Tag Archives: A Word Taster’s Companion


Well you may ask whether it would be wise to use this word in ordinary discourse. It seems an affront, phonier than phrenology. What are we to make of it? Pick at its form and you may come up with an assortment bits that look like they make nephritis or sphere or rephrase, but nope. Well, yes, there is nope, and spore and hope and posher and quite a few others. But all of that will leave you none the wiser.

You can see that ph at the start, long a mark of a classical (specifically Greek) origin but also seen in recent times on some slang terms. We can assume this is not slang, since it’s not a respelling of an English word and it has Greek morphology, specifically the esis ending, which is common on words such as catachresis and hysteresis that only grad-school dweebs know or care about. (I was one. I know.) So what did it mean in Greek?

The Greek original, ϕρόνησις, meant ‘thought, judgement, wisdom, prudence’, et cetera and all that good stuff. It was taken into Latin to mean ‘wisdom’. In English, it first named a personification of wisdom. Now, when it’s used, it’s generally used to mean ‘practical wisdom, good judgement, sound understanding’.

So you can use this word as a hidden dagger if you want. “I feel that this proposal demonstrates an intriguing lack of phronesis.” You can generally take it on trust that your hearers will make an assumption about a word they don’t know. However, one or two of them might call your bluff – ask you or look in the dictionary. So perhaps don’t use it. I counsel phronesis.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 3: The rhythm method

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

Syllables 3: The rhythm method

There’s even more fun we can have with syllables. For one thing, some people contend that, in some languages, syllables don’t exist or aren’t an appropriate way of analyzing words. For example, Salishan languages (Pacific coast of North America) can have long strings of apparently unsingable consonants. Mind you, the examples I have seen do have fricatives, which can allow some rhythm; say psspsspsspss to see what I mean. But I don’t know Salishan languages and won’t wade into that debate, and anyway, here and now we’re focusing on word tasting in English, even though the principles can be carried over to other languages (with adjustments for phonemes, rules, etc.).

But we do have some cases in English that can make a bit of havoc with a simple unitary view of syllables. Rhythm can be more complex. I mean that quite literally: say rhythm. How many syllables? Say all the rhythm in the world. Count ’em up! Six, seven, or eight syllables? You might say it as eight beats in four pairs, stressed-unstressed: all the rhyth-m in the wor-ld. But if you say rhythm is what the world’s about, you may well say seven beats: rhythm is what the world’s a-bout. Ask your English teacher and she’s likely to tell you that rhythm and world have one syllable each. But the mechanics of saying them – as long as you say the nucleus of world as a syllabic [r] rather than in the “r-dropping” way – cause a definite two-part movement. Can we have fractional syllables? Or extra-long syllables? There’s still plenty to be thought and said on this topic.

And while we’re on the subject of rhythm, there’s the question of stress. This, too, is something you almost certainly learned about in school (I don’t mean exam stress! I mean which syllable has the stress). Of course, as with just about everything to do with language that you learned about in school, there’s a heckuva lot more to it than what your teacher said. Now, with stress and rhythm, the really crazy stuff gets going when you start looking and phrases and sentences, and this book is about word tasting, so you’re off the hook for now. By and large, individual words have the stress patterns you probably think they have. Any word with more than one syllable will, at least when said by itself, have one or more stressed syllables. Syllables that are stressed can have primary stress (strongest) or secondary stress (stressed but not the strongest stress in that word); the syllables that don’t have primary or secondary stress are, well, unstressed.

So let’s just try a few words and identify where the stresses are in each of them:





badaboom, badabing






You may have noticed I set these out in a fairly sensible order. And, as an added treat, they exemplify some important terms for rhythm – terms you simply must know if you are to be serious about tasting words!

So let’s look at them. Bold underline is primary stress and bold is secondary stress.

pow-der – This is a trochee: two syllables, stress on the first. It’s the staple rhythm of English speech.

a-bout – This is an iamb: the reverse of a trochee. Shakespeare is generally said to have written in iambic pentameter, meaning five iambs per line, although not everyone agrees that that’s what he was doing.

coat-tail – This is a spondee: two stresses (also known as two long syllables). Generally the idea of a spondee is that the stresses are equal, and although I’ve put the second as secondary here, that’s a bit of a judgement call; they’re pretty much equal.

but-ter-cup – This is a dactyl, named from the Greek word for “finger.” A dactyl, strictly, has one long followed by two short, but the in common speech the shorts aren’t always equally short. I’ve put the hyphen between the t’s, but of course there’s only one /t/ here (and you probably say it as a tap), unlike in coattail. Which syllable does it go with? Well, now, you’ve read the bit on ambisyllabicity, right? So you decide.

ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing – These are anapests, the reverse of dactyls. I haven’t indicated the secondary stress because the first syllable isn’t always given that much more stress than the second.

re-min-der – This is an amphibrach: The stressed syllable is the middle of three.

