Perception-based phonology (PBP): An outline

In the past, both phonetic and phonological approaches to the structure and the functioning of sound systems have relied heavily, if not exclusively, on articulation for theory building. Perception has been gravely neglected or not considered at all. It is argued that the relationship needs to be reversed. Perception needs to be regarded as primary in the sense that it controls production and it also determines (some of?) the basic constructs of phonological theory. This new approach is termed perception-based phonetics/phonology (PBP). Its central claim is that the functional potential of the auditory system of humans provides for the biological basis of sound systems and, consequently, for phonological theory.

This paper takes a developmental perspective. It explores some aspects of the interaction of perception and production and it deals, in particular, with the perceptual basis of such basic categories as distinctive features, phonemes, the constraints that govern their typology, and the impact of perception on production during the early stages of the ontogeny of sound systems.

The arguments concerning the need for PBP are based primarily on recent findings concerning the perceptual abilities of neonates and infants before and after the onset of speech. The major suggestions are: (a) The distinctive features have their basis in the discontinuities of the auditory system; (b) these sensitivities limit the range of sound contrasts in terms of the typology of distinctive features; (c) the auditory sensitivities are neither language-specific nor species-specific; (d) in evolutionary terms, the perceptual sensitivities antidate the anatomical prerequisites for human speech; and (e) the development of the production capacity is controlled by perception.

mimeo, English Department, Kiel University, 1997.