Phonology: A Coursebook

Blog post written by Robbert Kennedy, University of California, Santa Barbra

Phonology A Coursebook by Robert Kennedy I am excited to share Phonology: A Coursebook with instructors everywhere. This textbook represents the culmination of many years of thinking about how to make the content of phonology courses more accessible and engaging to students, and I can share a few examples of what is new about it here.

I have always believed phonological analysis to be an important skill for linguists of any stripe, so I think it’s crucial that students establish a solid understanding of its central concepts. But Linguistics is growing as an academic field, with its traditions of structural analysis and documentation joined by those interested in the study of language through the lens of identity, technology, and many other angles. The growth in size and range of our undergraduate population (at my home institution, and surely many others) reflects this. My personal motivation for writing a phonology textbook thus comes from my classroom observation of the varying interests and learning styles among students, not just in phonology courses but in other linguistics courses as well – so that even if the student is not planning on specializing in phonology, they can still experience the course as a practicum in the procedures of the scientific method.

With this in mind, I have structured this book around a mindset of the primacy of data: its chapters are organized around types of phonological processes and patterns, with assimilation, deletion, insertion, harmony, syllabification, stress, and tonal phenomenal all highlighted as objects of phonological analysis. While I have included familiar classic problem sets, including data from languages such as Yokuts, Turkish, Hungarian, Japanese, Kongo, and Polish, I have enriched them with many others that are either less canonical or newly developed, with notable exercises on syllabification, tone, and prosodic morpho-phonology. Moreover, I have used the data to guide the use of formalisms like features, or rules, or tiered representations.

Meanwhile, I have observed in the past that some students have difficulty seeing phonology and the input-output relationship when following the standard teaching practice of introducing them with distributional facts and phonemic analysis. To address this, I introduce the concepts of underlying representations and processes that operate on them with more concretely observable examples of morphophonemic alternation before exploring phonemic analysis and complementary distribution.

 This gives students something more tangible to grasp early on – the idea that a single underlying phoneme could have multiple surface allophones is more plainly obvious when the forms of specific morphemes alternate by their phonological context. In practice, teaching about phonemes by using complementary distribution and mutual exclusivity, which are more circumstantial in their evidentiality, risks a level of abstractness that is perhaps best left until later in the term. There is a parallel to be drawn with calculus, where the instructor may teach either integrals or derivatives first. Teaching derivatives first is more intuitive to many learners, but in phonology it is as if we have been teaching integrals first.

I believe this approach dovetails well with the spirit of Cambridge’s Coursebook series, in which the reader is presented with datasets and exercises, but the analytical steps are narrated procedurally to illustrate the links between detecting patterns and accounting for their nuances and complexity.

The second novel component is a deeper integration of typological generalizations as an element of phonological argumentation. In class when leading students on how to decide among competing analyses, I often find myself turning to typological evidence, yet note that this information is not readily at the hands of undergrads. The organization of the book by processes clarifies that there are certain types of phenomena that are typologically prevalent, and I use this to argue for the student that the formal tools should reflect these trends.

Another deliberate aspect of this textbook is how it treats the role of features and representations. Feature charts and derivational conventions are so rich with detail and precision that students can get lost trying to remember them all, especially if they think of the best analysis as one that uses the correct features.  I often see students struggling to memorize feature charts for IPA symbols rather than thinking of natural classes in more concrete terms. Thus I emphasize in the text that the features are valuable analytical tools, but what a student employs in a given analysis must primarily distinguish groups of sounds that behave differently.

This textbook is aimed at introductory phonology classes, particularly for students who have completed an introductory course in linguistics and/or phonetics and have working knowledge of IPA transcription and some basics of morphological analysis. Nevertheless the datasets are numerous and rich enough to be useful for more advanced students of phonology as well.

I look forward to using this textbook in the classroom and sincerely hope other phonology instructors will find it both useful and engaging as a resource for their students.

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Teaching a course on this topic?

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