melodic primes, i.e. ones that bear no phonetic information in the phonology (pace Hale and Reiss where primes come with phonetic labels such as [labial], [coronal] etc.). It is only when both melodic primes and phonological computation are substance-free (with Hale and Reiss only the latter is) that phonology is self-contained in the Saussurian sense. Another issue discussed is how phonetic arbitrariness relates to the question whether melodic primes are universal and innate or language-specific and emergent (if you subscribe to phonetic arbitrariness, your primes are necessarily substance-free and emergent, but if you are committed to emergent primes they may be either substance-free or substance-laden). Finally, it is shown that a fully substance-free approach is a radical departure from current systems on the conceptual side, but does not change anything in the every-day practice of phonologists, who may happily continue to use the familiar substantive vocabulary when talking about sound patterns: these are simply shorthand for the true phonological structure where substance is absent and only comes in upon spell-out, just like chemists talk about water when they mean the real chemical object H2O.
Format: [ pdf ]
Reference: lingbuzz/004554
(please use that when you cite this article)
Published in: to appear in Phonological Studies (Japan)
keywords: substance-free primes, features, elements, emergent features, phonetics-phonology mapping, arbitrariness, phonology
previous versions: v1 [April 2019]
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