Here is a guest post from Alex Chabot and Tobias Scheer picking up a thread from about a year ago now. Bill
Alex Chabot & Tobias Scheer
What it is that is substance-free: computation and/or melodic primes
A late contribution to the debate...
In his post from April 12th, 2018, Veno has clarified his take on the status of melodic primes (features) in phonology (which is identical with the one exposed in the work by Hale & Reiss since 2000). The issue that gave rise to some misunderstanding and probably misconception about the kind of primes that Hale-Reiss-Volenec propose concerns their substance-free status: which aspect of them is actually substance-free and which one is not? This is relevant because the entire approach initiated by Hale & Reiss' 2000 LI paper has come to be known as substance-free.
Veno has thus made explicit that phonological features in his view are substance-laden, but that this substance does not bear on phonological computation. That is, phonological features bear phonetic labels ([labial], [coronal] etc.) in the phonology, but phonological computation ignores them and is able to turn any feature set into any other feature set in any context and its reverse. This is what may be called substance-free computation (i.e. computation that does not care for phonetics). At the same time, Veno explains, the phonetic information carried by the features in the phonology is used upon externalization (if we may borrow this word for phonological objects): it defines how features are pronounced (something called transduction by Hale-Reiss-Volenec, or phonetic implementation system PIS in Veno's post). That is, phonological [labial] makes sure that it comes out as something phonetically labial (rather than, say, dorsal). The correspondence between the phonological object and its phonetic exponent is thus firmly defined in the phonology - not by the PIS device.
The reason why Hale & Reiss (2003, 2008: 28ff) have always held that phonological features are substance-laden is learnability: they contend that cognitive categories cannot be established if the cognitive system does not know beforehand what kind of sensory input will come its way and relates to the particular category ("let's play cards"). Hence labiality, coronality etc. would be unparsable noise for the L1 learner did they not know at birth what labiality, coronality etc. is. Therefore, Hale-Reiss-Volenec conclude, substance-laden phonological features are universal and innate.
We believe that this take on melodic primes is misled (we talk about melodic primes since features are the regular currency, but there are also approaches that entertain bigger, holistic primes, called Elements. Everything that is said about features also applies to Elements). The alternative to which we subscribe is called radical substance-free phonology, where "radical" makes the difference with Hale-Reiss-Volenec: in this view both phonological computation and phonological primes are substance-free. That is, phonology is really self-contained in the Saussurian sense: no phonetic information is present (as opposed to: present but ignored). Melodic primes are thus alphas, betas and gammas: they assure contrast and infra-segmental decomposition that is necessary independently. They are related to phonetic values by the exact same spell-out procedure that is known from the syntax-phonology interface: vocabulary X is translated into vocabulary Y through a lexical access (Scheer 2014). Hence α ↔ labiality (instead of [labial] ↔ labiality).
To start, the misunderstanding that Veno had the good idea to clarify was entertained by formulations like:
"[w]e understand distinctive features here as a particular kind of substance-free units of mental representation, neither articulatory nor acoustic in themselves, but rather having articulatory and acoustic correlates." Reiss & Volenec (2018: 253, emphasis in original)
Calling features substance-free when they are actually substance-laden is probably not a good idea. What is meant is that phonological computation is substance-free. But the quote talks about phonological units, not computation.
2. Incompatible with modularity
The ground rule of (Fodorian) modularity is domain specificity: computational systems can only parse and compute units that belong to a proprietary vocabulary that is specific to the system at hand. In Hale-Reiss-Volenec' view, phonological units are defined by extra-phonological (phonetic) properties, though. Hence given domain specificity phonology is unable to parse phonetically defined units such as [labial], [coronal] etc. Or else if "labial", "coronal" etc. are vocabulary items of the proprietary vocabulary used in phonological computation, this computation comprises both phonology and phonetics. Aside from the fact that there was enough blurring these boundaries in the past two decades or so and that Hale-Reiss-Volenec have expressed themselves repeatedly in favour of a clear modular cut between phonetics and phonology, the architecture of their system defines phonology and phonetics as two separate systems since it has a translational device (transduction, PIS) between them.
One concludes that phonological primes that are computed by phonological computation, but which bear phonetic labels (and in fact are not defined or differentiated by any other property), are a (modular) contradiction in terms.
To illustrate that, see what the equivalent would be in another linguistic module, (morpho‑)syntax: what would you say about syntactic primes such as number, animacy, person etc. which come along as "coronal", "labial" etc. without making any reference to number, animacy, person? That is, syntactic primes that are not defined by syntactic but by extra-syntactic (phonological) vocabulary? In this approach it would then be said that even though primes are defined by non-syntactic properties, they are syntactic in kind and undergo syntactic computation, which however ignores their non-syntactic properties.
This is but another way to state the common sense question prompted by a system where the only properties that phonological primes have are phonetic, but which are then ignored by phonological computation: what are the phonetic labels good for? They do not do any labour in the phonology, and they need to be actively ignored. Hale-Reiss-Volenec' answer was mentioned above: they exist because of learnability. This is what we address in the following point.
Learnability concerns of substance-free melodic primes are addressed by Samuels (2012), Dresher (2018) and a number of contributions in Clements & Ridouane (2011). They are the focus of a recent ms by Odden (2019).
At a more general cognitive level, we know positively that the human brain/mind is perfectly able to make sense of sensory input that was never encountered and for sure is not innate. Making sense here means "transform a sensory input into cognitive categories". There are multiple examples of how electric impulses have been learned to be interpreted as either auditive or visual perception: cochlear implants on the one hand, so-called artificial vision, or bionic eye on the other hand. The same goes for production: mind-controlled prostheses are real. Hence Hale & Reiss' statement that nothing can be parsed by the cognitive system that wasn't present at birth (or that the cognitive system does not already know) appears to be just incorrect. Saying that unknown stimulus can lead to cognitive categories everywhere except in phonology seems a position that is hard to defend.
Clements, George N. & Rachid Ridouane (eds.) 2011. Where do Phonological Features come from? Cognitive, physical and developmental bases of distinctive speech categories. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Dresher, Elan 2018. Contrastive Hierarchy Theory and the Nature of Features. Proceedings of the 35th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics 35: 18-29.
Hale, Mark & Charles Reiss 2000. Substance Abuse and Dysfunctionalism: Current Trends in Phonology. Linguistic Inquiry 31: 157-169.
Hale, Mark & Charles Reiss 2003. The Subset Principle in Phonology: Why the tabula can't be rasa. Journal of Linguistics 39: 219-244.
Hale, Mark & Charles Reiss 2008. The Phonological Enterprise. Oxford: OUP.
Odden, David 2019. Radical Substance Free Phonology and Feature Learning. Ms.
Reiss, Charles & Veno Volenec 2018. Cognitive Phonetics: The Transduction of Distinctive Features at the Phonology–Phonetics Interface. Biolinguistics 11: 251-294.
Samuels, Bridget 2012. The emergence of phonological forms. Towards a biolinguistic understanding of grammar: Essays on interfaces, edited by Anna Maria Di Sciullo, 193-213. Amsterdam: Benjamins.