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In the short article on this webpage, the author provides an explanation of nasal variation in Spanish which makes use of an archiphoneme /N/. I put the relevant excerpt below. My question about this is relatively simple:

Is it terminologically correct to consider the [m n ɲ] as as allophones of /N/?

What the phonologist would say, then, is that in Spanish the /m/ ~ /n/ ~ /ɲ/ distinction is suspended or neutralized before a consonant. In this case we posit a so-called archiphoneme, which subsumes all of the nasal phonemes when the distinction or opposition between them is neutralized. The symbol for the nasal archiphoneme is /N/. For example, the words campo, cantar and ancho would be transcribed phonemically as /kaNpo/, /kaNtaɾ/ and /aNtʃo/ respectively. Their phonetic transcriptions would be [kampo], [kantaɾ] and [aɲtʃo].

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That would not be an example of the relationship "correct", since you're posing the question without a specific theoretical context, e.g. "Blochian phonemics" vs. "Generative phonology". The classic and standard (though not historically earliest) taxonomic understanding of the object of study is that "phoneme" is a grouping relation on surface phones, where if phoneme /X/ is defined as the set [w,x,y] then the content of /X/ is all and only the instances of [w], [x] or [y]. It is a requirement that the distribution of [w,x,y] not overlap, w.r.t. context that they appear in. Since the cited usage of "allophone" does not respect that condition, that would not be a correct application of the terminology.

However, I don't think the above-mentioned classical characterization has been actually believed in for a number of decades, and the page does correctly reflect the more modern understanding of phoneme and allophone where a "phoneme" is an item that can appear in underlying forms, and an allophone is an item that can only appear in surface forms.

When there are competing definitions of terms, it would be misleading to say that a given use of the terminology is "correct", if it is only correct assuming one definition. If a usage is at odds with all definitions then we can say that it is incorrect, and if a usage turns out to be consistent with all definitions then we can say that it is correct. In the present mixed-bag situation, the most you can say is that it is possible -- depending on what definition you're assuming.

The reason why people point back to the definitions of the 40's is that they represent the pinnacle of axiomatic, formal thinking on the topic.

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  • Thanks for the very clear answer. Assuming then, for some other scenario, that a given language has an archiphoneme. Is it accurate to think of the different phonemes with which it is realized as "allophones" in contemporary phonological theory? – Teusz Nov 25 '15 at 15:56
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    I'd say that is a typical contemporary view: "allophone" means specifically "surface realization" and "phoneme" simply means "segment that can be underlyingly present". The term "archiphoneme" is out of style, but the notion and typography aren't. – user6726 Nov 25 '15 at 16:21
  • So these days, archiphonemes are out of style - the phenomena more typical these days is what, an under specified phoneme or..? – Teusz Nov 26 '15 at 13:59
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    The core concept is still in style, it's just the term that's out of fashion. The differences between underspecified segment and "archiphoneme" are minimal and reflect changing ontological assumptions. – user6726 Nov 26 '15 at 17:06
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    An underspecified segment has no underlying specification for the property in question, but is otherwise the same kind of thing as an actual surface segment. An archiphoneme is a particular relationship between classes of surface instances of segments – it's a label attached to a set of segments, not a segment itself. – user6726 Nov 27 '15 at 21:29

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