Daily Archives: January 9, 2013

A Word Taster’s Companion: The world speaks in harmony

Today: the third installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

The world speaks in harmony

It’s our ability to parse the flow of sound into separate sounds that makes language work. We have a conceptual understanding of the different sounds we make – ideal sounds, targets that we aim for and come variously close to when we actually speak. When the sounds are strung together, we still think of them as independent units. It’s like handwriting: the letters may flow together so you can’t say exactly where one ends and the next one starts, but you can see the different letters.

Now, when we hear someone talking, how do we know what different movements their mouth is making, what targets they’re shooting for? It’s all to do with the harmonics.

When you make a vocalization, your vocal cords are vibrating at a certain frequency – which, if you’re singing, is the note you’re singing – but they’re also echoing in your vocal tract at various frequencies that are multiples of the base frequency (two, three, four or more waves for every one of the base frequency). If you sing an A at 440 Hertz (vibrations per second), there are also echoes of that at, for instance, 880 Hertz and 1760 Hertz, among others.

Now, which harmonics sound louder and which sound quieter will be determined by the shape of the resonating space in your mouth. There’s a resonating space at the back of your mouth, from your larynx to the top of your tongue, and the higher your tongue is, the longer that space and the lower the frequency of the harmonics that stand out. There’s also a space between the front of your mouth and the closest point your tongue comes to your palate, and the smaller that space is, the higher the resonance. The stand-out harmonics those spaces engender are called formants: the one at the back is the first formant, and the one at the front is the second formant. (There are third and fourth formants that play smaller roles.)

Thus, [u] – “oo” as in “boot” – is heard as it is because it has lower harmonics coming out in both formants: the back of the tongue is high, making a big space between it and the larynx, and it’s also far back, making a big space between it and the front of the mouth. On the other hand, [æ] – “a” as in “cat” – is heard as it is because both formants are higher; the tongue is low and towards the front. And [i] – “ee” as in “beet” – has low resonances in the first set, and higher ones in the second set. The second set are always at least a little higher than the first, even when saying the low back vowel [a], as in “bother.”

We also recognize consonants this way. If they’re consonants that stop the flow of air, we recognize them by what the tongue is doing immediately before and after. If they let just a little air through, we also get the sound of the air as it hisses or buzzes. I’ll go into close-up details of the vowels and consonants in coming chapters.

So we hear these sounds, and we have a sense of where in the mouth they’re coming from, and we also have an idea of what sound could come next in any given word – by the time you’re a couple of sounds into a word, the possibilities are narrowed down quite a bit. We can also hear the effect of the tongue moving and changing the shape of the resonating space in the mouth. And we have learned a repertory of different sounds that we recognize as distinct speech sounds (I won’t say “letters”; those are what we write to represent the sounds). The actual sounds won’t always be exactly identical, but as long as they’re close enough to a target, an identifiable known speech sound, they will be identified as it, especially if the sounds around it lead us to expect it.

These target sounds – sounds that we recognize as separate speech sounds – are called phonemes. If you meet someone who speaks another language who can’t manage to differentiate “bit” from “beat,” that’s because their native language doesn’t have a distinction between those two vowel sounds, so they’re not used to making the distinction when speaking. They may even believe they can’t. They might have a heck of a hard time telling them apart when listening, too, because they both land close enough to the same target in the set of sounds they’re used to. It’s the same with English speakers hearing and making sounds from some other languages: we may not be able to tell apart sounds that, to the language’s native speakers, are obviously different. After all, learning language is also a process of unlearning: in order to have separate sounds, you not only have to treat similar sounds as completely different; you also have to forget that some sounds are different because you need to treat them as the same in order for your language to make sense.

Next: Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

Hyphe-nation? Hyphen-ation?

Several years ago I was working on a newsletter that had French and English versions. Our client contact spoke English but was a native Francophone. She complained that the hyphenation in the English was wrong.

Now, I was laying this newsletter out in InDesign, using its automatic hyphenation. It has a thorough hyphenation dictionary. I am a very, very fluent native Anglophone. I knew the hyphenation was right. But she was quite certain that it was not.

What did she think was wrong with it? Well, you see, it’s this: not everyone who speaks English realizes it, but we, like the French and speakers of many other languages, will as a habit say a consonant at the beginning of a syllable rather than at the end of the previous one if we can. For instance, we actually say the word breaking as [bɹe kɪŋ] (like “bray king”). Of course, there are some consonant pairs we won’t put together at the start of a syllable; we don’t say “da-mnation,” for example. Now, as it happens, in French, hyphenation occurs between syllables as they are actually said. By this rule, you would hyphenate at brea-king. That’s what she wanted

Does that look a little off? Would you say it should be break-ing? You’d be right.

In English, we have two different ways of hyphenating. In the British style, we aim to break at morpheme boundaries. What that means is that if a word is made up of a root and some prefixes and/or suffixes, you break at the boundary between the parts. So when you have break plus ing you break between them. And when you have hyphen plus ation you break it as hyphen-ation even though you actually say it like hyphe-nation.

