Phonology in Course In General Linguistics – Ferdinand de Saussure (Continued)

Two weeks ago, I delved into the basics of phonology with Ferdinand de Saussure’s book, Course In General Linguistics. I concluded that discussion with a mention of the division of spoken language into smaller components, and I will continue it here today. I strongly recommend reading my previous post before delving into today’s more technical description.

As we have already established, the first units obtained when the spoken chain is split are made up of b and b’ (auditory beat and articulatory beat). The sums of these two components are phonemes, and they represent the very basis of phonological study. Phonemes are like the links of the spoken chain, tying together verbal expressions. Let’s say we have two phonemes, t and a, each representing a beat, or a unit of time. Their combination, ta, can be studied only together, as it represents one arrangement of a certain length followed by another: the moment where one starts and the other ends cannot be easily determined. This combination may represent a word. However, if we take a by itself, we can study it abstractly, outside of time. The isolated phoneme is like a singular sound.

Let me share a direct quote from Saussure that neatly summarizes why the division of spoken language into phonemes is important. He writes that “Having analyzed a sufficient number of spoken chains from different languages, the phonologist can identify and classify the moments with which each language operates. Then if he ignores acoustically unimportant variations, he will find that the number of species (moments) is not indefinite” (40). In other words, if enough languages are divided into all of their possible phonemes and minor differentiations are disregarded, patterns will start to become apparent, resulting in a finite series of phonemes that can be used to represent every spoken language on Earth.

Now Saussure’s writing shifts to the written representations of the many sounds that the human speaking apparatus can produce. I’ll use this diagram as a reference throughout my explanation.

Saussure begins by telling the reader that “In the mouth, the parts of the vocal apparatus that should be singled out are these: the lips 𝞪 and a; the tongue 𝞫 – 𝞬 (𝞫 designating the point and 𝞬 the rest) ; the upper teeth d; the palate, made up of the bony hard palate f-h in the front and the movable membrane or soft palate i in the back and, finally, the uvula δ” (41). It is worth noting that Greek letters represent organs active during articulation, while Latin letters represent passive organs. Saussure goes on, stating that “The glottis ε, made up of two parallel muscles or vocal cords, opens when the vocal cords are drawn apart and closes when they come together” (41). The glottis never fully closes during speech, but it switches between a wide-open and narrow position. When it is wide open, air passes freely, and no vibration is heard. Alternatively, when it is narrow, voicing occurs, and one’s vocal cords vibrate. The oral cavity also plays a large part in human speech. The jaw can puff out or draw in, and lip and tongue movements can contract or even close the cavity. 

The more mobile an organ is, the larger the role it plays in sound production. The larynx and nasal cavity function uniformly, but the oral cavity functions diversely, allowing it to have a wider variety of effects on sounds. Laryngeal sounds can be produced by tightening the vocal cords, but the larynx cannot produce varieties that allow us to separate and classify the sounds of language, so it is treated as invariable. Similarly, the nasal channel is just a resonator for vibrations; it does not function as a producer of sounds. The oral cavity is the producer of sound and a resonator, and its many components allow for the production of many different sounds. In summary, the factors of sound production include expiration (the duration of a sound), oral articulation, and vibration of the laryngeal sound.

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