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Alternating sounds and the formal franchise in phonology

James McElvenny

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    <subfield code="a">&lt;p&gt;A matter of some controversy in the intersecting worlds of late nineteenth-century&lt;br&gt;
linguistics and anthropology was the nature of &amp;ldquo;alternating sounds&amp;rdquo;. This phe-&lt;br&gt;
nomenon is the apparent tendency, long assumed to be characteristic of &amp;ldquo;primitive&amp;rdquo;&lt;br&gt;
languages, to freely vary the pronunciation of words, without any discernible sys-&lt;br&gt;
tem. Franz Boas (1858&amp;ndash;1942), rebutting received opinion in the American anthro-&lt;br&gt;
pological establishment, denied the existence of this phenomenon, arguing that it&lt;br&gt;
was an artefact of observation. Georg von der Gabelentz (1840&amp;ndash;1893), on the other&lt;br&gt;
hand, embraced the phenomenon and fashioned it into a critique of the compara-&lt;br&gt;
tive method as it was practised in Germany.&lt;br&gt;
Both Boas and Gabelentz &amp;ndash; and indeed also their opponents &amp;ndash; were well versed&lt;br&gt;
in the Humboldtian tradition of language scholarship, in particular as developed&lt;br&gt;
and transmitted by H. Steinthal (1823&amp;ndash;1899). Although the late nineteenth-century&lt;br&gt;
debates surrounding alternating sounds were informed by a number of sources,&lt;br&gt;
this chapter argues that Steinthal&amp;rsquo;s writings served as a key point of reference and&lt;br&gt;
offered several motifs that were taken up by his scholarly successors. In addition,&lt;br&gt;
and most crucially, the chapter demonstrates that the positions at which the partic-&lt;br&gt;
ipants in these debates arrived were determined not so much by any simple tech-&lt;br&gt;
nical disagreements but by underlying philosophical differences and sociological&lt;br&gt;
factors. This episode in the joint history of linguistics and anthropology is telling&lt;br&gt;
for what it reveals about the dominant mindset and temperament of these disci-&lt;br&gt;
plines in relation to the formal analysis of the world&amp;rsquo;s languages.&lt;/p&gt;

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