There are also other permutations of three syllables, but these rhythms more often occur with more than one word. Still, for your reference, I’ll list them, using + for “stressed” and – for “unstressed”: –++: bacchius; ++–: antibacchius; +–+: cretic; +++: molossus. There are also cases of two unstressed (dibrach) and three unstressed (tribrach or choree), but those always only occur in the context of a sentence; words are social things, and when they’re on their own, they’re always stressed somehow.

Now to the longer words:

mar-ga-ri-ta – This is really two spondees, with the primary stress being on the second one, which is the penultimate (second last) syllable.

cal-cu-la-tor – This difference between this one and the one above (aside from one being something you drink and the other being something you can use to add up how much you spent on drinks) is just where the primary stress is.

for-mi-da-ble – This has the stress on the antepenultimate syllable (third last). But if you’re British, you may say this for-mi-da-ble, with a slight secondary stress on the last syllable. Either way, it involves a dactyl, though some might say that the British version has three unstressed in a four-beat foot (there’s a name for that, too, but I’ll spare you the terms for all the four-beat feet).

la-bo-ra-to-ry or lab’-ra-to-ry or la-bo-ra-t’ry – The last of the three pronunciations is the British style, and the penult gets swallowed and generally doesn’t make even a fractional syllable. The first is North American citation form, and the second is the way North Americans usually actually say it, dropping the /o/. So there are two common ways to say this word, and both of them involve dropping an /o/ before an /r/ – and, what’s more, not always even extending the /r/. Oh, and what kinds of metric feet are involved here? As math texts put it, this is left as an exercise for the reader.

Next: phonaesthetics.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 2: Breaking words

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

Syllables 2: Breaking words

OK, the words I talked about in “Syllables 1: The basic bits” are all one syllable, so they’re not that hard. When we get to more than one syllable, now, that’s where things get interesting. Try this word – a very appropriate one: breaking. It’s made of break plus ing. But how do you say it?

Slow it down. Now sing it on two notes. Now put a space between those notes, just a slight gap. Now speed it up, keeping the gap.

If you’re now singing brea, king, brea, king, it probably sounds quite normal and feels easy enough to do. If you’re now singing break, ing, break, ing, it more likely sounds unnatural and feels more difficult to do.

But why would the [k] go and attach itself to the suffix when it belongs to the root word? Because it’s just easier to do it that way. Consonants tend to prefer onsets over codas, given the chance. Oh, there are many things that can keep a consonant on the end of a syllable rather than migrating to the beginning of the next one. I won’t be so tedious as to make a long list of them here; much better if you just explore syllables yourself and see how they really break, and try to sort out why they break where they do. But be aware that there are many places where what you may have always thought was the syllable break actually isn’t.

“But we hyphenate it between break and ing!” Yes, we do. In English, we don’t always put hyphens at the actual syllable boundaries. We also take into consideration the parts the word is made of (morphemes – I’ll get to those) and the relation between the spelling and the pronunciation. Breaking is made of break and ing, and even though we actually put the /k/ at the start of the second syllable we still think of it as being at the end of the first one. But also, we don’t know how brea- should be pronounced until we see the next letter: Brea…thing? Brea…ding? Brea…king? So we hyphenate it as break-ing, because those are the constituent parts and because if you see brea- at the end of one line it may be a surprise to see king on the next.

We run into another problem in English because of how we think about vowels. English has tended to have “long” vowels in open syllables – syllables without codas – and more notably has a strong tendency to have “short” vowels only in closed syllables – syllables with codas. A word such as break shows that we can have a “long” vowel in a closed syllable (but usually it will be indicated with multiple written vowels, often with a “silent e” after the final consonant, showing us that the final consonant was originally the onset of another syllable). But whereas we can have open/closed pairs with “long” vowels – bray/break, be/beat, buy/bite, bow/boat, boo/boot, cue/cute – just try to find an open match for bit, bet, or book (bat has bah, though open syllables with [æ] are uncommon; hut has huh, but most places you hear that vowel sound are unstressed; there are many words with [ɑ] in open syllables – it’s an exception).

So “short” vowels generally need to be in closed syllables. But! As already observed, consonants tend to shift from coda to onset when they can. Look at latter and later. In later, dividing it is easy; la-ter. But in latter? Don’t even bother thinking the syllable splits where we hyphenate it, lat-ter. There’s no long (or double) [t] in there – nothing like you hear in hot toddy or cat-tail. No, this is a case where we think of the /t/ as being at the end of one syllable even though it’s attracted to the start of the next syllable – since there’s no onset on the next syllable, and it’s in the middle of the word, there’s a natural tendency to shift.

So does that mean, then, that latter really divides la-tter? Well, some people say so. Some intro linguistics professors will tell you straight out that, for instance, Christmas breaks phonetically as Chri-stmas (as a rule we don’t say the t, so the [s] is naturally pulled to the onset because it can go before the [m]). But say it slowly and forcefully. Are you sure the [s] is all the way with the next syllable? When you say latter, does it seem as though the /t/ – which is usually said by North Americans not as a [t] but as an alveolar flap, making it identical or very similar to ladder (the [æ] may be slightly longer in ladder) – is as much with the first syllable as with the second? Some linguists think that’s not an unreasonable way of looking at it. They call this ambisyllabicity: it goes with both syllables. Not everyone agrees that it exists. But this is an important thing to know about linguistics: although it seems very scientific, with all its technical terms and structures and codifications and so on, in fact there’s lots of disagreement about all sorts of things, even basic issues such as phonemes. You learn things in one linguistics course and are told they’re wrong in the next. Eventually you get far enough that you can start making up your own mind and disagreeing too. See? Language is a sport not just for those who use it but for those who study it, too.

