8.0236 R: Phonology (1/40)

Wed, 5 Oct 1994 08:01:48 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 8, No. 0236. Wednesday, 5 Oct 1994.

Date: Tue, 4 Oct 94 16:54:45 -0700
From: edwards@cogsci.Berkeley.EDU (Jane A. Edwards)
Subject: Re: The New Yorker Phonology Primer

> That the Nobel Prizes are not awarded for recognizing the difference
> between letters and characters is no surprise to anybody. That to
> Brodsky's ear, the two vowels do sound "essentialy the same" is not
> surprising to anybody who has heard him confidently substituting his
> native Russian [a] for both of them. (And the quote above probably
> pales before quite a few other astonishing statements in the lecture
> by the notorious autodidact.) But that the sophisticated editors of
> The New Yorker can overlook the fact that the two different phonemes
> of English, which distinguish dozens of words, could not have possibly
> sounded the same to Robert Frost illustrates a pretty sorry state of
> affairs in the humanities, in which the ignorance of the most basic
> linguistic facts seems perfectly acceptable.

While Raskin may well be right about Brodsky's misrepresentation of
Frost's phonology, and about the absurdity of having the New Yorker serve
as an arbiter of linguistic facts, there was a statement in his posting
which I think came across more strongly than he must have intended, and I
wanted to mention it, as I think that such things can lead to even more
misunderstandings between us and the popular press, i.e., to actually
exacerbate the problem he so rightly wishes to resolve.

In the above, he states that: "two different phonemes of English, which
distinguish dozens of words, could not have possibly sounded the same
to Robert Frost". This is a strong claim - in fact, too strong. Just
because a difference exists which *could* be exploited for differences
in meaning doesn't mean that it necessarily is in all varieties of that
language. For example, New Yorker pronounce "merry", "Mary" and
"marry" as three different-sounding words, but in some varieties of
American English (e.g., mine) they're all three pronounced the same
("neutralization" of the contrast). Similarly, British speakers may
pronounce "caught" and "cot" differently, but many Americans don't.

Raskin may well be right that Brodsky was wrong and that Frost did
indeed distinguish those two phonemes, but if so, he must be basing it
on an examination of Frost's phonology per se - perhaps through the
tape recordings of his readings, which would be fun and easily possible -
and not on the more general principle quoted above.

-Jane Edwards (edwards@cogsci.berkeley.edu)