'Each natural language has a finite number of phonemes (or letters in its alphabet) and each sentence is represented as a finite sequence of these phonemes (or letters).' Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures
Segments, more specifically phonemic segments, are, it is widely believed, what alphabetic letters encode. However, alphabetic writing has been cited as evidence both for the psychological reality of segments (Cohn 2001: 198) and for the view that segments are a mere project (Morais et. al. 1979). The argument cuts either way. How would it be possible to encode speech as a sequence of discrete graphical elements (letters) unless there were corresponding units in the mental representation of language?! (...)
Phonologists define segments as ensembles of distinctive features referring to manner and place of articulation. These features are the cornerstone of phonological theory. Their combinations yield segments called 'phones' when they are not viewed as elements of a particular language. (...)
The production of phonetic features in connected speech extends over a period of time, starting before a segment begins and coming to an end only after it has been terminated (Günther 1988: 15). Where, then is the segment? According to Pierce (1992:384), 'one common intuition about talking is that we proceed by emitting a sequence of discrete articulation, rather like the letters of an alphabet'. It is quite common to equate segments with the letters of the alphabet in this manner, as witnessed, for instance, in the quote by Noam Chomsky at the beginning of this chapter. However, over the past several decades, phonologists have moved away from the segment, since they were not able to discern it in speech signal. Inspection of phonetic reality (connected speech) has not revealed segments corresponding to discrete phonemes (corresponding in turn to discrete graphemes), because articulators - that is, the physical organs of speech production - work continuously, exhibiting, at any point, the influence of the preceding and following sound. There is hence broad agreement that 'it is impossible, in general, to disarticulate phonological representation into a string of non-overlapping units' (Prince 1992:386). This is a real problem, for how shall we interpret letters as overlapping units? The problem disappears if, for descriptive purposes, we accept a model of language where there is a phonemic level, at which discrete segments are lined up one after another, as in writing.
All attempts to prove that speech actually works on the basis of principles determining the sequential organization of discrete segments have failed. At the same time, Chomsky's above-quoted statement that, on abstract level, speech is represented in terms of finite sequences of segments in indisputable. As a matter of fact, description of this sort have been highly successful. But a good description of an object need not be isomorphic with it. (...) In like manner we must not confuse a segmental description of speech with the speech itself. In a sense, alphabetic orthographies can be understood as descriptions of their respective languages, but in any event the relationship between sequences of alphabetic letters and speech is never a one-to-one mapping relation. It is complex in both directions, and, as any description, hinges on a certain point of view highlighting some aspects at the expense of others.
Alphabetically written words can be read and can be pronounced, even words like chlororophenpyridamine. The pronounceability of alphabetic words rests on a process known as 'phonological recording', that is, the transformation of mental representations of sequences of letters into mental representations of sequences of sounds. A great deal of reading research deals with the question of whether and to what extent phonological recording is necessary for reading alphabetic texts, a problem to which we will return in chapter 9. For present purposes suffice it to note the obvious fact that alphabetic texts can be given a phonetic interpretation, they can be read aloud. While this is true of all writing, more or less, it is widely assumed that in alphabetic writing this rests on the fact that each letter represents a sound. The question then is, what sound?
note: There are some words in our own language we don't know for sure how to pronouce or there are more than one acceptable pronounciation.
As pointed out above, the prime candidate, the phonetic segment or phone, has proven to be elusive. Phonologists have recourse to a more abstract unit, the phoneme defined as a phone which fulfils a meaning-differentiating function in a given language. Although there are problems with the phoneme, too, many phonologists continue to use this concept, telling us, for example, that on average languages have 22.8 consonants phonemes and 8.7 vowel phonemes. Maddieson (1984) reports these figures on the basis of studying 317 languages. While he found that they differed on a large scale in their sound inventories, distinguishing between a poor 6 and a luxurious 95 consonants and between an equally disparate 3 and 46 vowels, this is clearly an order of magnitude altogether different from that of words, morphemes and syllables, however counted. In this regard, Cicero's (106-43 BCE) Latin was a plain-vanilla language. With 28 phonemes it is pretty close to the average. What this means is that in sound pattern of first-century Latin we find 28 important contrasts that are systematically used to differentiate meaning. A contrast is not the same as a unit, although this distinction is often ignored. Consider, for example, the following definition.
