Journal of Psycholinguistic Research

, Volume 39, Issue 5, pp 429–442 | Cite as

The Status of the Concept of ‘Phoneme’ in Psycholinguistics

  • Per Henning UppstadEmail author
  • Finn Egil Tønnessen


The notion of the phoneme counts as a break-through of modern theoretical linguistics in the early twentieth century. It paved the way for descriptions of distinctive features at different levels in linguistics. Although it has since then had a turbulent existence across altering theoretical positions, it remains a powerful concept of a fundamental unit in spoken language. At the same time, its conceptual status remains highly unclear. The present article aims to clarify the status of the concept of ‘phoneme’ in psycholinguistics, based on the scientific concepts of description, understanding and explanation. Theoretical linguistics has provided mainly descriptions. The ideas underlying this article are, first, that these descriptions may not be directly relevant to psycholinguistics and, second, that psycholinguistics in this sense is not a sub-discipline of theoretical linguistics. Rather, these two disciplines operate with different sets of features and with different orientations when it comes to the scientific concepts of description, understanding and explanation.


Linguistic sign Arbitrariness Connectionism Functional linguistics 


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of StavangerStavangerNorway
  2. 2.Lund UniversityLundSweden

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