Emics and etics


Many non-linguists probably don’t know that linguists use the words “phonetics” and “phonology” to refer to two quite different subjects. There is, admittedly, a considerable degree of interconnection between the two subjects, but most of the time the difference is reasonably stark. The best way to describe the respective subjects is by an example. Many of the languages of the world make use of speech sounds which are known as lateral approximants. The Latin letter L is dedicated to representing such sounds. In English, lateral approximants appear at the start of words like “laugh” and “lion” (and, indeed, “lateral”), in the middle of words like “pillow” and “bulk”, and at the end of words like “tell” and “saddle”. The exact sound of the lateral approximants in these words varies to a considerable degree from utterance to utterance, due to factors such as intonation, the chosen volume and the simple fact that people do not replicate precisely the same physical actions every time they utter a sound. It also varies from speaker to speaker—different people have different voices. The term “lateral approximant” therefore refers not to a particular acoustic signal but to an abstract category including some but not all acoustic signals1. The way language works makes it inevitable that when we talk about speech sounds, we talk about these abstract categories of acoustic signals rather than the particular acoustic signals themselves. This point about “lateral approximant” being an abstract category is not directly relevant to the phonetics-phonology distinction, but I bring it up because it will help clarify things later.

One specific kind of variation in the sounds of speech is especially interesting to linguists. The pronunciation of a sound such as a lateral approximant can be affected by the surrounding sounds. The differences produced thus have the potential be regular and systematic in the sense that they are reproduced from utterance to utterance: after all, the same sequence of sounds exists in each utterance. The term for this kind of variation in particular is “allophony”. A particularly stark example of allophony is exhibited by English lateral approximants2 (which is why I chose to talk about this kind of sound in particular). Before other consonants and at the end of a word (such as in “bulk”, “tell” and “saddle”), they are pronounced one way; elsewhere (such as in “laugh”, “lion” and “pillow”), they are pronounced another way. When they are pronounced in the former way, English lateral approximants are referred to as “dark Ls”, and when they are pronounced in the latter way, they are referred to as “clear Ls”. The IPA has symbols for each pronunciation: dark L is [ɫ], clear L is [l]. If you don’t already know a lot about linguistics, it’s quite likely that you never noticed that this variation existed before, even though, as may be apparent to you now that I have drawn your attention to it, the difference is quite large. You never needed to notice it, because in the English language, the distinction between clear and dark L is never used to distinguish words. That is, there are no pairs of words which consist of the same sequence of speech sounds, except that one of them has a dark L in the same position that the other has a clear L. It is therefore convenient to treat clear L and dark L as the same sound, at least when we are talking about English. We can use the simpler of the two symbols, /l/, to represent this sound, but we add slashes rather than brackets around the symbol in order to make clear that the boundary of the category of acoustic signals referred to by /l/ is determined here by the distinctions the English language (or whatever language we are talking about) makes use of in order distinguish its words from each other. It is reasonable to suppose that the concept of /l/ does actually exist in the minds of speakers of English (and that separate concepts for clear L and dark L do not exist in their minds). But even if this were not the case, the concept of /l/ would still be useful for descriptive purposes. The name for this kind of concept is “phoneme”.

There are in fact languages in which the distinction between clear L and dark L is used to distinguish words. Russian is one of them. The word мел ‘chalk’ is pronounced like “Mel”, but with a dark L. The word мель ‘shallow’ is pronounced like “Mel”, but with a clear L. For this reason, Russian is said to have an /l/ phoneme, which is spelt ль, and a /ɫ/ phoneme, which is spelt л. Note that, despite the notation, the Russian /l/ is not the same as the English /l/, any more than the Russian /ɫ/ is the same as the English /l/: the two Russian phonemes correspond to a single, more general phoneme in English.

