Monday, December 24, 2007

The sounds of language

Aaron's comment reveals a depth of background that it would probably be wise to begin to share with you now.

Language is a social instrument. It unites people in their own and other communities and has the potential to unite generations by linking our predecessors' histories with our own. However, for language to even get off the ground, human beings had to be able to make sounds, and to control those sounds with their breathing, and with the various parts of their mouths: their tongue, lips, teeth, and vocal cords. They invented words which were symbolic representations of objects, qualities, actions, ideas and abstractions. And these words consisted of sounds all originating from either the mouth or the nose. Some of those sounds were made by stopping the air momentarily (as in p, t, k, b, d, g), or in creating friction, such as f, th, s and sh, or by using the vocal cords as in m, n, ng, b, d, g, l, r, z, zh, j, y, and all the vowel sounds, or by silencing the vocal cords as in p, t, k, f, s, sh, th, and h.

Some languages developed over 45 different sounds that could be combined to make words, while others developed only 15 (Hawaiian) or even as low as 7 (as in Piraha). Some languages utilized vocal tone to differentiate between words, and some created a sudden puff of air right after a consonant to distinguish one word from another.

All these meaningful sounds that have the power to differentiate words from one another are called phonemes. They are the minimal significant units of sound in a language. Whenever linguists talk about the phonemes of a language, they write the phoneme symbol between forward slashes as in /p/, /t/ and /k/.

With the passage of time, some cultures felt it important to record their stories or their history in some fashion. Some drew beautiful paintings on the insides of caves; others painted on vases; and others created elaborate writing systems.

As cultures developed through history, many invented writing systems in which symbols represented whole words. So there were as many symbols as there were words. Such is the case in Chinese to this very day. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was also symbolic in this same way, although some of the symbols carried sound value only - symbolizing syllables or just single phonemes. But to be able to read Ancient Egyptian, one has to know thousands of these hieroglyphs.

In the case of Egyptian writing, the written language gradually simplified to Hieratic writing, then to Phoenecian. By this time it was an alphabet. The very best alphabet would be one in which each letter represented one and only one phoneme. To say the least, English is not a good example of such an alphabet. Spanish is a bit truer to the idea, but even there, the letters {c}, {s} and {z} can all represent the same sound, and to confuse the issue even more, the letter {c} can be pronounced like the /s/ or like a /k/. Add to that, the {qu} is only pronounced like a /k/. Most alphabets contain inconsistencies such as these. The reasons for those inconsistencies will be discussed at a later time.

The Hebrew alphabet, as well as the Greek, Arabic and our very own all descended from that old Hieratic writing system. The important thing to remember is that spoken language came first. Writing is not language; it only reflects it.

You are free to stop here and take a break, or, if you have real staying power, by all means carry on. We'll now get a bit more specific.

What are the phonemes of the English language? How many are there?

Linguists like to present the "phonemic inventory" in chart form. The chart is actually symbolic of the inside of the mouth. Consonants made in the front of the mouth appear at the left; those made at the back of the mouth appear at the right; those made by the lips approaching each other or touching each other are called bilabial. Examples: /p/, /b/, /m/.

If they are made by the lower lip touching the upper teeth, they are called labiodental. Examples: /f/ and /v/.

If made by the blade of the tongue touching the upper teeth, they are called interdental. Examples /θ/ (pronounced {th} as in {thigh}), and /Þ/ (pronounced {th} as in {thy}).

Those made by the tongue touching or approaching the gum ridge just behind the upper teeth are called alveolar because that ridge is called "the alveolar ridge." Examples: /s/ and /z/.

The phonemes /l/ and /r/ are called liquids because in many languages /l/ evolves into /r/ and /r/ evolves into /l/. They seem to flow back and forth. However, the /l/ is usually pronounced by the tongue allowing air to escape from its sides, so it is called a lateral phoneme. The /r/ is formed in English by the tongue folding back on itself and then flipping forward. The action of flexing back and forth is called "retroflexing" and the /r/ is called a retroflex consonant.

Sounds that emanate through the nasal region are called nasals. Examples: /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/ as in {gong}

Sounds that emanate through only the mouth are called oral.

Sounds made by the mid-section of the tongue touching the area of the mouth behind the alveolar ridge, but in front of the upper palate, are called alveolopalatal. Examples: /š/ as in {hush} and /ž/ as in {beige} and {leisure} (Those last two words are a great example of what I was talking about above when I said that the English writing system is very far from the ideal of one symbol to one phoneme.). Also, the phonemes /č/ (as in {choke}and /ĵ/ as in {joke} are formed in the same area. Because they start out as stop phonemes, but end up with a bit of friction, they are called affricates. Some linguists prefer to symbolize them as follows: /tš/ and /dž/.

Behind the hard palate is a region of the mouth called the velic or velum. That is where we form the /g/, /k/ and /ŋ/. They are called velar consonants.

How far back in the mouth can we go? In Arabic there are faucal which include the uvular and pharyngeal consonants, as well as sounds originating in the glottis (the vocal folds) called glottals. The word comes from the Latin word for "throat." The very back of the tongue stops the air against the back of the throat and produces the sound represented in transliteration by the letter {q} as in {Aqaba}

The symbol /h/ represents a voiceless exhalation of air with a minimum of friction. It emanates from the glottis (the area where the vocal cords are located), and so is called a glottal phoneme.

That leaves us with just two more phonemes. They sometimes seem to be vowels and sometimes consonants, so they are called either semi-vowels or semi-consonants. /w/ is the bilabial semi-consonant, and /j/ (as in {young} is the velar semi-consonant.

Sounds that emanate through the nasal region are called nasals. Examples: /m/, /n/ and /ŋ/ as in {gong}

Sounds that emanate through only the mouth are called orals.

So, to sum up, here is the phoneme chart for the English consonantal system.

vl stops ....p.................t ...............k
vd stops....b.................d................g
vl fric...........f.............θ..s..š...................h
vd fric..........v.............Þ..z..ž
vl affr ...............................tš
vd affr...............................dž

vl =voiceless vd = voiced
fric = fricative affric = affricate

You most likely will want to think about this and review it in detail for awhile, so I will not present the vowels yet. But as a teaser, keep this in mind: if you thought there were only 5 vowels in English, you were very sadly misinformed. There are three times that many, and you'll see the evidence for that on the next posting.


1 comment:

Aaron R. said...

There are many different conventions for phonetic transcription, of course. Here are some of the other symbols used to represent some of the sounds that you mentioned, used in IPA (for the benefit of the other club members who might encounter them):
ð for the th in “that”.
ʃ for the sh in “hush”.
ʒ for the sound in the middle of “pleasure”
tʃ for the affricate at the beginning of “change”
dʒ for the affricate in “judge.”