Next: The rhythm method

A Word Taster’s Companion: Syllables 1: The basic bits

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

Syllables 1: The basic bits

Of course, we don’t normally say phonemes in isolation. We speak them in streams. And when we do, there’s a certain rhythm to them. Oh, most of the time it’s not an especially evident rhythm; it just bumps and bops along with little enough in the way of a prominent pattern that we don’t pay it much heed. But if we’re singing – or rapping or reciting metered verse – we not only notice it but make pointed use of it. And it can affect our word choices even when we’re not thinking about it.

So what is the minimal unit of rhythm in speech? This is one you almost certainly know at least a little about. The syllable.

OK, so now tell me: what is a syllable?

Well, what do you need in order to have a syllable?

The one thing you definitely must have is a nucleus – a peak of sonority and emphasis. This is usually a vowel, either a single vowel sound or a diphthong or triphthong. But it’s not always a vowel! If you were paying attention in “Lovely, lyrical liquids,” you know that /r/ and /l/ can also sometimes make up syllables by themselves – and they can be the nucleus, or peak, or a syllable with other parts. Say murder. Odds are you had /r/ as the peaks of both syllables. Say bottled. The second syllable has no vowel sound! (The e may be written, but it’s not said, so there is no actual vowel there.) Nasals can also serve the turn. Say button – the way you usually say it, not the careful way. Your second syllable is most likely just [n], syllabic.

A rule of thumb: If it’s singable, it can be the nucleus of a syllable.

There can be consonants before and/or after the nucleus. The ones at the start, if there are any, are the onset; the ones at the end, if there are any, are the coda. The nucleus and coda together are the rime (normal people spell this rhyme, but linguists go with the more nonstandard spelling, because they can – and to make it clear they mean the technical term).

So. Identify the onset, nucleus, and coda in the following words: bad, bird, bra, alp, scalp, eye, strengths.

How did you do? Let’s go over them:

b/a/d – Should be easy enough.

b/ir/d – Remember, when we talk about vowels, we mean the sounds, not the letters! Here the ir represents a syllabic /r/ for most North American speakers and a mid-central vowel (without [r]) for the millions around the world who “drop their r’s.”

br/a – No coda!

a/lp – No onset!

sc/a/lp – You’ll notice that we can put /s/ before most other consonants in the onset, but not after them, and we can put liquids after most other consonants in the onset, but not before them. Remember that these rules are specific to English! Other languages have other rules. Some can use almost terrifying clusters of consonants; others can use very few or only one, and some don’t allow any codas.

eye – There is no onset or coda; this is just a diphthong, [aɪ]. The fact that we spell it with two “vowels” around one “consonant” is just to mess with your head – though it does sorta look like two eyes around a nose, doesn’t it?

str/e/ngths – I included this one just because we can really stack them up in the onset and coda in English, as long as they’re in the right order.

Next: Breaking words

A Word Taster’s Companion: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

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

Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

What’s left? Is that it? Not even close. There are many sounds that people use in language that we haven’t touched. Most of them can be figured out by using new places with the same manners, or new manners with the same places, and a few require even more inventiveness. But while many of them are occasional allophones in English, almost none of them are English phonemes.

Almost none. We do have a couple of sounds left, one of which is definitely a phoneme but is hard to pin down as to its features, and the other of which is easier to pin down for features but may or may not be a phoneme (but is definitely a well-used allophone).

What are they? They are the difference between uh-huh and uh-uh.

That’s a nice minimal pair, as linguists would say. The difference between two opposite things – yes and no – lies in just one sound. The vowels are the same, front and back. To give a thumbs-up, let the air flow through your throat, /ʌhʌ/; to give a thumbs-down, stop it momentarily, /ʌʔʌ/. (You can also say it [ʔʌʔʌ].)

OK, what’s that thing, [ʔ]? It’s a glottal stop. You know the sound well enough. You probably make it in place of the /t/ in button. If you’re a certain kind of British speaker, you make it as an allophone of /t/ in between vowels: [mæʔɜ] for matter, for instance. It stands in for stops in quite a lot of places, in fact; you might even say it for /p/ in yup. You might even use it in something if you say it casually as [sʌʔm] (“supm”). And in some dialects you might use it in place of [h], as in ’Enry.

But is the glottal stop a phoneme – a distinct sound? Or is it just in uh-uh to keep the two vowels as distinct syllables? It’s probably safest to say that [ʔʌ] is an allophone of /ʌ/. But that glottal stop is certainly a sound we use in English!

