June 11, 2006

Near mergers and the end of the minimal pair

I'm reading Labov's Principles of Language Change (Volume 1:Internal Factors and Volume 2:Social Factors) and I've come across something absolutely fascinating and totally contradictory to what they teach in Linguistics 101.

First, a little background for non-linguists. Linguistics started out in the reconstruction of language change - what's usually called historical linguistics today. One common phenomenon in language change is called the phonetic merger, where two sounds that used to be different become indistinguishable. Five hundred years ago, the words meet and meat were pronounced very differently, which is why they're still spelled differently. Then, the vowels in the middle merged in sound at some point. This can be tested with a minimal pair test: If you say "meat" or "meet" in isolation, or in a sentence where either word could be used, people can't tell the difference.

Now, when two sounds merge, they sound the same. The general understanding is that this is a one way process: two words that sound the same never, ever start to sound different. Or at least, that's what I was taught. Turns out this isn't exactly true.

Labov talks about something called the near-merger, where two sounds become so alike that listeners can't tell them apart, but using recordings and frequency measurements, a computer can still tell them apart. As an example, he shows that New Yorkers can't hear any difference between source from sauce in speech, but do clearly pronounce them differently. Labov implies that this might explain how line and loin, which sounded the same in the 18th century, have since become very different in most dialects of English - they never merged completely in the first place.

Now, I can think of a sociolinguistic explanation of how this kind of situation could exist and remain stable. Exposure to speakers of different dialects - one's that preserve larger distinctions - through media like TV could influence people's speech enough to retain a difference. But that difference might falls below the threshold of conscious comprehension. Furthermore, the inability of New Yorkers to consciously detect the difference between source and sauce doesn't mean that it doesn't contribute unconsciously to their ability to understand words in context.

However, I suspect that TV can't explain all cases of near-mergers.

The existence of near mergers undermines the idea that phonetic spelling systems can be easily constructed, as minimal pair tests may not reveal all real distinctions. Furthermore, it implicitly undermines the idea that language is a property of individuals, since this distinction relies on its social effect to persist. And, it really strikes hard at the notion that language can ever be modeled synchronically. Near-mergers only exist because of past distinctions, they can only be modeled in the light of the overt past distinction that they retain.

This is serious stuff.

I'm thinking, though, about whether the idea of a near-merger might apply to morphology and syntax. In morphology, I can think of one: gender in Dutch. Dutch no longer makes an overt distinction between masculine and feminine except in the choice of pronoun and the archaic ''te + dative'' construct. Yet, speakers are routinely capable of making masculine/feminine distinctions correctly. I thought the main reason was that so many people in Belgium speak dialects where the masculine/feminine distinction is still morphologically significant, but now I wonder. What if Dutch speakers who have never used anything other than the standard dialect were able to make those distinctions? Would this be the morphological analogy to a near-merger?

Labov has some other stuff that I think leads to interesting conclusions in creolistics, but that's a different post.

Posted 2006/06/11 18:31 (Sun)

Not quite on topic:

If you ever want to waste a few fruitless years, start studying the reconstructions of Old Chinese (and Proto-Sino-Tibetan).

Karlgren's book is about 50 years old and obviously obsolete, and there are at least five replacements on the table (Schuessler and another guy he cites, Chou Fa-gao and one or two people he cites, and Wang Li.) No way to choose.

I just want a usable tool, and there isn't one. If you look closely at Karlgren's reconstructions, you ask: "How did he get that?" I have no idea how he came up with all the initial distinctions, for example.

Nice to see you back!

Posted by: John Emerson at June 12, 2006 17:04

Thanks, I think I just needed something more important to avoid in order to start blogging again. :^)

As for Karlgren, I know he's come under a lot of criticism for his reconstructions. I studied the short version in Jerry Norman's book. It's hard enough just to be sure that there was a distinction, even harder to figure out exactly what it was. There comes a point where reconstruction is turning hamburgers into cows. I remember Norman talking about how unclear it is when Chinese became tonal - before the ninth century is all that anyone knows for sure - so I guess for Chinese, the ground beef limit is a bit sooner than for some other languages.

Posted by: Scott Martens at June 12, 2006 17:21

Criticizing Karlgren is easy, replacing him is hard.

Redoing his work on a phonemic basic might be a start. At least you could clean up the notation.

Then you might even go a step further back and group phonemes, so that [t] might stand for {t, d, d'} -- artificial example.

There really is a core of truth there, and in the cases of a lot of modern "shi" words you really need reconstruction, since all roads lead to "shi". Likewise, I'm confident until persuaded otherwise that they can roughly reconstruct vowels -- knowing that a given word is in one series rather than another.

But they've overrun their data and their science. AFAIK that's true of all of them.

Posted by: John Emerson at June 13, 2006 15:52

"Would this be the morphological analogy to a near-merger?"

Good point.

Posted by: Joerg Wenck at June 27, 2006 20:38
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