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[Xmca-l] Help With Russian: фон

I have a problem--a homophone in Russian. The word "phone" can mean two

a) "phone": that is, the actual sound that we hear in speech, such as the
/b/ in "big".

b) "field": that is, the POTENTIAL sounds that form the BACKGROUND of
identifying a particular sound, such as the /p/ we do NOT hear when we hear
"big" rather than "pig".

Here's what Vygotsky says (this is the Russian Collected Works, volume 4,
p. 354, also English Collected Works, volume 5, p. 271).

Характеризуя развитие устной детской речи, надо указать, что оно происходит
не по типу письменной речи, не по типу изучения иностранного языка, а как
бы по средней линии между этими двумя типами, линии, которая теперь
выявляется. Благодаря слушанию речи взрослых ребенок имеет гораздо более
обширный фон речи, чем те «фигуры», которые есть в его распоряжении. Как
только возникает фонема со своим фоном, возникают и аналогичные структуры,
т. е. восприятие идет структурно.

And here's the problem. I this goes something like:

"In characterizing the development of oral speech in the child, it's
necessary to point out that it takes place not according to the type of
written speech (that is--all of a sudden, with the child acquiring the
writing system and being able to write anything he hears--DK) nor according
to the type of studying foreign languages (that is--word by word by word,
with the child having to learn each word and each wording in a new
context--DK) but, as it were, at a midpoint in the continuum between these
two types, a line which can now be thus construed.  Thanks to the fact that
he hears adult speech, the child disposes of a very much broader range
of background/phones (фон--DK) of speech than the "figures" which he had at
his disposal. As soon as one phoneme emerges with its phone/background
(фон--DK) analogous structures also emerge, i.e. perception goes on

So--two questions about this:

a) Is it REALLY legitimate to translate фон as BOTH the figure AND the
background? It does seem to me that "phone" is figure when we consider the
act of perception, but it is background when we consider the act of
generalization, sort of like today's weather, which is figure when we
consider the act of perception but background when we think of tomorrow and

b) It's not THAT clear why this locates oral speech midway between written
speech on the one hand and foreign language speech on the other. I gather
than Vygotsky is arguing that the child doesn't acquire the whole system
instantaneously (the way that Korean children acquire the Korean writing
system, which is so regular that it can easily be learnt in three hours or
three days and then applied to almost anything they hear) because the child
doesn't yet know all the words but on the other hand the child's experience
of speech is much broader than the child's experience of proto-speech was
during infancy making generalization possible. Am I reading too much into

David Kellogg
Macquarie University