Note: This post is NOT by Norbert. It's by Bill Idsardi and Eric Raimy. This is the first in a series of posts discussing the Substance Free Phonology (SFP) program, and phonological topics more generally.
Bill Idsardi and Eric Raimy
Before the beginning
For and against method is a fascinating book, documenting the correspondence between Paul Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos in the years just before Lakatos died. Feyerabend proposed a series of exchanges with Lakatos, with Lakatos explicating his Methodology of Scientific Research Programs, and Feyerabend taking the other side, the arguments that became Against Method. We’ll try something similar here, on the Faculty of Language blog, relating to the question of substance in phonology.
Beyond EpistodomeNote: not “Epistemodome” because phonology cares not one whit about etymology Over severalteen posts we will consider the Substance Free Phonology (SFP) program outlined by Charles Reiss and Mark Hale in a number of publications, especially Hale & Reiss 2000, 2008 and Reiss 2016, 2017. We will be concentrating mainly on Reiss 2016 ( http://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/003087/current.pdf ). Although we agree with many of their proposals, we reject almost all of the rationales they offer for them. Because that’s such an unusual combination of views, we thought that this would be a useful forum for discussion. (And we don’t think any journal would want to publish something like this anyway.) Because this is the Faculty of Language blog (FLog? FoLog? vote in the comments!), we will start with a reading. Today’s reading is from the book of LGB, chapter 1, page 10 (Chomsky 1981):
“In the general case of theory construction, the primitive basis can be selected in any number of ways, so long as the condition of definability is met, perhaps subject to conditions of simplicity of some sort. [fn 12: See Goodman (1951).] But in the case of UG, other considerations enter. The primitive basis must meet a condition of epistemological priority. That is, still assuming the idealization to instantaneous language acquisition, we want the primitives to be concepts that can plausibly be assumed to provide a preliminary, pre-linguistic analysis of a reasonable selection of presented data, that is, to provide the primary linguistic data that are mapped by the language faculty to a grammar; relaxing the idealization to permit transitional stages, similar considerations hold. [fn 13: On this matter, see Chomsky (1975, chapter 3).] It would, for example, be reasonable to suppose that such concepts as “precedes” or “is voiced” enter into the primitive basis …” (emphasis added)So the motto here is not “substance free”, but rather “substance first, not much of that, and not much of anything else either”. Since we’re writing this during Lent (we gave up sanity for Lent), the message of privation seems appropriate. And we are sure that the minimalist ethos is clear to this blog’s readers as well. Reiss 2016:16-7 makes a different claim:
“• phonology is epistemologically prior to phonetics…
Hammarberg (1976) leads us to see that for a strict empiricist, the somewhat rounded-lipped k of coop and the somewhat spread-lipped k of keep are very different. Given their distinctness, Hammarberg make the point, obvious yet profound, that we linguists have no reason to compare these two segments unless we have a paradigm that provides us with the category k. Our phonological theory is logically prior to our phonetic description of these two segments as “kinds of k”. So our science is rationalist. As Hammarberg also points out, the same reasoning applies to the learner -- only because of a pre-existing built-in system of categories used to parse, can the learner treat the two ‘sounds’ as variants of a category: “phonology is logically and epistemologically prior to phonetics”. Phonology provides equivalence classes for phonetic discussion.” (emphasis added)Two claims of epistemological priority enter, one claim leaves (or maybe none). The pre-existing built-in system of categories used to parse include: (1) the features (Chomsky, Reiss 2016:18), which they both agree are substantive (Chomsky: “concepts … [that] provide a preliminary pre-linguistic analysis”, Reiss 2016:26: “This work [Hale & Reiss 2003a, 2008, 1998] accepts the existence of innate substantive features”) and (2) precedence (Chomsky; Reiss is mum on this point), also substantive. (We will get to our specific proposal in post # 3.) In the case of the learner, it’s not clear if a claim of epistemological priority can be made in either direction. In our view children have both structures: they come with innate, highly specified motor, perceptual and memory architectures along with a phonology module which has interfaces to those three entities (and probably others besides, as aspects of phonological representations are available for subsequent linguistic processing, Poeppel & Idsardi 2012, and are available in at least limited ways to introspection and metalinguistic judgements, say the central systems of Fodor 1983). The goal for the child is to learn how to transfer information among these systems for the purposes of learning and using the sound structures of the languages that they encounter. We do agree with SFP that a fruitful way of approaching this question is with a system of ordered rules within the phonological component (Halle & Bromberger 1989). In terms of evolutionary (bio-linguistic) priority, it seems blindingly clear that the