We break those two words the same by the American system, but for a different reason. There is another very important fact in English that affects not just how we hyphenate words but how we read them and think of them generally. When you read a word, the quality of the vowel can be affected by the consonants, if any, that come after it – so we break at bus-ing rather than bu-sing – and the quality of a consonant can be affected by the vowels or consonants that come after it, so we will hyphenate Angli-cism rather than Anglic-ism because that c would look like a [k] sound. The American approach aims to make sure that when you read the first part of a word before the line break, you don’t have to rethink it once you see the second part. So it has to look as though it sounds like it actually does sound.

We just don’t write words exactly as they sound. English spelling is so perverse as to be almost ideographic at times. We have to recognize whole syllables or even whole morphemes, like break and breaking (as opposed to bread and breading, for instance – you only know what the vowel sound is when you see the letter after it). This results in some further traditions that couldn’t possibly make any sense from a strictly phonetic perspective.

Take a word like hotter. We actually say it with the /t/ at the beginning of the second syllable. But we have to think of the first syllable as ending with a consonant. If we spelled it as hoter, that would mean the syllables were ho ter, and that would make the o into a “long” o. So we write it with a double t to make it clear that the first syllable is a closed syllable, meaning its vowel is “short” – even though the syllable isn’t actually closed when you say it. It’s how you think you’re saying it that matters. Welcome to the wonderful world of phonemics!

But we also don’t break it as hott-er. As everyone learns in elementary school, we split it between the double letters: hot-ter. Never mind that there is no second [t] sound; that extra t isn’t part of the first syllable. But it’s not that we always break up consonant letters when the second one is unspoken: it’s dumb-er and smack-ing, not dum-ber (which could read as though you say the [b]) and smac-king.

There’s actually a little more to all this even than what I’ve already said. A favourite “gotcha!” in intro linguistics courses is to ask students where the syllable break is in Christmas. Now, we know right away that we don’t actually say a [t] in there. But we also know it’s a compound with a clearly identifiable first part, Christ, and we know that we would never start a syllable with [stm], so not only would we always hyphenate it as Christ-mas, it just makes sense that we must actually be breaking the syllable right before the [m]. Otherwise the i might stand for a different sound, as it would in an open syllable.

But nope! Gotcha, says the professor: the real break is [krɪ sməs] – that is, “Chri-s’mas.”

Except… Try this. Shout “Clover!” emphasizing each syllable, as though to a person hard of hearing and some distance away or in a noisy club. You hear what you do: “Clo! Ver!” OK, now try “Christmas!”

Is it “Chris! Mas!” or is it “Chri! Smas!”? Or is it more like “Chri! ss, Mas!”? Your results may vary, but for at least some people the [s] will fall squarely in the middle, a phenomenon called ambisyllabicity – something not all linguists agree exists. Try some other words such as breaking and dumber and hotter and see where you put the consonant in the middle. The natural tendency is for it to attach to the following syllable, but we think of it as part of the previous syllable, and it affects how we pronounce the word too, so it may not entirely let go of the previous syllable.

In English, we just don’t read one letter at a time. We just can’t! Consider the effect of breaking according to when we actually start saying the next syllable, separating vowels or consonants from the consonants that affect them:

En-
glish

sy-
llable

mi-
ddle

ho-
pping

assi-
stant

ma-
king

ma-
sking

regre-
ttable

and so on.

How did I resolve the issue with the newsletter? I just turned off hyphenation, which made the right edge of the text more ragged (don’t do it if you have full-justified text, especially in narrow columns) but quite readable and not susceptible to imposition of inappropriate hyphenation standards.

rife

Word country is rife. It is rife with the usual things, of course: speculation, rumours, problems, conflicts, and even corruption. Such strife! If something is rife with something else, that something else is simply expected to be negative. It is like a loaded rifle, this word, and with is the charge and the word that follows is the bullet.

But this rife gun may also bear flowers. And so it does in word country. Here it is also rife with life, each stream teeming, each river ripe with fish and flora. Words may reproduce like cells: each one, when riven, arrives as a pair, making multitude, a flow and a flood. Is this a corruption of the language? If so, we are rife with it, but is that a bad thing? Let sense effloresce. Somewhere in the rough, forgotten past, a split happened in a word and one branch went on through Latin to become river and arrive and kin, and another went by way of Germanic words to become a word that split to be the dividing word rive, best known now in its riven form, and rife, a word for multiplicity and prevalence.

Multiplicity and prevalence that has, over the centuries, leaned towards the sour flavour, the sound of strife and rifle more than of ripe and life and wife and rice; we seldom – though not never – now see such assemblages as rife with beauty or hope was rife that… The sense has split again, and one stream is the stronger.

As words and senses may divide, so too may sounds. In the word country of Canada, there is one more thing dividing rife and rive: the vowel sound is different. Oh, it is the same phoneme, it stands for the same thing, but Canadians start the /aɪ/ diphthong higher before voiceless consonants: “uh” rather than “ah”, [ɹəɪf] against [ɹaɪv]. Thus it is riven and we are ever more rife with sounds in the river of our language.

But what comes may go. Time will not reverse any more than a river may, but differences can disappear and words and sounds may merge, dissolving conflicts and creating problems. What is rife may yet see itself undone in fire. When will that happen, and how, and where? Speculation and rumours are rife. But you will not know until the time is ripe.