Friday, January 11, 2008

The Sounds of Language, Part 3

Now that we've considered the vowels and consonants, what else could possibly be phonemic? What else can make a difference in meaning?

Just tell me why I would want to subject you to that subject?
Children whose conduct is exemplary conduct themselves well at all times.
Do you buy your produce in stores that produce many happy customers?
If you contract a mental disease, are you allowed to enter into a contract?
I'd like to present you with a present.
You can compare and contrast items only if there is a meaningful contrast between them.
The gentlemen on a protest demonstration protest their innocence too loudly.
An invalid may vote, and his/her vote will not be invalid.
The striking garbage collectors refuse to pick up the refuse.

I hope you get the point. Changing the stress from one syllable to another has the power to change the meaning of the word. Thus, we see that in English, stress is definitely phonemic. On the other hand, Hungarian is a language in which the stress always falls on the first syllable, no matter how long the word. So in that language, stress is not phonemic at all. It cannot change the meaning of a word.

Many people study Spanish and are familiar with its accent marks. Those little marks occurring above vowels tell us that one syllable is stressed more strongly than the others in the same word. If you shift the stress from one syllable to another, you might wind up with a nonsense word; or you might you might change the word's meaning in some way. For example, "hablo" is stressed on the first syllable, and means "I speak." "habló", on the other hand, stresses the last syllable and means "he/she/you spoke." "hable" is a command, meaning "speak!" "hablé" is a past tense, meaning "I spoke." "ingles" (stress on the first syllable) means "intestines, guts," "inglés" (stress on the last syllable) means "English." Changing the stress has the power to change the tense and the subject of the verb simultaneously, or, in the latter example, the complete meaning of the word. Thus, we have demonstrated that stress is phonemic in Spanish.

Stress is called a suprasegmental feature in a language. If stress can be proven to be phonemic, we then need to label suprasegmental phonemes separately from segmental ones (i.e., the consonants and vowels).

Can anything else be phonemic?

As a matter of fact, yes. The TONE of a word. To some extent, tone in English can be phonemic, but not in the same way that it is phonemic in Chinese. In English, if the TONAL CONTOUR shifts, it can create a difference in how the sentence is to be interpreted. We'll look at tonal contours in another posting. For the sake of this one, we'll assume that tone in and of itself is not really phonemic in English. However, tone is very much a phonemic reality to be reckoned with in all the Chinese languages and in others such as Zulu and many Native American languages.

A Mandarin word can be pronounced with one of four different tones. Each tone alters the word's meaning so that the same segmental phonemes pronounced in the different tones can mean mother, hemp, horse and also be used to indicate that what was just said is a question. That word is /ma/. With the suprasegmental toneme marker placed above the vowel, it could be /mā/ (first, or high tone), /má/ (second, or rising tone), /mă/ (third or falling-rising tone), /mà/ (fourth, or falling tone). Ma (with no tone markings) is termed a neutral tone. You can see that mother, hemp, horse and a grammatical indicator of interrogation have absolutely nothing to do with one another. One more fascinating example in Mandarin is that /măi/ means "buy" and /mài/ means "sell." You can really get into trouble if you confuse those two! That's the power of tone in Mandarin!

Cantonese is even more complex with its nine tonemes.

Zulu's two tones seem to be relegated to the personal pronouns. If a verb is pronounced with one tone, then the subject is "you;" if with the contrasting tone, then the subject is he/she. So tone is much more limited in its use in that language.

Consonants, vowels, stress and tone - these are the relevant distinctive features that make up the phonology of the languages of the world. In a future posting, we will begin to see how phonemes, though devoid of meaning on their own, combine to form particles - pieces of words which linguists call MORPHEMES, and that these little pieces, though they don't exist in isolation, are of vital importance in making up the longer units, the units we call "words."

