Amazing phonology intro textbook

I just stumbled upon Bale & Reiss (2018)’s “Phonology: A Formal Introduction”. Although I’m not a phonologist, I took a quick look, only to find myself amazed by the title of the first chapter already: “Phonology and Theoretical Neuroscience”. Now that’s an opening! After a short few lines about how plural -s can sound different in different environments, it hits you right on the head with:

This distinction is an example of a phonological fact about your language. In this book we take the position that the study of such facts, the study of phonology, is a branch of cognitive science that ultimately can serve as a form of theoretical neuroscience.

I love it! I wish all my intro textbooks would have started like this: the Big Picture, the ultimate goal of what you actually study, to place linguistics unapologetically right at the center of cognitive science, making it clear that by studying such facts you actually study the human brain and thus linking phonology with neuroscience.

This suggestion, that phonology is relevant to theoretical neuroscience, might strike you as outrageous. However, once we consider that you had to use your mind to come up with the plural form for those previously unknown words, and that the mind is somehow closely related to the brain, our apparently controversial characterization of phonology becomes a platitude: our linguistic behavior, like all our behavior, is highly dependent on our mind/brain and thus ultimately has to be compatible with the correct theory of our brains.

However, they continue with complete honesty (and with a word of warning so to speak):

This is not to say we will be talking about neurotransmitters or networks of cells in this book. We wish we could; we wish phonology were at a stage where we could link our phonological knowledge to neurological states. Unfortunately it is not. No one has identified correspondences between linguistic “sounds” and neurological patterns. No one yet understands the correlations between a specific set of neurons firing and the representation of syllables, stress patterns, or tone, and it is not even clear that this is the right kind of correlation to look for. The study of the relationship between the activity in the brain and language, or in fact any other kind of cognition, is in its infancy. However, our.

They go on with this ballsy statement and mention the goddamn ever-present Gallistel & King book which I finally have to read:

However, our ambitious goal in this book is to introduce you to phonology as a useful step toward a future unification of cognitive science and neuroscience. As Gallistel and King (2009, p. vii) put it, “The truths the cognitive scientists know about information processing, when integrated into neuroscience, will transform our understanding of how the brain works.”

They offer this as a way forward:

As phonologists interested in unifying our field with other branches of cognitive science, our job is to formulate theories using terms and concepts that are accessible to specialists in fields like psychology and neuroscience. With this in mind, we have attempted to build phonological theories out of a general logical and mathematical toolbox containing functions, sets, set operations, and variables. Theories built with these tools can be easily translated to precise algorithms. Precise algorithms, in turn, should ultimately make it easier to associate neurological states and activity with phonological cognition.

This is not a textbook, this is a manifesto. As I said, they immediately offer the big picture, outline the mountains that are still to climb for future students, offer possible paths, and, perhaps most importantly, see responsibility to make interdisciplinary cross-talk possible in themselves, not others.

In a nutshell: I’ve only read the first few pages but I already love it, and I wish we would have started phonology like this.


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