The crucial, defining property of phonemes is that they are abstract categories of acoustic signals whose boundaries are determined by the distinctions that a particular language makes use of. They are defined in opposition to abstract categories of acoustic signals in general, whose boundaries are not necessarily determined by the distinctions a particular language makes use of; they may be determined by the distinctions a linguist finds interesting to make, for example. Such categories are referred to by the words “sound” or (in my experience, less commonly) “phone”; it has always seemed to me that “phonete” would be the most appropriate word, but nobody uses that one. In the jargon of Less Wrong, the distinction can be conveyed by saying that phonemes carve reality at the joints (for a particular language’s purposes), while sounds in general don’t necessarily do the same.

It can be helpful to shift the viewpoint a little and consider the set of all the phonemes of a particular language. This set is always finite (this is a cross-linguistic universal). One can consider the space of all conceivable acoustic signals that might be produced by a speaker of the language. The set of phonemes constitutes a particular partition of this space into a finite number of parts, and speakers of the language do not make use of any of the differences within each part when processing speech3. The parts under this partition are represented by symbols surrounded by slashes. If you choose to partition the space in a different way for some reason, you need to represent the parts by symbols surrounded by square brackets.

One final point which I want to stress is that both phonemes and sounds in general are abstract categories! People (including me, when I’m not thinking carefully enough) often describe the distinction as something along the lines of “phonemes are abstract categories of sounds”, and this can be interpreted in a way that makes it a true statement, more or less, but it doesn’t constitute an exhaustive definition: the things we refer to as “sounds” in practice are abstract categories of sounds too, so phonemes are a particular kind of abstract category of sounds.

Anyway, the difference between phonetics and phonology is this: phonetics is about sounds in general (“phonetes”), phonology is about phonemes. Or to put it another way, phonology specifically studies the categorizations of acoustic signals that make sense with respect to particular languages, and phonetics studies speech sounds under other categorizations. For example, investigation of how common it is for lateral approximants to appear in speech in both clear and dark forms comes under phonetics. But once you start investigating in addition how common it is for clear L and dark L constitute separate phonemes, you’ve got into phonology.


The concept of the distinction between phonetics and phonology can be generalised. It has proved especially fruitful in the field of anthropology.

The first person to make the analogy was a man called Kenneth Pike. As you might imagine, he was both an anthropologist and a linguist. He was quite an interesting man, actually. According to Wikipedia, he was “the foremost figure in the history of SIL” (that slightly controversial organization, the Summer Institute of Linguistics). He also invented a (non-naturalistic) conlang called Kalaba-X. And he used to give what were called “monolingual demonstrations”, where he would work with a speaker of a language unknown to him and attempt to analyze it as far as he could without having known anything about it previously, all before an audience.

Anyway, Kenneth Pike thought that it was helpful to distinguish two different approaches to studying human culture, which he called the emic and etic approaches. The emic approach is analogous to phonology. The etic approach is analogous to phonetics. The anthropologist Marvin Harris later adopted the concept and made it critical to his theory of human culture, which he called “cultural materialism”. Harris made use of the concept in a somewhat different way than Pike originally did. If you want to see Pike’s side of things, you could look at this interview with him, which contains the following amusing illustration of the extent of their differences:

[…] it took me months and months and months to try to understand Harris. Would you like to know how I got started talking with Harris? I was in Spain at the request of some philosophers and spoke there on the relationship of language to the world (Pike 1987). Afterwards they told me that Harris had been there three months previously lecturing. When they invited me, they had sent me some articles with some references to the etics and emics of Harris. That is precisely why they had invited me. Harris had said that he wished he could talk to Pike.

So later we invited Harris to Norman [Oklahoma] to lecture. I asked him to arrive at least a day early so that we could talk privately before the lecture. So we spent four hours talking prior to the lecture. Tom Headland then met him at an AAA meeting and arranged the meeting and we both agreed.

We had a difficult time trying to understand each other. We each spoke 20 minutes, with 10 minutes for reply by the other. Later, we saw each other’s materials so that before publication we could revise our own materials after having read the comments. The commentators could also revise their materials after having read the revisions of our revisions. So we had maximum time to try to understand each other. Even so, every so often I still get a little perplexed.

