Speech sounds in the field: Dynamical approaches to phonology after Maxwell and Einstein

Alexander Teixeira Kalkhoff
Universität Freiburg

1 The notion of field in physics

The mutual interaction, i.e. attraction and repulsion, of bodies across space without direct mechanical contact, such as the movement of planets, gravity, magnetism, electricity, or light, posed a theoretical and practical problem for physics until the middle of the nineteenth century (see for what follows about physical fields McMullin 2002). Up until that time, Newtonian mechanics provided generally accepted basic assumptions about the nature of matter and its movement, such as the dualism of matter and acting forces and the static space and absolute time. Movements of physical bodies across space were conceived as mathematical dispositions over the space that could be calculated and observed, but their driving forces were not understood.

Between 1839 and 1855, Michael Faraday published his three volumes on Experimental Researches in Electricity, in which Faraday introduces the notion of field for the first time. Only a few years later, in 1865, James Clerk Maxwell published A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, in which he unified the theories of electricity and magnetism to electromagnetism. At the latest by this point, the notion of field was introduced into modern physics with wide-reaching consequences that led to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. A physical field is defined as an area of influence of forces. That means that a field is a function of the acting forces, and these forces or energy are equivalent to matter (see Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2). The former Newtonian dualism of matter and force was suspended.

A new concept appears in physics, the most important invention since Newton’s time: the field. It needed great scientific imagination to realize that it is not the charges nor the particles but the field in the space between the charges and particles which is essential for the description of physical phenomena. The field concept proves most successful and leads to the formulation of Maxwell’s equations describing the structure of the electromagnetic field and governing the electric as well as the optical phenomena. The theory of relativity arises from the field problems.
(Einstein & Infeld 1938: 258s.)

In 1905, Albert Einstein published Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Körper and in 1916 Die Grundlagen der allgemeinen Relativitätstheorie, in which he formulates the axioms of the special and general theories of relativity. The quintessence of Einsteinian relativity is that all laws of nature are the same regardless of whether the observer moves or not. Hence, Einstein’s theory of relativity completely relativized the reference system of a four-dimensional space-time and postulates the invariance of the speed of light and all other natural laws therein. As a consequence, we can never identify the observer’s absolute movement and there is no static space nor absolute time.

2 The notion of field in linguistics and psychology

Hence, at the beginning of the twentieth century, there were two seminal concepts in modern physics, the notion of field and the notion of relativity. Interestingly, only shortly after that, in the 1920s and 1930s, psychological and linguistic theories appeared in Germany and the U.S. using field-like and relativity-like metaphors: e.g., gestalt theory’s explicit linking to physical field theory (Köhler 1920), Leo Weisgerber’s inhaltsbezogene Grammatik (‘content-related grammar’) and inter-world view (Weisgerber 1924), Edward Sapir’s relational phonological theory (Sapir 1925), Jost Trier’s Wortfeldtheorie (‘lexical field theory’) (Trier 1931), Karl Bühler’s Zeigfeld (‘deixis’) and Symbolfeld (‘symbolic field’) (Bühler 1934) and his word gestalt-based phonology (Bühler 1931 and 1934), Kurt Lewin’s field theory of personality and vector psychology (Lewin 1931, 1935, and 1963), and, much more loosely, the concept of linguistic relativity, also called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Whorf 1956). They all appeared as innovative approaches to a mainstream science mainly characterized by positivism in the context of holism, gestalt theory, psychology of perception, new idealisms, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s idea of innere Sprachform  (‘inner speech-form’), philosophical phenomenology, psychophysics, and modern physics (Meyer-Abich 1989; Teixeira Kalkhoff in press), emphasizing dynamical aspects of linguistic meaning, understanding, and personality resulting from acting field forces and sensitive to the context and environment in which they appear.

As a parenthesis, there is an interesting biographical link between Albert Einstein and the Swiss linguist and teacher Jost Winteler that Roman Jakobson stressed as the lieu of transmission of the concept of relativity from Winteler to Einstein (Jakobson 1980). Winteler wrote his PhD thesis at the University of Jena on the Swiss dialect of Kerenz (Winteler 1876). His detailed description of the articulatory phonetics and relational sandhi phenomena caused by coarticulation and accentuation of a dialect without a standard orthography as well as his phonetic transcription system were far ahead of his time. In 1895, Jost Winteler and Albert Einstein came in contact while the Winteler family hosted the 16-year-old Einstein for one year to reach his matura at the cantonal school of Aarau. In the meantime, Manfred Kohrt has rebutted Jakobson’s hypothesis, showing that their notions of relativity largely diverge (Kohrt 1984: 82–97). Nevertheless, what we can learn from this anecdote is that different metaphorical uses of ‘relativity’ were in the air.