Segmental phoneme: a consonant and vowel sound of a language that functions as a recognizable, discrete unit in. To have phonemic value, a difference in sound must function as a distinguishing element marking a difference in meaning or identity. (Ives, Bursuk and Ives 1979:253)
The difference between a unit and a contrast is often glossed over like this because our inability to pin down the segment can thus be concealed. It is, however, possible to give every contrast a name, say a letter, which is then used to mark it. This kind of relationship between phonological distinctions and letters has often been interpreted as meaning that 'the purpose of alphabetic orthographies is to represent and convey phonologic structures in a graphic form' (Frost 1992: 255). Who, if anybody, stipulated this purpose is unknown. If orthographies have a purpose it is to encode and retrieve linguistic meaning in a graphic form. To represent and convey phonological structure is at best a means to that end, which is of no interest to anyone except linguistic. Instead of assuming a purpose at all it seems more prudent to consider an alphabetic orthography as a possible interpretation or description of the phonological structures of a language, and not usually an ideal one for that matter, if by ideal we mean being parsimonious and as simple as possible.
(...) In Johnson's day, a letter was a thing with three attributes, a name (nomen), a graphical form (figura) and a power (potestas), that is, its pronunciation. Form and name relatively unproblematic, but the power was 'vague and unsettled'.
Uncertainty and polyvalence
This uncertainty has three aspects. One is that, even assuming that each letter of the Latin alphabet was interpreted as a phoneme, these interpretations were clear only as contrasts, that is within the system of Latin phonology as reflection in spelling. Secondly, some uncertainty is bound to arise whenever the letters whose phonetic correspondences are defined with respect to the relevant contrast of one language are applied to another where at least some of the contrasts are different. There is no complete congruence. Finally, there is the uncertainty of which contrast are relevant in the hitherto unwritten language and how they should be marked.
Over time, the gap between spelling and pronunciation is bound to widen in alphabetic orthographies, as spoken forms change and written forms are retained. Many of the so-called 'silent' letters in French can be explained in this way. Catach (1978:65) states that 12.83 per cent of letters are mute letters in French, that is, letters that have no phonetic interpretation whatever. Many of them once had phonetic counterparts that, by regular processes of sound change, have been effaced. (...)
Another historical factor that undermined simplicity and cross-linguistic uniformity in sound-letter correspondences of the Latin alphabet has to do with the gradual reversal of the relationship between speech and writing. 'How shall I write this word?' used to be the initial question where the application of the Latin alphabet to an unwritten language was at issue. As time went by, it was superseded by the question 'How shall I pronounce this word?' (...) writing had become an agent of linguist change, transcending its role as a means of expression. The image become the model.
Some linguists consider that this is an inevitable consequence of writing, as, for example, the title of Kenneth Pike's 1947 book suggests: Phonemics: A Technique for Reducing Languages to Writing. Phonemes are here seen in direct correlation with alphabetic writing, which, from Pike's point of view, is a reduction, an abstraction, rather than a neutral and faithful representation. A letter is a stabilizer, something like a catalyst, which introduces shape where in phonic reality is flux. It is worth nothing that this is a problem not just of description, but of standardization and the power of a fixed norm. Writing by means of letters that supposedly represent sounds fosters an awareness of the necessity to settle on a variety embodying the canonical form of the language in question.
Sound features such as stress and pitch are essential parts of utterances, but the Latin alphabet provides no means of encoding them. These features are called 'suprasegmentals' because they do not occur before or after, but together with other vowels and sonorants. They relate not to segments but to syllables and sometimes larger units.
The Latin alphabet is the most widely used script of all time. Its simplicity and elegance as the writing system of the Latin language suggests universal applicability on the basis of the common principle of segmentation. More than any other script it is associated with the idea of the sound segment.