Tagmemic Phonology

Historical Background

              Kenneth Lee Pike(1912--2000)

Introduction to Tagmemics


Historical Background--The desire for a unified analysis

    "By 1948 Ken had been working on phonology for thirteen years and he wanted a change. So he decided to take a look at grammar. He started hunting for a unit in grammar that would be analogous to the phoneme in phonology. He had a hunch that he could make a generalized definition of any linguistic unit in terms of contrast between the unit under consideration and other units, the amount of variation which that unit had, and the place where the unit occurred -- that is, the distribution (or the function) of that unit.

"As he pursued the idea further, he found that he also wanted to define each specific language as a linguistic unit, but if he were to do that, then he would have to state into what that language was distributed. That was when he began to consider that language (verbal behavior) was embedded in culture -- something larger than verbal behavior.

"Then, in June of 1949, he was studying a business letter, intending to describe it as a linguistic unit. He was analyzing it as a unit with contrast, variation and distribution. (Various salutation forms could be substituted for one another in the space where the salutation usually occurs; different dates could be put into the space where the ate was usually put, etc.) Everything seemed to be fine. Then suddenly, he realized that, in Bloomfieldian terms, the letter was not language at all because the message was on paper (not spoken) and writing was not considered to be speech. At that moment he also realized that he had crossed from language (verbal behavior) into nonverbal behavior. He said that it was like crossing the sound barrier, but he hadn't felt the bump that he had supposed would be there.

"From then on he asserted that culture (behavior) and language could both be described within the same theory.

"That was the way that Ken's tagmemic theory developed to include anthropology -- it was a complete accident, unintended. He had not attempted to build such a theory, nor had he ever dreamed of it as a goal. Rather he had started out trying to find a practical way of handling language materials, something that would be useful to Bible translators; he had been trying to find generalizations what would help him to teach students how to analyze language."

adapted form Eunice V. Pike in Ken Pike, Scholar and Christian, p.187-188.


"...central to tagmemics is the insistence on the possibility and necessity on both theoretical and practical levels, of keeping units as prime constructs in the theory and also to the internal linguistic structure of the speakers. Thus, there can be seen an implicit philosophy of the nature of man. ...man is a unitized creature. ...a unit must have contrastive-identificational features, a range of variability, with physical and distribution in class, sequence, and system. ...Without such controls on all possible theories, one ends up with language conditioning concepts, with language as mathematics. These goals, no less, are in front of our vision as we try to find and describe the configurations of abstractions from that experience called language.  

adapted from Brend, Ruth Margaret's Advances in tagmemics, 1974

Kenneth Lee Pike--the constructor of tagmemics

    web sites about Pike's life and works:





Introduction to tagmemics

       "The tagmemic insistence that language be viewed as part of the whole of human behavior and that there be a unified theory to account for the whole can be seen clearly in two ideas: that behavior, including language, can be described from both emic and etic standpoints, and that behavior, again including language, is trimodally structured.

       "The etic and emic standpoints are alternate ways of viewing the same reality. The etic standpoint is a view from outside, either random in its selectivity or with a set of presuppositions that have only a chance relationship to the scene being described. The emic standpoint is a view from within that notices just those features of the scene that are marked as significant by internal critera.

     "For speech , a sound spectrogram is a good example of etic description. ... some things that are emically relevant to the phonology of the language will almost certainly be missed, whereas a good many quite irrelevant features will be recorded. Such a record of English speech may show the irrelevant voicelessness and friction of the r  in try, but fail to record the emically significant differences between a colorless 3-1 intonation contour and a 2-2 pattern that means, when given to the isolated word try, ...On the other hand, a phonemic transcription, whether it consists of "autonomous" or of "systemic" phonemes, is an emic description of speech.

"Every unit of behavior can be described in three ways, first according to those features that identify it as a distinct unit and that contrast it with all other distinct units of behavior (feature mode). Second, the unit can be described according to the range of variations by which it is manifested (manifestation mode). And third, the unit can be described according to its distribution relative to other units: whether as a member of a class, a component of a combination, or a cell in a matrix (distribution mode).

     "The three modes are reflected in language as a whole by its three hierarchies: the feature mode in the lexicon, the manifestation mode in the phonology, and the distribution mode in the grammar. In a general way way lexical units are the features of language, phonology its manifestation, and grammar its distribution. But each of the hierarchies can also be analyzed according to the three modes. For example, in the feature mode of phonology, the phonemes unit /m/ can be bilabial as in empire  or labiodental as in emphasize, and it can be fully voiced as in mile or partially devoiced as in smile. In the distribution mode, /m/ belongs to the classes of segments that can occur initially, finally, and as a syllabic.

     "In the grammatical hierarchy, there is a basic unit called the tagmeme. The concept of the tagmeme, from which the entire theory is named, was evolved by Pike to fill the need he felt for a basic unit parallel to the phoneme as a phonological unit and the morpheme as a lexical one. ...As Pike has defined tagmeme, it refers to the correlation between a "slot", or grammatical function, and the class of items that can fill that slot.

     "Each of the modes can be seen as reflecting a dominant characteristic: particle, wave, or field theories of structure. ...The manifestation mode tends to reflect the unit as a continuous wave of activity, without discrete boundaries. For example, ...there is wavelike  overlapping of allomorphs in whacha want in which it is difficult to segment neatly the morphemes what, do, and you; ...The distribution mode tends to reflect the unit as a position in a field or a cell in a matrix. So a phoneme can be located in the traditional articulation chart; ...Language, and indeed all human behavior can be viewed as particle, wave. or field , as a part of its general trimode structure.



   Brend, Ruth Margaret, ed. Advances in Tagmemics . Amsterdam : North-Holland, 1974 .

    Pike, Kenneth L. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior .  3 vols. The Hague : Mouton, 1967 .

    Pike, Kenneth L. Linguistic Concepts: An Introduction to Tagememics . University of Nebraska Press, 1982 .