I have read some of Harris’s work but none of Pike’s, so my discussion is going to be informed by his conception of the emic and etic approaches in particular. Let’s begin with an illustrative example, like the one I used in part I of this post. This example is taken from Harris’s book Cultural Materialism, published in 1979.

While doing fieldwork in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Harris observed that the sex ratio among the cattle owned by farmers there was highly skewed in favour of females: for every hundred female cattle there were only sixty-seven male cattle. The farmers, when asked about this, vehemently denied having killed the excess males, as expected given the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle. They instead attributed the difference to an innate propensity towards sickness among male cattle. When they were asked why this propensity existed, some of them replied that the male cattle ate less than the females. When they were asked again why the male cattle ate less than the females, some replied that they were given less time to suck on their mother’s teats. However, there are other states in India, such as Uttar Pradesh, where the sex ratio is skewed the other way: there are more than two oxen for every cow. Moreover, these states are precisely those where the ecological and economic situation is such that there is a relatively large need for traction animals, such as oxen. Suspicious, isn’t it? What seems to be happening is that, despite the Hindu prohibition against killing cattle, the farmers of Kerala take active steps to ensure that male calves drink less milk than their sisters4.

By taking these actions, the farmers cause the male calves to die, when they otherwise would survive. Therefore, there is a sense in which their action can be called “killing”. But the crucial point is that if we call the action “killing”, then we are making use of a categorization which is etic rather than emic. That is, it is not a categorization which makes sense on the terms of the culture of the Keralan farmers. These farmers’ concept of killing does not include neglecting to feed male calves properly5. It is just the same as how the Russian /l/ covers a smaller range of acoustic signals than the English /l/. The contradiction between Hindu custom and what actually takes place must be understood in this light: it is only an apparent contradiction, because, from the emic perspective, the farmers are not doing any killing of cattle.

Note that this is not to say that the Keralan farmers would be able to get away with openly slaughtering the cattle, say, by slitting their throats with knives. The concept of “killing” is not infinitely malleable. In the same way, no language that I know of considers both [p] and [l] to be the part of the same phoneme. All we are saying here is that the extent of variation in emic categorizations is constrained to some degree by the properties of the things they categorize. In describing these constraints we make use of categorizations that are chosen for their usefulness for this descriptive purpose, and not for their coincidence with categorizations that are used by a particular culture. Such categorizations are by definition etic. This means that if the extent of emic variation is sufficiently constrained, the distinction between emic and etic becomes redundant, because all cultures will essentially categorize things the same way, and this categorization can be perfectly well understood from an etic perspective. In most areas of human culture, however, there are considerable degrees of freedom in categorization and therefore the emic-etic distinction is very helpful in understanding cross-cultural variation.

The Keralan cattle sex ratio example is an especially striking one, but another example given by Harris in the same book is, I think, more illustrative of just how helpful the emic-etic distinction can be. In Brazil, Harris collected data on the number of people living in households. But doing this required a more complicated methodology than just asking people from different households, “How many people live here?” The culture of Harris’ informants was such that they did not consider their servants members of their households, even when they were permanent residents there. And for whatever purpose he was collecting the data, Harris found it more useful to consider these servants as household members. He therefore had to ask extra questions to get information about the numbers of servants, in order to make use of an etic categorization of his own that was different from the emic categorization of his Brazilian informants. It is easy to see how not heeding this kind of thing could lead to confusion: if, for example, you collected data on the number of people in households across both Brazil and some other country in which live-in servants were counted as household members, only asking, “How many people live here?”, and used that inference to make conclusions about, say, the amount of food that the average household consumed in both countries, then these conclusions could be grossly wrong, and the data would be meaningless in that sense.