And how about /h/? It is often called a glottal fricative. The problem is that it doesn’t normally actually involve greater constriction of the airway. And, in English, it doesn’t act like a fricative. English voiceless fricatives can come between a vowel and a stop (mask, raft, wished) and all English fricatives can come at the end of a word (give, biz, rouge), neither of which /h/ can do in modern English (except in special cases like huh and hah, which sometimes end with [h]). In Old English, yes – but that was a thousand years ago. In some other languages it can as well, and for them it’s reasonable enough to treat it as a fricative. But in English it’s its own little special thing, available only by itself at the beginning of syllables (and, in some dialects, often not there). It also has a tendency to be reduced in some circumstances of casual speech to nothing or near nothing. It’s a phoneme, no mistake: you know the difference between an eel on a heel and a heel on an eel. And it’s a consonant – you say a heel, not an heel. But it’s its own special kind of consonant in modern English.

These two sounds, [h] and [ʔ], are a pair notable for their absence not only from the rest of the classification but from actually being heard. Yes, /h/ is audible, but barely, and sometimes not really at all except as a gap in the sound. The glottal stop is simply a break in the flow of the sound: it’s the ultimate absence. There’s not even any enunciatory cue into or out of it – the tongue and lips don’t need to move for it to be made.

It goes without saying that we don’t have voiced variants of these. The surprise is that some languages do have a voiced equivalent for /h/. How is that possible? What it is, in fact, is really a breathy voicing added to the end of the preceding vowel or the beginning of the next. Make a low, lewd laugh – huhuhuhuhuh – and you will likely be alternating between /h/ and breathy voicing.

What do [h] and [ʔ] feel like to say? Exact opposites: /h/ is a perceptible free flow of breath, whereas the glottal stop is a perceptible lack of flow of breath. It does not usually produce a sense of asphyxiation, though it may leave you with extra breath to expel at word’s end. It simply gives a little catch or hiccup in the flow, and there are a variety of flavours that can have. The breath of /h/ will naturally be associated with all things expressed by breathing out: exhaustion, exasperation, excitement, or even ease. It’s so often so gentle as to be just like a brush of a feather – but it always expels extra air, leaving you a little closer to winded.

Next: syllables

A Word Taster’s Companion: Wow! Yay! Glides!

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

Wow! Yay! Glides!

Glide. Come glide with me. You’ll get the hang of it. In fact, you already have the hang of it. You may never have been on a hang glider, but you have certainly glided smoothly on open air. If you’re flying a hang glider you may say “Wow! Yay!” But any time you say “Wow! Yay!” you’re gliding, no matter where you are and what you’re doing.

A glide is really a high and tight vowel sound serving as a consonant, the open air flowing smoothly but somehow making a consonant. In English, we have two glides: /j/ and /w/, the first sounds in yay and wow. You know (if you’ve been paying attention and have read “The vowel circle”) that the ay in yay and the ow in wow are diphthongs: vowel sounds that involve a movement. These ones in particular move to narrower vowels, [ɪ] and [ʊ]. But you can also hear, especially if you say “wow wow wow wow” and “yay yay yay yay,” or if you hold the opening sound (“wwwwwow” and “yyyyay”) that the opening sounds are pretty much the same as the final sounds of the diphthongs.

Glides illustrate even more clearly than liquids the fact that what is a consonant is often a matter of how it is used and thought of as much as of its characteristics. This is not true of all sounds; /a/ will never be a consonant, and /t/ will never be a vowel. But there is a grey area where consonants and vowels blur together, and the glides are in it (although I think glides sound more blue and yellow than grey).

This is not to say that the glides are absolutely identical with the vowels except for how they’re used. They may or may not be. Say “ye ye ye ye ye woo woo woo woo woo.” Notice how you can tell where the glide stops and the vowel starts. In these words, the glides have to be tighter than the vowels in order to be distinguished from them. Watch how you say ya and you and we and wa. See if they’re as tight.

But now say “ow ow ow ow a wa wa wa wa” and “ay ay ay ay a ya ya ya ya.” Watch how you say them. How closed are the glides? What else are you doing to make the distinction so it doesn’t just sound like “owowowow” and “ayayayayay”?

Glides are voiced. They don’t have to be. But we no longer have phonemic voiceless glides in English. We almost still do: if you want to distinguish which clearly from witch, you may devoice the /w/ – or just say a /h/ before it that spreads the devoicing onto the /w/, which is not quite the same thing. A similar effect can happen in words such as human and humour. Glides are also susceptible to the same devoicing caused by aspiration that affects liquids: try pure twit. Say that slowly, perhaps as if you’re describing someone with great disdain. Listen to the glides: /pjur twɪt/ – the aspiration from the /p/ and /t/ spreads onto the /j/ and /w/ and devoices them.

Glides can also be nasal or non-nasal (oral), just like the vowels they resemble – and, as with those vowels, this variation is allophonic but not phonemic in English. It spreads from a nearby nasal: compare mute (/mjut/) with beauty (/bjuti/). You may find it hard to hear the difference, but it’s there.

