On the perceptual basis of sound systems: The case of VOT

This paper is part of an endeavour to explore the extent to which the structure of the phonological systems of the natural human languages are based on perception rather than production.
Deplorably, most past and current approaches to phonetics and phonology have been developed for, and from, production data and they slight or disregard perception. It is argued that according to such approaches sound systems would not even be learnable. It follows that perception and production need to be integrated. In fact, it is suggested that, in many respects, perception is primary, because it controls production and determines the nature of the basic functional units. Consequently, this new approach is termed perception-based phonology (PBP). The central assumption is that in addition to the anatomical prerequisites sound systems have their roots in the non-language specific and non-species specific innate properties of the auditory system.
As for this paper I summarize the arguments that the ontogeny and phylogeny of distinctive features, phonemes, and their typology derive from perception rather than production. The key evidence comes from the research on the perceptual abilities of neonates and infants before the onset of speech, from the perception of speech sounds by (some) non-human species, and from the fact that there may be an enormous time gap of several years before children learn to control and coordinate their articulatory gestures in such a way that the acoustic results conform to the pattern of their target language, although they have been able to perceive the respective differences all along. The insights will be illustrated on the basis of how voicing in syllable-initial stops is used for distinctive purposes in the languages of the world. Some implications will be pointed out, notably, with respect to such issues as innateness, language-specificity, and language evolution.

Ars Philologica: Festschrift Baldur. Panzer. K. Grünberg, W. Potthoff (Hg.) Frankfurt/M.: Lang, 211-224., 1999.