Feel free to comment, query or add to any point made in this and other postings on this blog.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Silent letters - a challenge

How many letters in the English language alphabet can be silent? For example: b is silent in "doubt." g is silent in "gnome." How many letters of the alphabet are never silent? Which ones are they? I have no fixed answer to this question at the moment - Whenever you have a free moment, start working on this, and post your answers as comments to this posting. At the start of this project, I will publish only the answers given by members of The Linguistics Club in my school. All others may submit responses, too, but I shall not publish them until all my students have exhausted their guesses. Then, if any others in the world at large can do better, those suggestions will be added at the end. Please provide at least one example for each letter in your submissions.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Sounds of Language, Part 2

In a previous post, we examined the consonantal phonemes of English and learned that phonemes are the smallest significant units of sound in a language. Let's take this statement apart a bit. Just what do I mean by the phrase "smallest significant unit of sound"?

First of all, let's be sure to distinguish between an alphabetic letter and a phoneme symbol. p is a letter of the alphabet. /p/ represents the sound made by pressing the lips together firmly, building up air pressure in the mouth and then opening the lips to expell the air silently without the vocal cords vibrating. But how exactly do we pronounce that sound? Take the word "pin" for example. Go ahead - say the word. Now do the following: Hold your hand very close to your mouth as you say "pin." You will feel a puff of air leave your lips as you say the /p/ sound.
Now, say the word "spin." Again, hold your hand very close to the front of your mouth. Do you feel a difference? Is there less air being expelled? If you're not sure, then hold a thin piece of paper close to your lips and say "pin" and then say "spin." In each case you will see the paper move a lot as you say "pin" and the paper hardly moves at all when you said "spin." You have made two very different kinds of "p" sound. The "p" of "pin" was accompanied by an audible puff of air. You can hear it if you listen for it. We don't usually listen for these details because they carry no meaning for us. But that puff is definitely there, and it is definitely absent when you say "spin." The p with the puff of air is called an aspirated voiceless bilabial stop. The p without the puff of air is called an unaspirated voiceless bilabial stop.

So linguists deduced back in the 19th century that the phoneme /p/ had more than one pronunciation. You have now seen two variants. One was symbolized [ph], the h being written as a superscript letter to the right of the p, and the other was symbolized [p=], with the = sign written as a superscript to the right of the p.

So, phonemically, the word was represented as /pIn/, while phonetically it is written as [phIn], and the word {spin} was written phonemically as /spIn/, but phonetically it was written as [sp=In]. So you can see that the phonemic spelling doesn't tell you much about the pronunciation, while the phonetic spelling does.

Linguists realized that the reason that the puff of air (known more properly as "aspiration") disappeared if the phoneme /s/ preceded it. They were now able to make an interesting statement. They said that the phoneme /p/ had two pronunciations. It was pronounced [p=] after /s/, but [ph] everywhere else.

The sounds [ph] and [p=] are not really perceivable to normal non-linguists. They are called "allophones of the phoneme /p/". The prefix "allo-" comes from Greek and means "another," so "allophone" actually means "another sound." Allophones are the different slight variants in how a phoneme is pronounced. Actually, there are more allophones for /p/ than those I have just described. There is the "unreleased" variant that occurs when we say the word {stop} or {apt}. We don't even open our lips right after we've said the sound. So, in word final position, or when followed by a voiceless stop consonant, we say that /p/ manifests itself as the unreleased allophone [p] (followed by a symbol that cannot be reproduced normally in this blog. It is a small superscript line drawn upward and then sharply to the right, looking like a small right angle -
click here to see the symbol properly drawn.

To sum up, most phonemes in most languages are pronounced differently in different phonemic environments, and the job of the linguist is to specify exactly how to pronounce each phoneme in each environment. The allophones are said to be in "complementary distribution," a fancy way of saying that the phoneme consists of several different ways of saying it, and that if you take all those slight variants all together, they add up to the full phoneme. It's sort of like the old idea in geometry of complementary angles. If one angle is 20 degrees, its complementary angle has to be 70 because together they add up to the full right angle of 90 degrees. However, in linguistics, the allophones all add up to be the full description of all the ways to pronounce the phoneme.