What do glides feel like to say? They’re sort of like the yo-yos of the mouth, perhaps in part because yo-yo uses them. The tongue (and, in /w/, the lips) swings in close and then pulls back, like an upside-down bungee jump. These are also things your mouth does while tasting – tasting wine, for instance. A wine taster will have a sip of wine and, holding it in the mouth, inhale on a [w] gesture to aerate it. Then, lips closed, the taster may make a series of [j] gestures ([jajajaja]) with the tongue to swish the taste in the mouth and get it into the nose. When held, glides can have a sense similar to that of nasals: they can express hesitation (“Yyyyyyyeah… wwwwwell…”) or enthusiasm (“Yyyyess! Wwwwwow!”)

Next: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Ah, frick it

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

Ah, frick it

Affricate. I do like this word, affricate, though it actually doesn’t contain the sound it names. “Affricate” is not “African” said with a cold and laryngitis, nor is it an expression of dismay or frustration (“I forget!” “Ah, frick it!”). Well, some affricates may be expressions of dismay – [ts] gets used for this at times – but it’s not essential to their nature. An affricate is a stop that releases to a fricative: a single gesture of the tongue, thought of by the speaker as a single sound, but made of two parts: the tongue moves, making a sort of breaking sound. It’s a consonant equivalent of a diphthong. Judge for yourself: Say “judge” and listen to the consonants in the word – is there more to them than in “dud” or “shush”

We don’t have a lot of affricates in English. If you look at the consonant list in “Sushi thief!” you’ll see a reason why: an affricate requires a stop and a fricative in the same place, and we don’t have that many pairs like that. Actually, we have even fewer than we could. Our only affricate phonemes in English are /tʃ/ and /dʒ/: “ch” and “j.”

We may occasionally say the available other stop-fricative combinations – [ts] and [dz] – and sometimes we may even say them so they’re not across syllable boundaries (as what’s up sometimes becomes ’tsup, for instance). But we don’t think of them as single sounds. In fact, many people will have a resistance to saying them where we can say /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, or will even think they can’t say them because we don’t start syllables with a stop followed by a fricative. Many English speakers have problems saying something like “tsump” and “dzump” – or tsar, or tsunami. But we have no problem saying “chump” and “jump,” or “char” (or “chunami,” if that were a word), even though they’re also a stop plus a fricative in a very similar place in the mouth. This is because we see them – and perform them – as one gesture. You’re saying char, not tshar. It’s the difference between courtship and core chip, for instance. To show in phonetic transcriptions that they’re a single phoneme, sometimes a joining line is written under the two letters. But that’s not supported by many character sets, so you don’t see it all the time.

We also say affricates as versions of stops. For instance, say choo-choo train. You may have noticed that you make the t is as the same sound as the ch. You’ll find the same thing, but voiced, in juju drain. In many places where [t] and [d] release with the tongue flexing towards the palate – nature, gradual, dread – the gesture results in affrication: as you release the stop you make a fricative on the way to the next sound. So our target phoneme is /t/ or /d/ and we have it in mind to say that sound and we hear it as a version of that sound, but it actually comes out as  [tʃ] and [dʒ].

But those aren’t quite the only affricates we have as allophones. Say cute. Now say it with emphasis, especially on the start – draw it out: Cute! Notice how the hump of your tongue is actually fairly far forward in your mouth when you say the [k]? And how air escapes past it as it releases to the vowel? Congratulations. You’ve just made an affricate that most Anglophones can hardly even conceive of existing – even though they make it: a voiceless palatal affricate. (The International Phonetic Alphabet way of writing it is [cç].)

It’s the further progress of that movement, by the way, that led Latin c, originally [k] in all positions, to become [tʃ] before [e] and [i], as it is in Italian and as one hears it in church music. It’s very easy to move [cç] forward just a little more to [tʃ]. (The process was a little different with [sk]: it dropped the stop as it softened up and it became [ʃ] without passing through [stʃ] – which is why excelsis is “ek-shell-cease” and not “ex-chell-cease,” and prosciutto is “pro-shoot-toe” and not “pros-choo-toe.”) That movement, from [k] to [tʃ], is also one way English came to have these affricates; cheap, for instance, is related to words and roots in other Germanic languages that start with [k] – German kauf, for instance.

It also goes in the other direction: the “y” sound as in yes and yellow – written as [j] in IPA – can be made so narrow that it touches the palate and makes an affricate. You can hear this in some dialects of Spanish: llave, [jave], has moved to [dʒave] in some South American versions, and the same accent can cause its speakers to pronounce English with the same effect: for instance, your sounding like jor. This same process is in fact a way that Latin words with j, which was really i in Latin, came to be said with [dʒ] in English.

What do affricates feel and sound like to say? [tʃ] can have a kind of mechanical or metallic crispness, which shows up in chug, cha-ching, and similar words. It sounds like bells, small change, machines… That effect is softened when you add voice, but there can still be a certain sturdiness, as for instance in Jack and jug. I’d say this also draws on the effect produced by a sense of jutting jaw and meeting teeth, which can be a movement you make when you say these sounds. On the other hand, the crispness of the release and the involvement of the most delicate of our stops, [t] and [d], can make these seem light and pretty in the right context, for instance Chelsea and Jennifer.