supporting auditory, motor and memory systems pre-date language, and the phonology module is the new kid on the block. (Whether animal call systems because they also connect memory, action and perception are homologous to phonology is an empirical matter, see Hauser 1996.) In terms of epistemological priority for scientific investigation there would seem to be a couple ways to proceed here (Hornstein & Idsardi 2014). One is to see the human system as primates + X, essentially the evolutionary view, and ask what the minimal X is that we need to add to our last common ancestor to account for modern human abilities. The answer for phonology might be “not much” (Fitch 2018). But there’s another view, more divorced from actual biology, which tries to build things up from first principles. So in this case that would mean asking what can we conclude about any system that needs to connect memory, action, and perception systems of any sort, a “Good Old Fashioned Artificial Intelligence” (GOFAI) approach (Haugeland 1985, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbolic_artificial_intelligence ). This seems to be closer to what Hale & Reiss have in mind, maybe. If so, then by this general MAP definition animal call systems would qualify as phonologies. As would a lot of other activities, including reading-writing, reading-typing, rituals (Staal 1996), dancing, kung-fu fighting, etc. (Nightmares about long ago semiotics classes ensue.) But there are problems (maybe not insurmountable) in proceeding in this way. It’s not clear that there is a general theory of sensation and perception, or of action. And what there is (e.g. Fechner/Weber laws, i.e. sensory systems do logarithms) doesn’t seem particularly helpful in the present context. We think that Gallistel 2007 is particular clear on this point:
“From a computational point of view, the notion of a general purpose learning process (for example, associative learning), makes no more sense than the notion of a general purpose sensing organ—a bump in the middle of the forehead whose function is to sense things. There is no such bump, because picking up information from different kinds of stimuli—light, sound, chemical, mechanical, and so on—requires organs with structures shaped by the specific properties of the stimuli they process. The structure of an eye—including the neural circuitry in the retina and beyond—reflects in exquisite detail the laws of optics and the exigencies of extracting information about the world from reflected light. The same is true for the ear, where the exigencies of extracting information from emitted sounds dictates the many distinctive features of auditory organs. We see with eyes and hear with ears—rather than sensing through a general purpose sense organ--because sensing requires organs with modality-specific structure.” (emphasis added)So our take on this is that we’re going to restrict the term phonology to humans for now, and so we will need to investigate the human systems for memory, action and perception in terms of their roles in human language, in order to be able to understand the interfaces. But we agree with the strategy of finding a small set of primitives (features and precedence) that we can map across the memory-action-perception (MAP) interfaces and seeing how far we can get with that inside phonology. With Fitch 2018 The phonological continuity hypothesis, though, we will consider the properties of phonology-like systems (especially auditory pattern recognition) in other animals, such as ferrets and finches to be informative about human phonology (see also Yip 2013, Samuels 2015). How much phonological difference does it make that ASL is signed-viewed instead of spoken-heard? Maybe none or maybe a lot, probably some. The idea that there would be action-perception features in both cases seems perfectly fine, though they would obviously be connecting different things (e.g. joint flexion/extension and object-centered angle in signed language and orbicularis oris activation and FM sweep in spoken languages). Does it matter that object-centered properties are further along the cortical visual processing stream (Perirhinal cortex) whereas FM sweeps are identifiable in primary auditory cortex (A1)? Can we ignore the sub-cortical differences between the visual pathway to V1 (simple) and the ascending auditory pathway to A1 (complex)? Does it matter that V1 is two dimensional (retinotopic) and so computations there have access to notions such as spatial frequency that don’t have any clear correlates in the auditory system? Do we need to add spatial relations between features to the precedence relation in our account of ASL? (This seems to be almost certainly yes.) Again, we agree that it’s a good tactic to go as far as we can with features and precedence in both cases, but we won’t be surprised if we end up explanatorily short, especially for ASL. To address a technical point, can you learn equivalence classes? Yes, you can, that’s what unsupervised learning and cluster analysis algorithms do (Hastie, Tibshirani & Freidman 2001). Those techniques aren’t free of assumptions either (No Free Lunch Theorems, Wolpert 1996), but given some reasonable starting assumptions (innate or otherwise) they do seem relevant to human speech category formation (Dillon, Dunbar & Idsardi 2013, see also Chandrasekaran, Koslov & Maddox 2014) even if we ultimately restrict this to feature selection or (de-)activation instead of feature “invention”. Next time: Just my imagination (running away with me)