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The American phonological School

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The London phonological School

The London School of Phonology was headed by Prof. Daniel Jones and represents the physical conception of the phoneme.

In his monograph “The Phoneme: its nature and use” Jones writes that the idea of the phoneme was first introduced to him in 1911 by Prof Scerba in Leningrad. He sticks to the original mentalistic definition of the phoneme but he finds it inconvenient for practical purposes. His definition of a phoneme is the following: phoneme is a family of sounds in a given language which are related in character and are used in such a way that no one member ever occurs in a word in the same phonetic context as any other member.

In his “An Outline of English Phonetics” he gives a similar definition: a phoneme is a family of sounds consisting of an important sound of the language together with other related sounds which take place in particular sound-sequences or under particular conditions of length or stress. He emphasizes the fact that different members of the same phoneme are mutually exclusive. For example, the [k] which is used in keep cannot be used in call where we use a labialized [k].

His theory of a phoneme may be called “atomistic”. He breaks up the phoneme into atoms and considers different features of phonemes as independent phenomena. He speaks of different qualities of the same phoneme as “phones”, a number of which forms the corresponding phoneme. He also speaks of different degrees of length as “chrones” which are combined into “chronemes” that are distinctive in a language, for example, the long and the short chronemes in English. In the same way he distinguishes tones and tonemes in tone languages and strones and stronemes (for different degrees of stress).

Length and tone have no importance without other sound features. They exist only in phonemes and all their characteristic features taken together make up a phoneme which is linguistically distinctive.

According to Jones, the problem of phonemes is connected with philosophy, so that a linguist cannot cope with it. His object is to give the phoneme a purely practical application: it is useful in teaching languages, in creating phonetic transcription.

The phoneme theory in America was headed by Edward Sepir and Leonard Bloomfield. It is characterized as structuralism. An American structuralism is based on behaviourism. The linguistic processes of the mind are unobservable. Our only information about the mind is derived from the behavior of the individual whom it inhabits. Another representative of this trend asserts : “Pattern is habit, structure is behavior, pattern is langue, structure is parole, pattern is culture, structure is behavioral manifestation of culture”.

Leonard Bloomfiled defines the phoneme as minimum unit of distinctive sound-feature, but W.F. Twaddell defines it as an abstractional fiction.

According to Ch.F. Hockett, language may be compared to any system of codes, such as the Morse code or transmission of messages by means of waving flags. These notions are characteristic of the Coperhagen school.

The American structuralists are frequently alluded to as “descriptivists”, because their treatment of phonetics is synchronic and descriptive. All the phenomena of language are analysed in their present condition without any connection with the history of the language.

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