Consider the different sound effects between guy and chap, or coffee and java. Try swapping in affricates for stops, or vice versa: choffee? Gava, dava? Does it make it feel sturdier or more delicate, or something else entirely? One thing’s sure: that extra little break does add a little more richness to the flavour.

Next: Lovely, lyrical liquids

A Word Taster’s Companion: The long and short of it

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

The long and short of it

There’s something you should know about long and short vowel pairs in English.

They’re not.

Oh, the short vowels are short. And they’re even slightly shorter before voiceless stops than before voiced ones (the [æ] in mat is a bit shorter than the one in mad, for instance).

And the long ones are longer. But not because they’re long versions of the short ones. “Long i” is not actually a long version of “short i,” nor is “long o” an extended version of “short o.” “Long a” doesn’t have any of the sound of “short a” in it at all. Same goes for “long” and “short” e. And u? Even worse.

Let me show you what I mean. Pretend you’re at the doctor and say “ah.” Say it quickly first. There’s your short a. OK, now say “aahhhh,” nice and long. There’s your long a: a long version of a short a. But it’s not your “long a” at all. You know what “long a” is: the sound in fate. But if it were really a long version of “short a,” you would say that word like “faat.”

So why don’t we do that?

Well, we used to. Then something changed.

English “long” vowels actually were long versions of the short ones centuries ago. But accents change over time, pronunciation of phonemes shifts, and there was a big change during the 15th and 16th centuries, a thing called the Great Vowel Shift. The long vowels all moved up in the mouth while the short ones stayed put. The vowels at the top couldn’t move any further up, so they became diphthongs starting lower in the mouth and moving up.

So the word we used to say as “baat” is the word bate. The word we used to say as “bate” is the word beet. The word we used to say as “beet” is the word bite.

Meanwhile, things went even nuttier in the back. The word we used to say like “boat” is the word boot (hence the oo spelling) and the word we used to say like “boot” is the word bout. But what we call “long o” is really the shifted version of a long version of the sound in bought. What we call “long u” is another thing that happened to that vowel: the sound we used to say as in “booty” is the sound in beauty.

Does that seem stupid? Consider that in some versions of English (much Canadian English, for instance), the word stupid – which because of the vowel shift became like “styoopid” – is now back to a pre-shifted “stoopid.”

Meanwhile, the short vowels pretty much stayed put, resulting in these mismatched socks. Watch the zigzag your tongue makes as you say the vowels in bat, bait, bet, beet, bit, bite, in order. You might find it clearer if you say just the vowels and leave off the [b] and [t]. Now try them in the order of bat, bet, bit; bait, beet, bite.

Congratulations. You’ve had your tongue for how long? And you may just be getting to know its ways better now.

But why would this happen? Does it seem too strange for words? Well, in fact, changes to pronunciation keep on happening, everywhere, all the time. A language never stops changing as long as it’s in active use by people who speak it as their first language. The Great Vowel Shift is just the best-known vowel shift. There’s one in the United States called the Northern Cities shift that is in progress now and is responsible for the raised and fronted “short” vowels you hear from Buffalonians and others on and near the Great Lakes (why Ann can sound like “Ian” and gone can sound like “gan” to people from elsewhere). Think, too, about how people from the southern US often say their vowels – they’re different from the way Northerners say them even though way, way back in the mists of time all English speakers said them about the same way. Think about the “Canadian raising” I talked about in “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes”: eyes versus ice, loud versus lout.

And listen around for some other changes that might be more evident in some groups of the population than others (younger people, for instance) – such as a lowering that makes test sound more like “tast.” Listen for changes to consonants too, and differences between different speakers. The one constant in language is change. And sometimes that change can get pretty weird.

Next: on to consonants.

A Word Taster’s Companion: The vowel circle

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

The vowel circle

Vowels are the blood of words. They’re what allow words to move, to project, to be sung.

As I’ve explained in “The world speaks in harmony,” what vowel you’re saying is determined by where your tongue constricts the airflow in your mouth. That can be anywhere in your mouth that allows air to pass through the middle. But, in practice, languages have typically between five and twelve sounds that are recognized as distinct vowel sounds, and as long as a sound is close enough to one of those, it will be interpreted as that sound. And the acceptable sounds – the phonemes – are, depending on the language, mostly or entirely in a somewhat circular arrangement around the mouth.

The single-sound vowel phonemes we have in English are these:

/u/ as in boot

/ʊ/ as in put

/o/ as in boat (actually a slight diphthong in most kinds of English – see below)

/ɔ/ as in bore

/ɑ/ as in bop

/a/ as in bar

/æ/ as in bat

/ɛ/ as in bet

/e/ as in bait (actually a slight diphthong in most kinds of English – see below)

/ɪ/ as in bit

/i/ as in beat

/ə/ as in but (when it’s said in a stressed syllable it’s a little different and is often written as /ʌ/) – our one vowel that’s right in the middle of the mouth

The letters in slashes like /e/ are the International Phonetic Alphabet symbols for the sounds. Slashes mean we’re talking about a phoneme – a sound that’s a recognized distinct sound in a language. When we’re talking about the actual sound that’s made, whether it’s the same as the phoneme or not, we use brackets, like [e].

