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The irrelevance of phonetics : the Polish palatalisation of velars

Edmund Gussmann


On accorde d'ordinaire un rôle important à la phonétique dans la description et l'explication phonologiques, en synchronie comme en diachronie. Le présent article met en doute la pertinence de ces facteurs. La palatalisation des consonnes vélaires en polonais remonte au 16ème siècle et s'observe devant voyelle antérieure. Son résultat moderne sont des alternances entre [k, g, x] et [c, ɟ, ç], alternances qui produisent également une distribution sérieusement restreinte de la seconde série de consonnes. En s'appuyant sur des faits synchroniques, diachroniques et dialectaux, l'auteur montre qu'il n'existe aucun lien de cause à effet entre le changement et son contexte. Les analyses antérieures sont basées sur un examen incomplet des données et un enracinement fort dans l'approche phonéticienne qui fait crédit au conditionnement phonétique des régularités phonologiques. Si l'on apprécie l'ensemble des données pertinentes qui sont à notre disposition, la supposée naturalité du processus qui palatalise des consonnes vélaires devant de voyelle antérieure s'avère relever de l'illusion. La conclusion provisoire est que tout conditionnement phonétique qui se veut linguistiquement pertinent doit être phonologiquement fondé.

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11. Introduction

2Phonology seems to be singularly oblivious to the importance of finite sets of data*. This is surprising since the data base of phonology – basically words in their different shapes – constitutes a limited, if large, set. Since, however, it is possible to make generalisations and draw potentially interesting conclusions on the basis of highly restricted sets of examples (as in the various workbook problems), once a plausible generalisation has been established there is the understandable temptation of concluding that whatever contradictory evidence can be found, it can always be explained away in one way or another. It is a contention of this paper that this strategy of taking shortcuts is erroneous and leads to both descriptive and theoretical superficialities. What is more, some of these superficialities become so firmly entrenched in the general linguistic consciousness that they are seldom questioned or examined. By paying close attention to the data of a corpus we are often forced to abandon some of the most fondly cherished views and beliefs, no matter how commonly they may be proclaimed or how steadfastly adhered to. The specific issue that we scrutinise in this paper is the role of phonetics in phonology, and in particular the significance or relevance of phonetic explanation in phonology.

3The general belief in the phonetic basis of phonology or in the need for phonologists to “hug the phonetic ground” is so overwhelming that it seems almost perverse to doubt it. However doubt one must, if only to maintain one’s phonological sanity in a world where belief in various theoretical artefacts tends to be sacrosanct and to override demands for the re-examination of the basics. In this paper we propose to cast some, hopefully serious, doubt on the phonetic basis of phonology, or at least on some of the interpretations which derive from a belief in this. Obviously it is impossible within the scope of a single paper to examine in any detail a problem which has dominated and continues to dominate phonological thinking from the inception of the discipline. Similarly, we do not propose to review any of the numerous instances of phonetically motivated sound changes (or synchronic phonological regularities) that have been discussed in the literature, many of which may be actually correct. We will consider the issue of the alleged phonetic causality of phonological regularities by looking closely at the palatalisation of velars in present-day Polish and its recent history. In line with the pronouncement made above we will try to be exhaustive on the empirical side, especially with reference to the situation in the present-day language, with a view to providing a solid factual basis for the theoretical issue we pursue and its consequences for the overall architecture of phonology. We do not so much wish to indulge in data-mongery as to allow a full range of data to make its presence felt in theoretical discussion. If successful, our attempt should demonstrate how finite sets of data and their exploitation can contribute to the understanding of phonology and bring to light results that would remain unknown otherwise.

4The specific issue we wish to consider is a bromide found so commonly in synchronic and diachronic phonological accounts that it needs no comment : front vowels tend to palatalise preceding consonants. We will consider Polish velar obstruents and their palatalised congeners in an attempt to see whether the causal link of vowel frontness and consonant palatalisation can be upheld if all available data are taken into account. In view of what has already been said above, it should come as no surprise that we answer the question in the negative.

52. Polish palatalisation of velars : basic facts

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73. Alternations of velars and palatals : phonological synchrony and diachronic background

84. The phonology of the Polish palatalisation of velars

95. Palatalisation of velar plosives : a phonetically natural process ?

105.1. The phonetic unnaturalness of the velar palatalisation

115.2. Further resistance to palatalisation

126. The maverick : a story of the velar spirant

137. The velar and the palatal spirants again

148. Final complications and summary of the evidence

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169. Conclusion

17In this paper we have argued that a documented set of facts taken from Modern Polish and partly also from its history cannot be reconciled with the standard notion of phonetic conditioning or motivation, i.e. phonetic causality. This we have tried to achieve by falsifying a universally accepted “solution” and by confronting the classical claim with a rich, hopefully exhaustive set of data. The conclusion concerning the untenability of an explanatory phonetic account is significant in view of the staying power that traditional shibboleths possess – the conviction of the crucial role of phonetics in phonology is so firmly entrenched that it hardly ever comes up for review and is seldom challenged. Even though phonetics, not unlike phonology, is not a uniform doctrine accepted by all practitioners of the field, the belief that it is the foundation of phonology reigns supreme. Variants of statements like Phonological processes are phonetically motivated (Dziubalska Kołaczyk ms.) are to be found everywhere ; they are taken to be self-evident and seem to evoke no sense of unease or need to re-examine basic assumptions. In this paper we have tried to show that a close inspection of the data relating to a relatively well-known and uncontroversial change/ regularity casts serious doubts on the received wisdom that palatalisation of velars before front vowels is a phonetically motivated process. If data are studied closely rather than selectively, the phonetics of the change becomes illusory to the point of becoming a mirage. Note that we have not even attempted to consider any of the other numerous instances of the phonetic motivation of phonology. We hope not to have given the impression of making the patently absurd claim that phonology and phonetics are totally separate domains. Quite conversely, by examining a case where a phonetic account fails miserably as an explanatory tool, we are making a plea for a re-examination of the phonetic categories used in linguistics. Clearly, phonetic notions are not given in advance, while the gymnastics of the speech organs and the ensuing acoustic signal can be dissected in numerous ways. Most of these possible dissections are linguistically irrelevant, voice quality being a trivial but straightforward case. The relevant categories can only be established by reference to the way they work in language, i.e. by phonology. Is it the case then that phonological systems are phonetically motivated, or rather than that phonetic systems are phonologically motivated ? And consequently that whatever is relevant in phonetics, i.e. whatever is of linguistic significance, must be grounded in phonology ? This would mean that the slogan phonological processes are phonetically motivated should translate into the near-tautological phonological processes are phonologically motivated. If it shed its delusions of grandeur, phonetics – Dziubalska-Kołaczyk’s (ms.) better informed phonetics ? or perhaps simply phonological phonetics – might even become relevant.

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* For comments on an earlier version of this paper I am indebted to Katarzyna Dziubalska-Kołaczyk, Eugeniusz Cyran, Aidan Doyle, and the two anonymous reviewers who did a superb job ‑ they were at once constructively critical and encouraging.
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Edmund Gussmann, « The irrelevance of phonetics : the Polish palatalisation of velars », Corpus [En ligne], 3 | 2004, mis en ligne le 02 décembre 2005, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL :

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Edmund Gussmann

Department of Scandinavian and Baltic Studies. Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań

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