On 10/9/10 6:26 AM, “Tom Wanek” <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
I recently came across this quote from Steven Pinker, describing how the mind creates language using features, as you know, such as plosives, fricatives, nasals, laterals, etc. Thought his observations might interest you.
“So phonological rules ‘see’ features, not phonemes, and they adjust features, not phonemes. Recall, too, that languages tend to arrive at an inventory of phonemes by multiplying out the various combinations of some set of features. These facts show features, not phonemes, are the atoms of linguistic sound stored and manipulated in the brain. A phoneme is merely a bundle of features. Thus even in dealing with its smallest units, the features, language works by using a combinatorial system.”
– Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct
See you next week.
Thanks for the email. You’ve been studying.
I won’t say I disagree with Pinker. After all, he was the head of the department of Brain and Cognitive Science at MIT until he left a few years ago to take that same position at Harvard. Despite the position of Pinker, however, I have chosen to focus on phonemes in my explanation of The 12 Languages of the Mind.
The apparent disagreement between us stems from our definitions of the term, “atoms of language,” used as a metaphor for word particles.
I think of phonemes in much the same way I think of protons, neutrons and electrons. While these are certainly made of quarks, leptons and force carriers (quantum mechanics;) and those, in turn, are made of string vibrating in the 10th dimension (string theory,) we need only consider combinations of protons, neutrons and electrons when our goal is create substances that have specific properties we desire.
Protons, neutrons and electrons – combining to form atoms of elements – are rightfully called “the smallest units of matter” even though they, themselves, are made of even smaller bits of energy vibrating at different frequencies in weird dimensions.
Features, as described by Pinker, are to my way of thinking the equivalent of quarks, leptons and force carriers at the quantum level. I’m not going quite that deep in any of my explanations.
As you know, we spend a few moments in The Magical Worlds Communications Workshop talking about features:
“Individual sounds within a language are like the individual instruments in an orchestra. Just as the strings make a different kind of music than do the brasses, and the brasses make a different kind music than do the drums, so also do the vowels in a language make a different music than do the fricatives, (the sounds that hiss or hush or buzz – like f,v, s, z, sh, th.) The fricatives make different music than do the stops, (like p,b,t,d,k, and g.) The stops make a different music than do the labials, etc.
Looking forward to seeing you in tomorrow’s Measurement and the Mind class. All the big kids are coming. It will be pivotal, I think. A big leap forward in clarity for everyone there.
Roy H. Williams
Thank you for your thoughtful response. I recall your explanation in Thought Particles, and I share your perspective.
Pinker may not be technically wrong, but perhaps he would have benefited from the research of Margaret Magnus.
Pinker also had this to say: “Unlike words and morphemes, though, phonemes do not contribute bits of meaning to the whole.”
But according to Margaret Magnus, we know that phonemes do, in fact, contribute bits of meaning, and these bits of meaning are different from morphemes and words.
A couple of noteworthy observations:
- The average human can hear up to forty-five phonemes per second.
- Pinker’s book, The Language Instinct, was published in 1994, while Margaret Magnus’ book, Gods of the Word, was published in 1999.
Also, I’ve been meaning to send you the attached PDF of the creative life of Robert Schumann. It provides more evidence of the danger lurking in the deep waters of the right brain. The chart is from the work of Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“In the late 1980s, while on sabbatical in England, I began a study of forty-seven writers and artists: painters and sculptors were Associates of the Royal Academy; playwrights had won the New York Drama Critics Award, or the Evening Standard (London) Drama Award. Half the poets were in The Oxford Book of 20th-Century Verse. As against the 5 per cent of the general population who met the diagnostic criteria for a mood disorder, I found that 30 per cent of these artists and writers needed treatment. And 50 per cent of the poets — the largest fraction from any one group — had needed much extensive care.” – Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
See you later this week.