Those single-sound vowels are called monophthongs by people who really want to or have to call them that. (Take a moment to taste that word, monophthong.) We also make a number of diphthongs – vowel sounds that move from one part of the mouth to another. They’re not two vowels, one said after another; a diphthong is a single phoneme, but it’s one that starts in one place and ends in another. You might call them vowel movements.

Here are diphthongs we make in standard Canadian English:

/ɔɪ/ as in boy

/aɪ/ as in by – Canadians often say it like [ʌɪ] before a voiceless consonant, as in bite

/eɪ/ as in bay (we tend to think of it as just /e/ – see above)

/aʊ/ as in how – Canadians often say it like [ʌʊ] before a voiceless consonant, as in bout

/ɪʊ/ as in hew (also said as /ju/ – j is the IPA symbol for the “y” sound)

/oʊ/ as in hoe (we tend to think of it as just /o/ – see above)

You’ll get some other diphthongs in some other dialects of English. Some even have triphthongs – a three-vowel movement, as in some southern US versions of words man: [aɪə]. But let’s not go crazy here just yet. You’re best off tasting words in your own dialect, so if that sound’s not in your dialect, let’s not worry too much about it now. (Oh, by the way: all versions of English are dialects, and everyone has an accent. Dialects are not just what other people speak, and accents are not just what other people have.)

OK, enough with the technical basics for a moment. Let’s do some more tasting. You already know, if you’re read “The world speaks in harmony,” that speech sounds are what they are because of harmonics. And you almost certainly know intuitively that some sounds seem higher or lighter and others seem lower or heavier. Those impressions have a lot to do with the second formant – the space in the mouth in front of the tongue. A sound like [o] or [u] tends more often to go with low, heavy, dark things; a sound like [i] goes more with high, light things. This doesn’t mean that all words with [o] and [u] must be for big things, et cetera, but if you’re using the sound for effect, that’s where you’re likely to head.

So… if I say I heard two things hit the floor and one went “plunk” and the other went “plink,” what do you assume about them?

If there are two characters in a children’s book and one is named Bobo and one is named Titi, what might your initial expectations be of them?

When you taste a word, you have to be aware of the vowels you’re using. But you also have to watch your impressions of the sound and feel and taste.

Let’s circle around your mouth with vowels. Start at [u] and move gradually and smoothly through [i], through [e], through [æ], through [a], through [o], to [u]. Then circle back in the other direction. Do it as smoothly as you can. Pay attention to what your tongue and your lips are doing.

Do you notice your lips rounding at [o] and [u] and unrounding as you go to the front? We do that in English. It’s a very normal contrast in languages the world over: round the back, unround the front. This heightens the contrast between the harmonics.

But it’s not a universal thing to round the back and unround the front. Many languages also have rounded front vowels and even unrounded back ones. (In fact, we have an unrounded low back vowel in English: /ɑ/.)

So now repeat the tongue circle exercise starting at [u], but this time keep your lips rounded as you move your tongue through the front vowels and back to [u]. Try both directions. It may help to pay more attention to what you’re doing and less to what you’re hearing. Unfocus, like when you’re watching fence posts go by on the highway and you go from counting them to watching them blur together.

Now start the loop at [i] and keep your lips unrounded all the way around, both directions.

Congratulations. You have, in the course of doing this, made several vowel sounds that never show up in English, including some that bedevil Anglophones trying to learn Turkish or Russian. You won’t need these sounds for tasting common English words, but the more you can do with your mouth, and the more you try to do with your mouth, the more fun you’re going to have. (I’m talking about language. Stop that.)

There are two other differences in vowel quality that you can make, neither of which makes a phonemic difference in English. One is what’s different between French beau and bon: whether the vowel is nasal or not – in other words, whether any air is passing through your nose while you’re saying it. In English, we do make some vowels nasal, but just when they’re before nasal consonants, as in some, sun, and sung. Sometimes the nasal consonant is dropped in casual speech and indicated just by the nasalization of the vowel, especially if there’s another consonant after the nasal – you might say [bõz] rather than [bonz] for bones, for instance.

The other difference is length. You can hold a vowel sound for a longer or shorter period of time. This is important in languages such as Finnish and Hindi. Contrary to what “everyone knows,” we don’t have an actual length distinction in English. We do not actually have long and short versions of vowels. We just have a distinction that we call long versus short. Read “The long and short of it,” next, for the low-down and dirty.

A Word Taster’s Companion: Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

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

Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades (and nuclear warfare). Well, there’s somewhere else it counts: phonemes.

As I explained in “The world speaks in harmony,” phonemes are target sounds that we get variously close to. To put it another way, they’re the sounds we think we’re saying.

