Linguistic Society of America

What Symbols Shall We Use? Author(s): Leonard Bloomfield and George Melville Bolling Reviewed work(s): Source: Language, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Jun., 1927), pp. 123-129 Published by: Linguistic Society of America Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/408965 . Accessed: 29/12/2011 05:13
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Jespersen Idg. and in evidence too are its harmful consequences. historians and critics of literature. 2 0. Phonetic Transcription and Transliteration. and for its work the ideal medium is viva vocecommunication. 1926. Conference Proposals of the Copenhagen April 1925.2 The fact is all too evident. etc. 123 .WHAT SYMBOLS SHALL WE USE? LEONARD BLOOMFIELD GEORGE MELVILLE BOLLING OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY The material of Linguistic Science is human utterance. Now to make a record that will permit an absolutely perfect reproduction of the utterance is. the fact that our science is too esoteric. Then too. There can at most be only question of an approximation. then. must seek to hold this transitory phenomenon-to make an artificial record of it for re-examination. of course. For it the best device is undoubtedly a phonograph. did not factors of time and space greatly restrict its applicability. Rather. this would be the case. What is true of the field-worker is obviously true in a still higher degree of his less fortunately situated colleagues. but both its cost and cumbersomeness render its use for many purposes inadvisable.). Pedersen. Forsch 7.. and H. To show that we are at present far from attaining such a use needs no reference to old articles on Transkriptionsmisdrelnor any account of the recent Copenhagen Conference. modern methods of printing and the rising cost of printers' labor 'Brugmann. Oxford. beyond his or any human power. and our problem is to make of them the best possible use.167-77 (1897). etc. written symbols are a necessity. For all linguists. and that its effect in wider circles is practically nil. Human utterance is so fleeting that even the field-worker placed most fortunately as he is in the immediate presence of his material. that it repels instead of attracting many who should be its closest friends (practical teachers of languages. students of ancient life. Of these may be mentioned first. and thus even the field-worker is forced to fall further back upon a much older device-upon a system of graphic symbols as substitute stimuli for speech reactions.

have to put up with their consequences as best we can. In dealing with it we have a freer hand and a more difficult problem. if we so willed it. of course. a voiced velar spirant. The symbol j has a much shorter and more varied history (jest. controlled largely by the native speech-habits of the inventor. So far as we recall. Now if the complication and costliness of our present methods are inherent in the nature of our science. The present writers. however. jamais. BLOOMFIELD AND G. to substitute a or 6 were heresy. we shall. say. M. combined with the conveniences: . As linguists we all know that symbols are symbols. ja). The habit of symbolizing unvoiced labial stops by p (we ignore matters of interest to the palaeographer) has a history running back for some three thousand years. Yet we act as if the symbol p for instance. but positively harmful to it. the queer-shaped letters and the diacritic marks. We are rapidly reaching the point where linguistic matter is so expensive to print that the claim of our science upon the economic resources of society does not suffice. The special conventions of our science. or dictated perhaps by a passion for an illusory 'accuracy'. we cannot afford to print at private expense. the symbol has never been used for any other purpose. They have sprung up almost before our eyes in a haphazard fashion. could not perfectly well symbolize. are convinced that these habits of ours are not only unessential to our work. No! p is p! And o with a tail under it is an open o-sound (does that mean a lower or a looser articulation?) or a nasalized o as the case may be.124 L. or any other sound. The cause is a blind clinging to tradition. Now our tradition is made up of many items. without any mystic tie between themselves and the thing symbolized. watermight perfectly well mean 'milk' and milk mean 'water'. This will make itself felt in the concrete instance in various ways: publishers cannot afford to buy our manuscripts. BOLLING are making our present procedure a costly luxury. We laugh at the peasant who says: 'bread is bread everywhere. inventions to meet a momentary need. are but creations of yesterday. but they call it pain in France'. our journals must grow smaller and fewer. To tamper with a convention of that sort would be madness. nor have such sounds been represented by any other symbol in systems based on the Greco-Roman alphabet. The same series of sounds gvetas can (and does) mean either 'white' or 'black'. and there is no likelihood that any scientist will propose to do so. and these vary in strength and serviceableness. matters of convention. The first source of our difficulties is an unwillingness to draw the practical conclusions from a fact which we would admit in theory.

