The OED’s first citation for phoneme in its modern sense is dated 1896. As the n-gram shows, though, it was only in the 1950s that this term really took off, reaching a peak around 1970. It was in 1968 that Chomsky and Halle’s The Sound Pattern of English was published, the first widely influential publication to rubbish the whole notion of the phoneme as the basis of phonological analysis (though Jones’s great SOAS rival Firth had attacked it years before). This explains the abrupt decline of the term after that date.
The OED records only one instance of the popular misuse of the term ‘phoneme’ to mean nothing more than ‘speech sound’, often encountered among speech and language therapists, language teachers, and drama teachers. That is from the novelist Kingsley Amis.
The graph shows allophone coming into use around 1940. The OED’s first citation, from Benjamin Lee Whorf, is dated 1938. Daniel Jones seems to have used the term only very rarely, speaking rather of ‘sounds’, the ‘grouping of sounds into phonemes’, and the ‘members’ of a phoneme.
The only case I have found of Jones using the term ‘allophone’ is in The Phoneme: its Nature and Use, §24.
When a phoneme comprises more than one member, it generally happens that one of the sounds seems more important than the other(s). … Such a sound may be termed the “principal member” or “norm” of the phoneme. The other sounds in the same phoneme may be called “subsidiary members” or “subsidiary allophones”.
The American structuralists were always clear that all the members of a phoneme are its allophones: the phoneme comprises its allophones. Phonemes are realized or manifested as their allophones. Nevertheless, students often suppose that the principal member is the phoneme, and that the allophones are what replace it in particular environments. This misunderstanding is encouraged by definitions such as Potter’s (1957):
Robins (for whom I used to write linguistics essays when I was a postgraduate) explains the orthodox position much more clearly.
Although many modern phonologists routinely pooh-pooh the notion of the phoneme, there seems to be no satisfactory replacement term or concept for us to use in its stead.
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I shall now be away for three weeks. Next posting: 28 May.