Say Yeah really slowly, moving your tongue down and lowering your jaw gradually and smoothly. You have just moved quite smoothly through sounds with no sharp border between them, but though you can hear that, you will probably have a sense more of fading from one distinct sound to another than of moving through sounds that are not quite one or the other. This is because you unlearned all those intermediate sounds when you were first learning English, and you learned targets – phonemes – that you’re matching what you hear and say to.

Different languages have different sets of phonemes, and may draw different boundaries between the same phonemes. Think of your mouth as a big lot of land divided by fences into smaller parts. Everyone has the same size and shape of lot, but different languages put the fences in different places. If you’re learning a different language, you have to learn new sound boundaries. For example, our vowels in beat and bit are fixed in our minds as two different sounds, but they register as the same phoneme to speakers of Spanish, Russian, and quite a few other languages. They don’t have the fence between those two sounds that we have.

The same goes with consonants. For instance, several South Asian languages have a distinction between aspirated and unaspirated voiceless stops. We make both kinds of sounds in English, but most of us don’t even notice – consciously – that we do. Put your hand just a short distance in front of your mouth. Say spit (don’t spit it, say it). Now say pit. Did you feel a puff of air on the p in pit? We aspirate /p/ when it’s the first consonant in a word but not when it’s the second – in other words, as linguists would write it, the phoneme /p/ is realized as the phones [p] and [ph] in different contexts. In Hindi and Thai, both versions of the sound are used in the same contexts and they’re considered as different as, for instance, b and p. On the other hand, in some languages, such as Spanish, /p/ is never aspirated – one of the factors that make a Spanish accent sound different from a standard Anglophone one.

Of course, there are different accents within a language, too. English has a large number of dialects, each with its own accent. Not everyone can learn to produce the accent of a different dialect, but most of us can get used to hearing the sounds done differently. Try saying (or imagining) the sentence “That’s a rather good bit of tea” in as many accents as you can imitate: east coast US, southern US, upper-crust British, working-class British, versions of Scottish and Irish, whatever else you want to try. Some sounds will vary quite a bit – compare them word by word. And yet somehow, because you know what the targets are in those accents for those phonemes in those contexts, you can understand it.

There are some snags, of course. If we hear rather in another accent there aren’t any other words it could be mistaken for – if a South African sounds like he’s saying “retha” we can mentally adjust the targets to fit it to the expected phonemes without wondering if he was saying something else. But when there are other things the word could sound like, confusion may ensue. A woman named Anne from Buffalo may risk having her name written down as Ian by someone from elsewhere hearing it over the phone. For that matter, if the sound is too different from what we expect, we may not recognize it even if there aren’t alternatives. One time when I was working in a bookstore a British bloke asked for the “hudda” section. At first I couldn’t at all understand what he wanted. He was looking for the horror section, as it turned out.

There is also the issue that we don’t all have exactly the same set of phonemes, even among English speakers. Get people from different places in Canada, the US, and England to say cot, caught, court, and you will find that most Canadians say the first two the same, most Brits (the r-dropping ones at least) say the last two the same, and many Americans say all three differently. Canadian English has merged the two vowel phonemes we hear in cot and caught. The Brits use the same vowel phoneme for caught as for court, and in court the r is dropped.

By the way, the vowel Canadians and Americans use in court is different from the one in cot, but most Canadians and many Americans may think of it as the same vowel – the same phoneme, in other words. The key is that that sound is only used before /r/, and the other one is never used before /r/. They’re in what’s called complementary distribution, which doesn’t mean they’re being handed out for free (though they are). Since they’re different sounds but are thought of as the same sounds, they’re what are called allophones of the same phoneme.

By now you should have a clear sense that phonemes often have different allophones that we may not realize are different. And yet somehow we maintain those differences. You can even have an allophone difference in one dialect that other dialects don’t have, and the speakers of the dialect with the difference may not notice that there’s a difference – and yet still maintain the difference.

For one example, most Canadians say the vowel in ice a little higher than the one in eyes, while few other English speakers do the same, and even though Canadians think of the sounds as the same and may not be consciously aware of the difference, it nonetheless persists. Many Canadians also say the vowel in out different from the one in loud. As with eyes/ice, it’s because the consonant after is voiceless in one case and voiced in another. (I’ll get to consonants soon enough, don’t worry.) But that out vowel that sounds the same as the loud vowel to Canadians trespasses on the territory of a different phoneme for Americans: the vowel in loot. This is why Canadians can say out and hear out while Americans hear the same thing and hear it as oot: for them, it’s on a different phoneme’s turf – it’s on the other side of the fence.

It gets even better, though: we actually make an at least slightly different sound each time we say a given phoneme, even in the same word repeated. Linguists draw diagrams showing the entire area in which a phoneme is made at different times by a speaker or by speakers of a specific dialect, with dots on them like holes on a dart board. But we are still able to match the sounds to what they’re intended to be. (This is helped by the fact that the fences aren’t really so much fences as fuzzy boundaries – what you hear a sound as is affected by what sound you expect to hear.)

It’s like having hand grenades going off in your mouth. They may not hit their targets right on, but they get close enough.

Next: The vowel circle