Tag Archives: letters

Don’t die a critic of diacritics and special characters

Do you always get your accents and special characters right in non-English words? Or are you sometimes unclear on which is which, and maybe not sure what difference it makes?

Well, lucky you. I spent quite a bit of time recently putting together charts for a presentation I took part in at the 2018 Editors Canada conference. They list the most common ones, some of the languages you’re likely to see them in, and the kinds of differences they can make – cases where the presence or lack of a little mark can turn something innocent into something dirty (or vice versa, which is sometimes even worse).

Here they are. It’s a PDF, but it’s small: accents_characters_harbeck.pdf

Letters you may not have known

Regular readers of my word tasting notes and blog entries have probably heard about the old letter thorn, þ. As it happens, there are several other letters that are – or have been – used with the Latin alphabet in English and other languages. Come meet nine of them in my latest article at TheWeek.com:

9 compellingly strange letters you don’t know about

Mind your X’s and Q’s

Today I would like to direct your attention to my latest article on TheWeek.com:

The perplexing pronunciations of words with X’s and Q’s

Wherein I talk about how and why q and x are pronounced in many different ways in different languages.

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

A Word Taster’s Companion: What makes a word

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

What makes a word

Let us start by looking at the parts of words. Take a word. In fact, let’s start with start. Here’s a simple question: what is this word, start, made of?

Did someone say five letters?


No, words are not made of letters.

That’s right: one of the first things just about anyone knows about words is the first thing they’re going to have to unlearn.

Tell me, what did you do first, when you were a very small child: write or speak?

You almost certainly learned to speak a few years before you learned to write. You knew the sounds long before you knew the symbols used to represent them on paper.

But aren’t those sounds letters?

They sure aren’t. Letters came along to represent sounds many thousands of years after humans started speaking. And anyone who can write English knows that the same letter is often used to represent several different sounds – for instance, fat, make, above – and the same sound can be represented by different letters – hay, hey, weigh.

Words are made up of quite a few different things, actually – and we’ll get to them all by the time I’m done with you – but on the most basic level of expressive form, words are made up of sounds (unless you are deaf and speak sign language).

And those sounds are made by the physical movements of your vocal tract. (If you speak sign language, they’re made up of movements of your hands and other body parts.) So when you say a word, you feel it. And when you hear a word, you know what it feels like.

So feel it. Feel this word: “Start.” Say it.

What do you feel your tongue doing? First the tip is up near the front of your mouth, behind the teeth and ahead of the ridge (that ridge is called the alveolar ridge). It’s letting some air through, making a hissing noise. Your voice is not activated: you could only whisper, not sing, while saying [s].

Then your tongue closes off the airflow. For a moment no air gets out of your mouth, because your nose is closed too (by means of a flap at the back of your mouth). Then you release it, and the tongue drops down and sits flat on the bottom of your mouth, and your voice starts up: [a].

Then, if you’re among those who say the [r], the tongue humps up like a cat stretching. It makes a narrower passage between itself and the roof of your mouth (your palate).

Finally, the tip of the tongue touches again and blocks the airflow as the voice stops – but you may find that even before the tongue gets all the way there the airflow has stopped; many people will make this stop using the closing point in the throat, the glottis, which is what you use to stop the air when you swallow or hold your breath.

So there you have it. One continuous movement of the tongue, with the voice engaged just in the middle. A continuous flow of physical movement and a continuous flow of sound. But we hear it as five sounds, because we have learned to divide the sound stream we hear into those sounds.

Next: The world speaks in harmony