Underlying Representations

Jennifer Sandra Cole, José I. Hualde

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Language is acquired and experienced primarily through the medium of speech or the manually signed signal. A primary goal of phonology, restricted here to the context of spoken language, is to discover the elements that serve as the building blocks of speech. Considering that languages differ in their spoken forms, two further questions for an understanding of phonology concern the relations between the sound elements that give shape to the phonological system of an individual language, and the constraints that determine how these sound elements may pattern in the formation of words and phrases in that language.
Over many centuries of scholarship and across continents, linguists have pursued answers to these questions for the practical purpose of providing a straightforward orthography for particular languages (see Pike 1947), explicating a method for describing the phonological component of individual languages, or for the scientific purpose of identifying the mental encoding of phonological form in the minds of the native speaker/hearer. Differences in the relative priority accorded to practical and scientific purposes have resulted in differences in the principles and methods of competing schools of phonology. But all approaches, from the work of the Sanskrit scholar Patanjali in the second century bce to the theories that emerged during the heyday of European and American phonology in the twentieth century, presume that the basic elements of spoken language are at some level of abstraction from the physical form of speech as experienced by the speaker/hearer. The representation of words in terms of abstract elements is posited as a basic or underlying representation (UR) in nearly every phonological theory to the present day. Theories differ in the status of the UR (as an artifact of descriptive analysis, or part of the cognitive system of language), its relation to morphological form and phonetics, and whether it may encode morphosyntactic context, reflecting differences among theories in the kinds of data considered as primary evidence for phonological form. Different proposals for UR also reflect differences in the scope of the proposed theory, e.g. in modeling diachronic or synchronic phenomena, dialectal or style-dependent variation, corpus data, speaker intuitions, child productions, or instances of the intentional, creative manipulation of phonology in poetry or language games.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Blackwell Companion to Phonology
EditorsMarc van Oostendorp, Colin J Ewen, Elizabeth V Hume, Keren Rice
Number of pages26
ISBN (Print)9781405184236
StatePublished - 2011


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