The Phonological Mind

By Iris Berent
Northeastern University, Boston

Humans weave phonological patterns instinctively. We contrast dogs and gods, favour blogs to lbogs; we begin forming patterns at birth; and like songbirds, we do so spontaneously, even in the absence of an adult model. In fact, we impose phonological design not only on our natural linguistic communication but also on invented cultural technologies—reading and writing. Why are humans compelled to generate phonological patterns? And why do different phonological systems—signed and spoken—share aspects of their design?

In The Phonological Mind, I outline a novel answer to these questions. The answer encompasses two claims. The first is that phonology is an algebraic system—it comprises powerful rules, akin to syntactic generalizations. For example, speakers whose language bans identical consonants (e.g., the identical b in bibeg) will freely extend this restriction across the board, even to consonants that do not occur in their language (e.g., thitheg). Algebraic rules are important because they support the productivity of the phonological system.

But algebraic rules are not sufficient to explain the intricate design of phonological patterns. Indeed, distinct phonological systems share not only the capacity to encode rules but potentially also the type of rules that are attested. To explain this possibly, I further suggest that phonology is a specialized system of core knowledge.

Core knowledge systems are shaped by innate universal principles that are evident already in early infancy.  Whether phonological principles are in fact fully universal and innate remains an open empirical question, but there is a wide range of linguistic and experimental evidence that is consistent with this possibility. The core phonology hypothesis also explains the early onset of phonological knowledge and its spontaneous regenesis in emerging signed phonological systems. Another feature of core knowledge is that it shapes both our early instinctive understanding of the world as well as mature cultural inventions. And indeed, just as our mature theories of mathematics are based on very early knowledge of number, found in infants and adults, so is the cultural invention of reading and writing typically based on phonological principles.

The design of the phonological grammar is not only specialized but also special in the animal kingdom. This is not because the capacity to learn rules is unique to humans—such rules have been repeatedly demonstrated in many species (albeit not in apes). Phonology is also not special in its tendency to generate rules that are adaptive—ones that fit the properties of their phonetic channel, either vocal or manual (for spoken and signed languages, respectively). Such adaptive capacities are clearly seen in the design of birdsong, for example. Rather, what might be special to phonology is the capacity to marry those two abilities—to use algebraic rules to optimize phonetic pressures.  Remarkably, this combination (“algebraic optimization”) has not been shown even in species that possess its two ingredients.  While this possibility requires further evaluation, it absence would suggest that this capacity might be a uniquely human adaptation.

The Phonological Mind, is now available from Cambridge University Press at £22.95


1 comment to The Phonological Mind

  • ivan petryshyn

    It was interesting to read the article.
    And, yet:
    1. the choice of a phonological pattern is not an algebraic rule, but a measure of some qualitative-and quantitative harmony or order to satisfy the requirements of the lexicologico-semantic encoding that can be decoded by another carrier of the code to satisfy the socio- psycho-somatic needs of human beings;
    2. the synosoid of phono-morpho coinages is rather poly-dimentional than linear;
    3. the readiness of the human brain to receive sonoric signals does not mean that the language abilities are in-born: they are rather in-potentiam but not in-natum;
    4. the permission of structuring certain clusters of morpho-phonemes is possible due to the sense of frequency, order, con-vivacity of consonant-vowel variations and variability, as much as their leveling, enforcement and resolution methods application;
    5. the consonants seeming stability and the vowels gradations are the regulations that are resolved within a certain granted/ and given frequency-organized continuum and are legitimate only within that system, yet traced also in other systems, due to the fact of the limited character of phonemes and sounds.
    Ivan Petryshyn, USA 7/3/13

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