WHAT SYMBOLS SHALL WE USE 125 of a particular printer. That means the necessity always of choosing what we shall symbolize and what we shall leave unindicated. vowel-length is marked in OE. ON. No series of human speech-sounds can be represented exactly and completely by any system of written symbols-not even by one so complicated as the Lepsius or the Anthropos alphabet.3 and the American Anthropological Association decided against it in a similar case. 145-61 (1907). always there is question only of more or less exactness. even with some that appear the most sacrosanct. Brugmann. OI by an acute accent. but has to form new habits for half a dozen or more unfamiliar languages. SSmithsonian Misc. An approximation is always the best that can be done. Gram. a and s-may become a shibboleth.6. At best they are inspired by considerations which are palaeographic. Yet these are probably the very conventions to which we cling the most tenaciously. indeed. However. a procedure as irrelevant to our purposes as would be reproducing the shapes of the letters in which these languages were written. not to mention the fact that. From such a principle the only possible outcome is a hodge-podge wherein one symbol represents divers phenomena. A proposal therefore to break with some of our traditions. Sometimes even such a basis is surprisingly narrow. and still the convention-cf. 1. Hirt had the wisdom to protest against the principle. The other great source of our trouble is the habit of cluttering up our pages with queer-looking symbols in our efforts to attain an 'accuracy' that is an illusion. but in OHG by an apex. and the same phenomenon is symbolized in various ways. 112-19 (1927). . for instance. as the 'traditions' are far from uniform-witness the transliteration of Sanskrit-further readjustments are required as soon as the student turns from Brugmann to another author. Idg. and in doing this we must be guided 3 IF 21. rather than linguistic-as when. 66. Coll.4 Only by following in the way these scholars have led can we ever attain to self-consistency-the first requirement to be made of any system of symbols. The result is that the reader of the Grundriss is accommodated in his own field. need not be regarded as peculiarly appalling. laid it down as a principle that we must do so: that for each language we must adhere to the tradition as developed by students of that language. It is that we can adapt ourselves to changes in our symbols with almost kaleidoscopic rapidity. one valuable lesson may be gained from our experience with the system of transcription in the Grundriss.

for instance) the traditional spelling even in a language written as unphonetically as English is the most serviceable form. say. hair. also Propos. Our seven diphthongs. Jones. poor. M. puwr. involve certain automatic variations of the vowels and of the semivowels. all it can do. cf. however. Nevertheless they can be most intelligibly and plainly recorded in the same symbols as [nijr. 14-5 where it is rather implied. commenting. 6 For this distinction. BLOOMFIELD AND G. sigh.. of the Copenh. These variations cannot profitably be indicated by separate characters. haw]. so that near. . we cannot do better than [sij. tangled things to the point where phoneticians misunderstand and disbelieve each other. perhaps unintentionally. But the striving for an illusion of accuracy has done worse than clutter our pages. 8-9 where the possibility of such an understanding is excluded explicitly. Int. saj. is to confuse him. hajr. hejr. So far as symbolism goes. For many of them (syntactic discussions. that 'narrow' and 'scientific' transcription are always to be identified. In the former passage the point of real interest was that 'broad' transcriptions suffice for most practical purposes. Phon. . and it will do it.Conf.126 L. until today nobody knows where he stands or what his neighbor's record may mean..-March 1927). it has actually kept back our knowledge. Maitre Phondtique 5 (Jan. dowr. cf.' Yet every speaker of Western American will bear out Kenyon's point. awr] with the differences which go hand in hand with the following [r] stated to a certain extent in words. bearing in mind that there is no sacrifice of scientific accuracy-no compromising with our professional conscience-in choosing between a 'narrow' and a 'broad' transcription. boy. and (we may add) for many scientific ones. Before [r] these diphthongs suffer certain automatic changes. go. as in see. sej. do. boj.' A superfluous complication of the symbols cannot reproduce the sounds for a reader unfamiliar with the language. how. For instance the fairly simple matter of the diphthongs and their variants before [r] in the Western ('General') American type of pronunciation has been confused by attempts to be 'phonetically accurate'. door. hire. D. The trouble is merely in the pedantic and irrelevant symbolism which we all use. We have. on an article of Kenyon's: can exist 'We find it difficult to believe that two kinds of [c] and an [me] as three separate phonemes in any language . duw. the best we can do is to tell about them in our text. Princ. hour differ rather strikingly from the preceding series. BOLLING by the purposes we have in hand. Ass. gow. we must ask ourselves how much. When more is needed.

men] and son. saw [son. in part support each other. and lip-rounding play no distinctive part in our simple vowels.e. For these. to adapt ourselves quickly. following the Principles of the International Phonetic Association (London 1912) we shall use [e.WHAT SYMBOLS SHALL WE USE 127 Our speech has. Here the attempt to be irrelevantly 'exact' has actually deceived us about the linguistic facts. There is then nothing strange about our diphthongs and simple vowels: may [mej] sow. so]. This is all that is needed. sun saw man [men] [so] nor about their. by their very inconsistency. length. . If we use the Latin letters [e] and [o] for the higher vowels. two levels of mid vowels. We wish then to be easily intelligible and economical. Italian. At least they have trained us. the latter occurring only and always after non-palatalized consonants. without conformity to our bad habits of recording and in particular to our habits of recording other types of English. as in men. we shall need two extra symbols. son and man. so [sow] men [men] [son] son. I The fact that this writing ultimately rests upon conditions of an earlier state of the language is here irrelevant. saw. [b'it'] beat. in part altered. for tenseness. Hence we should use a single symbol in ['igo] yoke. war [war] before vowel. wore [howrs.' leads us to attribute to Russian a six-vowel system. Russian has a fivevowel system: the high-front vowel and the high-back or high-mixed vowel are merely variants of a single phoneme. and need not be symbolized. and many another. [bit'] be (back vowel). ends that in part oppose. 6 In Western American. To take a simpler case. man [men. horse [has]. sew. GMB. By giving up a pedantic and irrelevant distinction we lose nothing in communicative value (for the preceding symbol for an unpalatalized consonant suffices to distinguish the back vowel) but we actually gain in the accuracy with which the phonetic system is reproduced. appearance before [r] :6 Mary [mejrij] hoarse. like French. wowr] horse merry [merij] [hors] war marry [merij] [wor] Jones would not have been incredulous had the matter been presented in this way. i. ] writing men. wore. my own dialect (chiefly Southern) differs for the back series: hoarse. (front vowel) and ('pod igo) under the yoke. 'accuracy' combined (let us confess it) with the influence of traditional writing. The need is to re-examine in the light of these purposes our traditions to see how far they may profitably be changed.

