An emic unit is a type of abstract object analyzed in linguistics and related fields. Kinds of emic units are generally denoted by terms with the suffix -eme, such as phoneme, grapheme, and morpheme. An emic unit is defined by Nöth (1995) as "an invariant form obtained from the reduction of a class of variant forms to a limited number of abstract units". The variant forms are called etic units (from phonetic). This means that a given emic unit is considered to be a single underlying object that may have a number of different observable "surface" representations.
The various etic units that represent a given emic unit of a certain kind are denoted by a corresponding term with the prefix allo-, such as allophone, allograph, allomorph (corresponding respectively to phoneme, grapheme, morpheme). The relation between an emic unit and the corresponding etic forms is sometimes called the allo/eme relationship.
History and terminology
The first "emic unit" to be considered, in the late 19th century, was the phoneme. This term was originally used (in its French form phonème) to refer simply to a speech sound, but it soon came to be used to denote an abstract concept as it does today (for more details, see Phoneme: Background and related ideas). The word comes from the Greek: φώνημα, phōnēma, meaning "that which is sounded", from the verb φωνέω, phōneō, "sound", which comes in turn from the noun φωνή, phōnē, "sound". Other emic units, such as morpheme and grapheme, came to be named using the -eme suffix by analogy with phoneme. The actual terms "emic unit" and "etic unit" were introduced by Kenneth Pike (1954).
The prefix allo- used in terms such as allophone is from the Ancient Greek ἄλλος meaning "other". The prefix is also used in chemistry.
Examples in linguistics
The following are the most commonly analyzed kinds of emic units in linguistics:
- A phoneme is an underlying object whose surface representations are phones (speech sounds); different phones representing the same phoneme are called allophones of that phoneme. The choice of allophone may be dependent on the phonological context (neighboring sounds), or may be subject to free variation.
- A morpheme is an underlying object whose surface representations are meaningful fragments of language; different fragments representing the same morpheme are called allomorphs of that morpheme.
- A grapheme is an underlying object whose surface representations are glyphs (written symbols); different glyphs representing the same grapheme are called allographs of that grapheme.
Generalizations outside linguistics
The distinction made in linguistics between "emic" accounts (based on emic units; for example a description based on phonemes is called phonemic) and "etic" accounts (such as phonetic descriptions, which are based on the phones actually produced) has been generalized by Pike (1954) and others into a distinction between emic and etic accounts that is applied in various social and behavioral sciences. In this general sense, an "emic" account means one that assumes insider knowledge of a phenomenon (as a native speaker of a language is assumed to have unconscious awareness of the phonemic system of that language), while an "etic" account is one based on the observations of an outsider.
For more information see emic and etic.
- Kenneth Lee Pike, Language in relation to a unified theory of the structure of human behavior, Vol. 1, Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1954 (2nd edition: Mouton, 1967)
- Barron Brainerd, Introduction to the mathematics of language study, American Elsevier Pub. Co., 1971, p. 136 ff.
- Winfried Nöth, Handbook of semiotics, Indiana University Press, 1995, p. 183 ff.