Let us turn our attention to the American linguist Edward Sapir and his sketch of a relational phonological theory (Sapir 1925). Studying Germanic linguistics at Columbia University, he also attended Franz Boas’ classes on anthropology. From 1906 on, he did extensive ethnographic fieldwork on American Native languages in the U.S. and Canada (Darnell 1989). Documenting languages without any orthographical representation systems (as Winteler did about 30 years earlier by describing the sound system of the Kerenz dialect), he developed a psychological theory of phonemes and sound patterns. Sounds of a given language are not only perceived as acoustic images, but their appropriateness depends on the right place within the pattern relative to other sounds of the same language:

Each member of this system is not only characterized by a distinctive and slightly variable articulation and a corresponding acoustic image, but also – and this is crucial – by a psychological aloofness from all the other members of the system. The relational gaps between the sounds of a language are just as necessary to the psychological definition of these sounds as the articulations and acoustic images which are customarily used to define them. A sound that is not unconsciously felt as ‘placed’ with reference to other sounds is no more a true element of speech than a lifting of the foot is a dance step unless it can be ‘placed’ with reference to other movements that help to define the dance.
(Sapir 1925: 39s.)


It is time to escape from a possible charge of phonetic metaphysics and to face the question, ‘How can a sound be assigned a “place” in a phonetic pattern over and above its natural classification on organic and acoustic grounds?’ The answer is simple: ‘A “place” is intuitively found for a sound (which is here thought of as a true “point in the pattern,” not a mere conditional variant) in such a system because of a general feeling of its phonetic relationship resulting from all the specific phonetic relationships (such as parallelism, contrast, combination, imperviousness to combination, and so on) to all other sounds’. […] We do not in English feel that θ is to be found in the neighborhood, as it were, of s, but that it is very close to δ. In Spanish, θ is not far from s, but is not at all close to δ.
(Sapir 1925: 48–50)

Sapir conceptualized a given sound system as a network (pattern) of sounds (points). The right or wrong placement of the sounds while speaking is perceived by speakers of the language community. Since the phonological knowledge about this sound pattering constitutes a psychological reality within the speaker’s mind, the linguist “must give his particular attention to the difference between these points and may […] remain comparatively indifferent to differences between those sounds that tend to vary about such points,” as his disciple Benjamin Lee Whorf emphasized a few years later (Whorf 1929b: 1, quoted from Lee 1996: 45s.).

3 Discussion

Sapir developed his idea of relational phonology doing field work on Native American languages. With Boas as his teacher, he was confronted with the problem of languages without orthographic representation (for the misleading relationship between orthographic representation systems and phonological theory, see Port 2008). Boas mentions in his early paper “On alternating sounds” (Boas 1889) the “sound blindness” (p. 47) of Western linguists describing unknown languages and the “alternating apperception” (p. 53) of contextually alternating sounds by native speakers. Boas solved this problem within the mindset of late 19th-century German scientific, historical, and philosophical thinking, such as Humboldtian thinking and psychophysics (Boas 1989).

Sapir and his disciple Whorf had to face the same challenge, but both acting within another constellation of scientific ideas (Mulsow & Stamm 2005). In the early 20th century, the notions of field and relativity deriving from modern physics were ubiquitous. Although neither Sapir nor Whorf refer explicitly to the physical notions of field and relativity (which are attributed to them posthumously), I argue that Sapir’s “sound pattern” is a field-like concept or metaphor. It is a confluence of Humboldt’s innere Sprachform (‘inner speech-form’) and the metaphorical use of Einstein’s relativity. A sound pattern is conceived as a multidimensional space of configurations of sound points, i.e. articulatory knowledge or acoustic images, where the relations between the points define the perceptual appropriateness of the sound usage. While the relations must stay quite stable to be appropriate, the sound points may vary considerably. The reference system of the internal organization of the sound pattern is relativized depending on the context or environment within which the sounds occur. Whorf later introduced for that observation the notion of “allomorphy” (Trager & Bloch 1941).

Although Sapir’s concept of relational phonology fits very well into the Saussurian relational definition of linguistic system or valeur linguistique (“la langue est un système dont tous les termes sont solidaire et où la valeur de l’un ne résulte que de la présence simultanée des autres”; Saussure [1916] 1987:159), later structuralist phonologists (Bloomfield 1933; Swadesh 1934; Trubetzkoy 1939) have privileged context-indifferent speaker-independent atomistic approaches to the symbolic function of speech sounds based exclusively on abstract distinctive articulatory features, disregarding the relational aspect of sound psychology as well as the sound ecology of the word and utterance (Albano Leoni 2016).


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How to cite this post

Teixeira Kalkhoff, Alexander. 2019. Speech sounds in the field: Dynamical approaches to phonology after Maxwell and Einstein. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences. https://hiphilangsci.net/2019/04/16/speech-sounds-in-the-field/

Posted in 19th century, 20th century, America, Article, Europe, Field linguistics, History, Linguistics

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