the latter can then be used for translations.9 In making such readjustments advantage should be taken of the opportunity to iron out inconsistencies like those that have arisen in IE grammar from the principle of adhering to v Irious (and unstable) traditions. 130-56. for instance can be distinguished better by different letters (small than by tails or dots under one (and sometimes both!) capitals. and very strongly against any with more. Variations in these can be used to distinguish (where needed) 'broad' and 'narrow' transcription. This applies chiefly to new needs and to particular emergencies that may arise. They entail a duplication of equipment in special symbols and serve only purposes that are essentially ornamental. the number of type required mounts rapidly. the solution will be found by regarding the next two suggestions. bold-face for stressed vowels. or what not. one. In a system employing such symbols. including capitals and 2) That small capitals together with italic and bold-face types. Foreign words in Roman type stand out as well as in italics. etc.8 and their cost becomes prohibitive. oa letters. italic. But even among these are many whose right to a continued existence should be scrutinized closely.00 for the equipment. 9 To illustrate: symbols such as [o' ] (high long oral) and [o. ] (low short nasalized). Linguistic forms can (as far as necessary) be set off from each other and from the surrounding text by brackets. or to avoid one set at least of diacritics: higher and lower vowel-types. transliteration. 9-11. More frequently. or three of these six diacritics with the five vowels is 210. and their cost is practically negligible. and will cost well over $1000. etc. however. LANGUAGE we use to the utmost Latin letters. 8 If only five vowel letters and only six diacritics be used. BOLLING We would suggest to our fellow-workers as general principles: 1) That we abandon our present conventions in the use of Roman. When all that these marks indicate must be indicated. For a specimen of such printing. BLOOMFIELD AND G. two. In general the presumptions are against any symbol with two marks above or below the letter. will express as much as the troublesome combinations mentioned in the preceding note.g..128 L. dashes. italics for 'emphatic' consonants. it can be calculated that the possible combinations of zero. the solution will often be to put the diacritics after or before the letter. Only where these do not reach should we have recourse to other alphabets and to diacritic marks. Diacritic marks that are well-known and already in the printers' stock are not to be recklessly discarded. etc. . 3. e. The equipment thus released becomes automatically available for real work: e. M. and bold-face type. see 1.

The history of our science. by blind accident. has trained us to great flexibility in responding to symbols. The gain in elegance (in the mathematician's sense) will repay us for whatever nostalgia may result. the long-sign will suffice. We know today that no purpose was served by those who wrote the Irish symbol instead of g in OE. as when we employ the same symbol p for the surd labial stops of both French and English in spite of their easily noticeable differences. let us take advantage of this flexibility. Once we take advantage of the purely external character of our symbols and learn to make them do what we want. If our diphthongs are much altered before [r] the [r] will symbolize this. If [o'] and [o] represent tense. Periodical . rpe"avs? If in German the long vowels are tense and the short vowels loose. that is no reason why [o] may not represent a loose vowel in German or a loose. presumably because the sound was a spirant. To the present writers it seems that these suggestions should be the more welcome. we convince ourselves that more is demanded by the purpose in hand. Who would wish for different symbols for the I's in E little. inverted v. not for college students.WHAT SYMBOLS SHALL WE USE 129 3) That we recognize frankly the will-o'-the-wisp nature of the effort to assign a separate symbol to each variety of sound. neither for them nor for other readers is anything gained by diacritics. the door will be open for uniformityuniformity as between different languages and as between different scholars. and that always before we indicate more. a once-for-all statement will suffice. or for the sibilants in Gr. We are all working with Roman numerals and deceiving ourselves by attaching costly flourishes. But at other times we become too rigid. unrounded vowel in English. articles are written for scholars. For those"' who do not know these facts. 10 The existence of such persons is not to be assumed too lightly. now that we need to free ourselves from the magic of symbolism. In part we do recognize this. 4) That normally we symbolize only phonemes (distinctive features) so far as we can determine them. but of greatly enhancing its power by giving it a suppler and more abstract symbolism. let us stop discussion of the flourishes and adopt the Arabic digits. rounded vowels in French. or similar devices of the grimoire. because they lie in the direction not of crippling our science.