This is connected with another important consideration. One of the things which gives the social sciences a rather different epistemic flavour from the natural sciences is the ubiquitous use of concepts which are rather slippery and vaguely defined: “status”, “role”, “social class”, “tribe”, “state”, “family”, “religion”, etc. Social scientists regularly try to make these definitions more precise (that is, to “operationalize” them), but they do this in a peculiar way: it is rare for a particular operationalization to actually become accepted as the one, true definition of the concept at this level of precision, or for two different operationalizations to be given different names so that researchers can from then one treat them as separate concepts. Indeed, I think a lot of social scientists might agree that it is more useful to leave these concepts vaguely defined and use the operationalizations appropriate to the circumstances. Why is this the case? The crucial factor may be that in the social sciences, the distinction between emics and etics comes into play. Social scientists often need to talk about “status”, “tribe”, “state”, “religion”, etc. as emic concepts; that is, as conceptualised by particular cultures. Different cultures have different ideas of what these concepts are, and hence different operationalizations are appropriate for different cultures. Having a common word for each of these different operationalizations is still useful as a way of emphasizing the similarity between them (and perhaps their common origin, in some sense). And it doesn’t cause too much confusion, because the sense of the word in a particular context can be inferred from the culture being talked about in that context. It’s only when one needs to make use of etic concepts that are similar to these emic concepts that the potential for confusion becomes large. One thing that might be useful in the social sciences is to reserve some words for the emic approach and others for the etic approach. For example, we might reserve “caste” as the word for social strata as conceptualized by particular cultures6 and “class” as the word for social strata as conceptualized in other ways.

To summarize: in order to understand a culture, one must understand the concepts which the culture’s members understand their experience in terms of. Emic approaches to culture work with these concepts only. On the other hand, etic approaches to culture may work with alternative conceptual systems which clash with that of the culture being studied. The two approaches are not rivals; they lead to insights about different things and at the same time complement each other, just as phonetics and phonology are not in conflict, and are different subfields of linguistics yet at the same time are closely interconnected.

  1. ^ By using the word “category” I don’t mean to imply that membership in the category is categorical, as in a mathematical set (i.e. that every acoustic signal is either a lateral approximant or not, and there is never any need for further clarification). The category may be radial: it may be the case that one particular acoustic signal or set of acoustic signals is maximally lateral approximant-like, and acoustic signals which are less similar to these central examples are less lateral approximant-like. Or it may have some other, more complicated structure.
  2. ^ Some dialects don’t exhibit this allophony—Welsh English sometimes has clear L everywhere, and certain American English dialects have dark L everywhere. So if you can’t see this distinction in your own speech after reading the rest of the paragraph this footnote is attached to, that may be why.
  3. ^ This isn’t quite true: for example, you might notice that somebody keeps pronouncing clear L where they should pronounce dark L and conclude on that basis that they must be Welsh or foreign. You may do this subconsciously, even if you don’t know about the distinction between clear L and dark L. (The subconscious understanding of allophonic variation patterns is a large part of why people find it difficult to imitate other accents than their own: they see the problem in others, but not in themselves. Conversely, understanding phonetics and phonology is the secret to being able to imitate accents like a boss.)
  4. ^ Harris does not go into very much detail about this example. There are some things I’d like to know more about, such as why this stark difference in demand for traction animals exists between different Indian states, and how exactly the farmers are supposed to ensure that the male cattle are fed less. If anyone reading this knows of some resources that would be helpful, I encourage you to point me to them.
  5. ^ Of course, there may be a certain level or style of neglect for which it would be regarded as killing; but the means by which the differential sex ratio is produced is certainly not considered to be killing.
  6. ^ Or subcultures, of course. Basically everything that is being said here about the analysis of cultures can also be applied to more finely-grained divisions within cultures.

2 responses to “Emics and etics

  1. This post details a much more sophisticated take on the difference between phonetics and phonology than I had. I always thought of phonology simply as the study of equivalence classes of sounds within languages, while phonetics is the study of the individual sounds themselves (with the finest possible equivalence relation). Of course, that second definition is already a bit problematic, since even sounds themselves are abstract categories, as you point out; phonetics is not simply a “finer” look at phonology.

    Glancing through your archives, I see linguistics, math, and 60’s-era folk music, a trifecta of things I enjoy. I might want to make a few comments under some of your older posts as well, if that’s fine with you.

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