We outline an approach to speech understanding, Polysp (for POLYsystemic SPeech understanding) that combines a richly-structured, polysystemic linguistic model derived from Firthian prosodic analysis and declarative phonology, with psychological and neuropsychological approaches to the organization of sensory experience into knowledge. We propose that the type of approach exemplified by Polysp promises a fruitful way of conceptualising how meaning is understood from spoken utterances, partly by ascribing an important role to all kinds of systematic fine phonetic detail available in the physical speech signal and by rejecting assumptions that the physical signal is analysed as early as possible into abstract linguistic units. Polysp provides a framework by which episodic multimodal sensory experience of speech can be simultaneously processed into different types of linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge at a variety of levels of abstraction, with the emphasis always on understanding meaning in order to interact with another person rather than on building a complete description of a given utterance at successive, obligatory stages of formal linguistic analysis. We discuss phonetic data consistent with these views
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