The forest for the trees – or, what is the point of phonemes?

I have recently started re-reading Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, and (as ever) a conversation on Twitter has prompted this little ramble. I’m going to quote a lot of Watts, I’m afraid. Early in Chapter 1, he says this:

The task of education is to make children fit to live in a society by persuading them to learn and accept its codes – the rules and conventions of communication whereby the society holds itself together. There is first the spoken language. The child is taught to accept ‘tree’ and not ‘boojum’ as the agreed sign for that (pointing to the object). We have no difficulty in understanding that the word ‘tree’ is a matter of convention. What is less obvious is that convention also governs the delineation of the thing to which the word is assigned. For the child has to be taught not only what words are to stand for what things, but also the way in which his culture has tacitly agreed to divide things from each other, to mark out the boundaries within our daily experience.

(NB as a Zen Buddhist, he doesn’t really think this is what education should be; he is commenting on how it appears to him to work in practice)

Rather than seeing ‘tree’ as your unit of definition, it’s possible (actually, maybe, more accurate) to imagine conceptualizing a whole forest as the complete organism, which then consists of parts: soil, roots, mycelium, understorey, canopy, fauna. In fact the view that a tree is a separate ‘thing’ is, ecologically speaking, rather problematic.

As with trees, so with words. This lovely study, by Amanda Seidl at Purdue University, looked at how babies learn to separate the sounds of words as discrete units of meaning:

“Parents may pause before saying an infant’s name, but they almost never do so for other words. This research explored whether touches could help infants to find where words begin and end in the continuous stream of speech. They need to find words before they can attach real meaning to their words,” Seidl said. “Because names of body parts are often the first words that babies learn and touching is often involved when caregivers talk about body parts, we speculated that touch could act as a cue to word edges.”

That is, babies may learn to distinguish words from the actual flow of sounds via the tickling of their toes.

Watts’ paragraph above continues:

Scientific convention decides whether an eel shall be a fish or a snake,and grammatical convention determines what experiences shall be called objects and what shall be called events or actions. How arbitrary such conventions may be can be seen from the questions, ‘What happens to my fist [noun-object] when I open my hand?’ The object miraculously vanishes because an action was disguised by a part of speech usually assigned to a thing! In English the differences between things and actions are clearly, if not always logically, distinguished, but a great number of Chinese words do duty for both nouns and verbs – so that one who thinks in Chinese has little difficulty in seeing that objects are also events, that our world is a collection of processes rather than entities.

So… my point is that yes, as many have said, the concept of the phoneme is an abstract one, an imposition upon the flow of sound which really makes up human speech. But then so too, in its way, is the concept of the word.

The separation of words in text is something that we take for granted – but many cultures in the past did not do this, and a few still do not do so today. To what extent are the unseparated words less conceptually separate, I wonder? (Or possibly more so, if no visual divider is needed?)

Just as babies need help separating words from the flow of speech, so new readers need help separating the chunks of sound that make up words. Current phonics practice is only one way of doing this, but in order to understand the mechanics of our language, it’s a pretty good starting point (as long as the words worked on are real ones, of course). The phoneme is an artificial distinction – but then, according to Alan Watts, so is everything else we think we can see.

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One thought on “The forest for the trees – or, what is the point of phonemes?

  1. I think I have found the answer to my question, “are phonemes innate?”

    The answer, of course, is “no”. The sensitivity that babies have to sounds in the womb is not the phonemes (segments) of the langauge.

    Professor Marilyn Vihman explains in her book “Phonological Developments: The First Two Years”. On page 114 she writes
    ‘Infants gain experience with speech already in the womb. This gives a natural priority to prosody. The liquid medium of the foetus masks the high frequencies needed for segment discrimination and thus affords familiarity with characteristics of the native-language rhythm and intonation, although not with its segments.”

    The rest of Professor Vihman’s book explains how babies acquire language as they learn to talk and communicate.

    However, as you say in the blog, children do need to learn about phonemes when they come to read and write. They do need to learn how speech is broken down into the phonemes which correspond to the letters they see and they write. They have to learn how to abstract these from the stream of speech. Otherwise, what would the letters relate to?

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