The study of sound patterns has been built on a foundation of study of the nature of the sounds that shape the patterns. Understanding phonological patterns depends significantly on the nature of articulation, acoustics and perception. Advances in instrumentation over the past few decades have radically changed our understanding of the phonetics of speech sounds. In this paper, three basic aspects of the relation between phonology and phonetics are considered, drawing examples from various African languages. First, we briefly consider cases where instrumental investigation serves to confirm or disconfirm auditory investigation. A canonical example is the use of spectrographic investigation, traditional or computer-based, to determine properties of vowel formants, enhancing the analysis of vowel inventories. A second use of instrumental research is to examine properties of speech sounds that are less amenable to auditory investigation. Simply put, some distinctions are hard to hear, so instrumentation provides increased reliability. Related to this, gradience and variation are more readily studied instrumentally than by hand, with quantitative data shedding light on the sorts of patterns that are perhaps properly assigned to "phonetics" and the sorts of patterns that are best considered "phonological". Finally, certain questions cannot in principle be examined auditorily since they are imperceptible to the ear. For example, it can be seen using imaging technology that the vocal tract assumes a particular shape when in "speech" posture. A comparison of speech sounds with this neutral vocal tract shape allows us to test certain predictions about the nature of language-specific contrasts. These issues will be examined with reference to a number of patterns: vowel harmony in languages such as Dagbani, Yoruba, Kinande; consonant-vowel co-occurrence restrictions in N|uu; tone in Yoruba.
Selected Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference on African Linguistics: Linguistic Interfaces in African Languages
edited by Ọ
la Orie and Karen W. Sanders
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