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Status of the Concept of “Phoneme” in Psycholinguistics Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jan 15th, 2022


In this article, the authors venture to discuss the statuses of the concept of phoneme in the realms of psycholinguistics. The discussion relies on the scientific methods of description, understanding and mode of explanation. The authors vividly assert that the article does not rest to describe the notion in direct relationship with the psycholinguistics in which the subject of psycholinguistics is not considered as a sub-domain of theoretical linguistics (Jacobson, Taylor & Waugh, 2002).

The main agenda of the article is to give an elaborate clarification of the notion of ‘phoneme’ while discussing some of the major arguments aimed at illuminating upon the subject of study. In this paper, I seek to summarize the article in the view of its purpose and position of the authors. Additionally, I shall identify, and clarify the various academic literatures relating to the subject of ‘phoneme’ in a bid to illustrate different views generated toward the study concept (Jacobson, Taylor & Waugh, 2002).

Article Summary

Uppstad and Tonnessen (2010) have extensively discussed the concept of ‘phoneme’ while giving varied literatures that review the notion. In their analysis of the concept, Upstad and Tonnesssen (2010) vividly demonstrate the controversial state of the concept in relation to its position within the theoretical application of psycholinguistics. Firstly, they note and discus the controversial notion of phoneme citing its blurriness in the context of phonology. To begin with, they revisit the Jakobson et al argument about the place and space occupied by the concept in language structure (Uppstad & Tonnessen 2010, pp. 2).

Upstad and Tonnesssen (2010) commences from the Jakobsonian revelation of the primordial features that define the term. They note that the Jakobsonian assertions yield multiple insights into the notion in at least two ways. These two insights concern the fact that assertions come in the wake of departure from the theoretical foundations of the argument and that his use of the concept of language structure instead of phonology that blurs the meaning of the concept (Jacobson, Taylor & Waugh, 2002). The article reveals that even though the Jakobsonian belief remains structural in approach, the position finds relevance in relation to the status and the disguised meaning of phoneme in behavioral studies.

In spite of the growing changes and advances in phonological studies, the term phoneme has always exhibited the meaning of sound structure that entails speech and writing with respect to interdisciplinary research. The authors remain critical to the preceding literatures that tend to question the existence of phoneme or lack of it. Instead, they opine that a genuine descriptive method of inquiry should emerge in order to justify their metrics of evaluation. To accomplish this task, the proposed method should be subjected to a strict evaluation concerning its purpose, as contrasted to the ontological entity.

Further, the article discusses the linguistic sign as an autonomous function in the context of grammar. According to Derwing (1973) and Newmeyer (1986), the term autonomous linguistics denotes a conception of language structures as abstract features. Although the traditional or historical linguistics appreciates this aspect of linguistics, the contemporary linguists develop mechanism to depart from this essence. In a bid to demonstrate their opposition, functional linguists propose that structure is a resultant feature of cognition and communication. However, the strict interdependence and relationship between the two aspects guarantees the significance of both in respect of linguistic growth. According to the authors’ belief, structural functional linguists concern themselves with “iconicity” or the inevitable separation of the form and function in the context of grammar.

According to the article, structuralism and generativists believe that the divisions of langue-parole and competence performance sustain the autonomy of phoneme. The authors note that difficulty of justifying that grammar and acquisition of grammar are different from the lexicon in relation to abstract sense of phoneme.

In the article, the status of phoneme in psycholinguistics receives its classification as vague while the classification maintains that the concept is a mere prototype of the language mechanism.

The authors hold that the phenomena can only be undertaken through an explanation, but not a conclusive understanding of its meaning and place within the realms of psycholinguistics and behavioral studies.

On examining the association as a fundamental element of non-arbitrary linguistic sign, the authors clearly identifies the explanatory boundaries, description, and understanding necessary for categorization of sound in practical studies of human behavior. This, according to the authors, concerns primarily with the nature of phonetics (Dixon & Aikhenvald, 2002).

Critical Reflections

Uppstad and Tonnessen (2010) approaches the controversial concept of phoneme from a critical perspective as contrasted to the outright and common criticism applied by other theorists. Firstly, they believe that the concept of phoneme occupies an equally significant position in relation to psycholinguistics. Ideally, they conjure that the efforts to explain the existence or lack of existence of phoneme obscures the real discourse to examine its status. Instead, they propose that the approach should devise the best descriptive methods whose fundamental purpose should be evaluated to determine its ability to judge the substance of phoneme.

Although the abstractness of the concept is rife in as far as its acquisition and use is concerned, it is critical in noting its relevance in behavioral studies. Form the ongoing analysis of the contrasting elements of phoneme, I fully content with the authors’ criticality of the inevitable misconception of the term. However, to seek an elaborate description of the word remains more feasible as compared to the struggle for understanding of the concept of phoneme. Uppstad and Tonnessen (2010) propose that phoneme is a concept that derives from a poor explanatory power. However, I agree with their recognistion of the fact that the assertion does not demonstrate departure from the categorical characteristic of language.

It is a worth critical statement asserted by the authors that there should be a distinction between the process of describing, explaining, and understanding and not separation of the three aspects. Although descriptions are sheer hypotheses, some descriptive mechanisms may be essential especially when evaluated against how well they serve the purpose (Dixon & Aikhenvald, 2002). I tend to agree with the authors’ notion that development of language does not entail a movement from signal to symbol, but instead advancement from language to language.

The conception of mapping the form onto the concept of meaning fails to justify its aim in entirety. This assertion derives from the premise that the process is only justifiable where language is conceived as mere symbolic structures instead of an associative complex of various elements that unite to form it (Dixon & Aikhenvald, 2002). Stemming from this assertion, language structures should follow the idea of constructions to serve the objectives of behavioral studies, but not an abstract of overt behavior of a language.


  1. Dixon, R. M. W., & Aikhenvald, A. Y. (2002). Word: A cross-linguistic typology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Jacobson, R., Taylor, M., & Waugh, L. R. (2002). The sound shape of language (3rd ed.). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
  3. Uppstad, P. H. & Tonnessen, F. E. (2010). The Status of the Concept of ‘Phoneme’ in Psycholinguistics. Journal of psycholinguistic Research, 39: 429–442.
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