In Mandarin, aspiration isn't an insignificant detail. The contrast between /pho/ and /p=o/ creates two entirely different words. So, in Mandarin, aspiration is phonemic. It's important. /ph/ and /p=/ are not mere allophones of a master phoneme. They are not in complementary distribution. Each is a full phoneme in its own right, capable of differentiating meaning.

Pairs such as /pho/ and /p=o/ are called "minimal pairs." If you can find two words identical in every respect but one, then the sounds that are NOT the same are separate phonemes, because they prove that those two sounds can contrast with each other meaningfully.

So now comes the big question. How many vowel phonemes are there in English, and what are they? How are they represented?

Again, we have to ignore conventional spelling. Whenever we want to describe a word in its conventional spelling, we place it between brackets as in the following example: {peat}.

Pronounce the word {Pete}. It sounds the same as {peat}. Phonemically, both are written as follows: /pit/. The letter /i/ represents the vowel sound that you hear in the name {Pete}. It is the same vowel sound that we hear in the words {speak}, {eat} and {Greek}. The trouble with conventional spelling is that you can spell the sound /i/ several different ways. It's confusing. But phonemic spelling never carries confusion along with it. If you see an /i/, you pronounce it as if it were the {-ee-} of the word {Greek}.

Minimal pairs can prove that there are actually 15 vowel phonemes in English. Here they are, with minimal-pair examples to show how they are pronounced:

i (as in "Pete") /pit/
I (as in "pit") /pIt
e (as in "pate") /pet/
ε (as in "pet") /pεt/
æ (as in "Pat") /pæt/
a (as in "pot" /pat/
^ (should be a full size wedge shape), (as in "cup") (always stressed) /k^ p/
∂ (as in the first syllable of "about") /∂baUt/
כֿ (as in "caught") (omit the little line above the letter) /kכֿt/
o (as in "coat") /kot/
U (as in "pull") /pUl/
u (as in "pool") /pul/
כֿ I as in "boy" /bכֿ I /
aU as in "bough" /baU/
aI as in "by" /baI/

The last three vowels are glides. They begin with one vowel and end by gliding smoothly to the final vowel. They are sometimes also called "diphthongs" because they are two vowels pronounced so integrally together that they behave as if they were a single phoneme. Often a small upward circular line is placed under the second vowel to indicate that a glide is involved.

Vowels are called "front vowels" if they are made in the front of the mouth, "mid vowels" if made in the middle of the mouth, and "back vowels" if they are made in the back of the mouth. The diagram of the vowels is schematically drawn to show that they are front, mid or back, as well as if they are "high", "centralized" or "low. " This diagram is called the
vowel triangle. Please click on this link to see it.

What do we mean by "front vowel", "mid-vowel" and "back-vowel"?

It has to do with where the main mass of the tongue is placed as you create the vowel. You've probably never realized it, but where the tongue is in the mouth determines how the vowel sounds to the human ear. If you wish to create the sound of /i/ is in {speak}, the main mass of the tongue moves toward the front of the mouth and is also rather high in the mouth. To make the sound of /u/, the tongue is also rather high, but it moves toward the back of the mouth. To see this for yourself, make the vowel sounds /i/ and /u/ rapidly one after the other and sense how your tongue moves back and forth. After doing that a few times, make the sound of /a/ as in {gone}. Note that the mouth is much more open, that the "hump" of the tongue is midway between front and back, and that it is lower in the mouth than when you said /i/ or /u/. These three vowels are the cardinal points in the vowel triangle: high front, low mid, and high back. Again, look at the
vowel triangle to see this visually.

In a future posting, we'll look at suprasegmental phonemes; that is, phonemes that are neither consonants nor vowels, but rather syllable stress and tone. Can differences in tone create major differences in meaning?

Please post any questions or comments in the comment section immediately following this post.