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Language, Music, and the BrainA Mysterious Relationship$
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Michael A. Arbib

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780262018104

Published to MIT Press Scholarship Online: May 2015

DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/9780262018104.001.0001

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An Integrated View of Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody

An Integrated View of Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody

(p.273) 11 An Integrated View of Phonetics, Phonology, and Prosody
Language, Music, and the Brain

D. Robert Ladd

The MIT Press

“Phonetics, phonology, and prosody” do not, as might be thought, constitute a set of three separate subsystems of language: linguistic sound systems have both phonetic and phonological aspects, and this applies as much to “prosody” as to other areas of language. The distinction between phonetics and phonology is most often applied to segmental sounds (i.e., sounds that are typically represented by individual letters in alphabetic writing systems), and “prosody” is often used to refer to any nonsegmental phenomena. However, there is little justification for defining prosody as some kind of separate channel that accompanies segmental sounds; prosody so conceived is no more than a loose collection of theoretical leftovers. Moreover, it is easy to identify phonetic and phonological aspects of at least some phenomena that are often thought of as prosodic (e.g., lexical tone). Nevertheless, various properties might motivate talking about a separate subsystem “prosody.” In particular, there are good reasons to think that the essence of prosody is the structuring of the stream of speech into syllables, phrases, and other constituents of various sizes, which may have internal structure, e.g., a head or nucleus of some sort. Rather than looking for specific local acoustic cues that mark a boundary or a stressed syllable—a quest motivated by a linear view of sound structure—we should be looking for cues that lead the perceiver to infer structures in which a boundary or a given stressed syllable are present. Clear analogs in music abound (e.g., harmonic cues to meter mean that a note can be structurally prominent without being louder or longer or otherwise acoustically salient). It is thus likely that our understanding of music should inform research on linguistic prosody rather than the reverse. The existence of abstract hierarchical structure in what is superficially a linear acoustic signal unfolding in time is a key aspect of what music and language share. Much the same is true of signed languages, though of course they are based on a stream of visible movements rather than an acoustic signal. These issues are relevant to the notion of duality of patterning: the building up of meaningful units (e.g., words) out of meaningless ones (e.g., phonemes). This is said to be a central design feature of language and may be absent from music and, for example, birdsong. However, the division between meaningful and meaningless elements is less sharp than it appears, and the fact that words are composed of phonemes is arguably just a special case of the pervasive abstract hierarchical structure of language. If this view can be upheld, the issue of whether music exhibits duality of patterning can be seen as the wrong question, along with the question of whether birdsong is more like phonology or more like syntax. Instead, it suggests that, evolutionarily, music and language are both built on the ability to assemble elements of sound into complex patterns, and that what is unique about human language is that this elaborate combinatoric system incorporates compositional referential semantics. Published in the Strungmann Forum Reports Series.

Keywords:   phonetics, phonology, prosody, linguistic sound systems, compositional referential semantics

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