Tag Archives: phonemes

Pronunciation tip: N’Awlins, Worcestershire, and the “dropped R”

I filmed my latest pronunciation tip over several weeks, partly because it required some location shots that weren’t exactly walking distance and partly because reasons. It deals with something that comes up often with the names of certain places: If the “local” pronunciation “drops the R,” is that the true correct pronunciation? Also, what about when certain other letters of the name don’t get said?

(Just incidentally, this is also a little dig at certain dictionaries that give phonetic pronunciations as if they were phonological ones. I think every dictionary should have a trained phonologist on staff, or at least available freelance, as I am. 😀)

Different sounds that we think are the same sound (but others don’t)

My latest article for The Week is on sound distinctions that other languages make but we don’t. Some of these are things that even linguistics students don’t notice until they’re pointed out. It includes a video!

The subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching


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: Lovely, lyrical liquids

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

Lovely, lyrical liquids

Liquid. Say rarely rural, really, Larry. Oh, come now, you can do it! Why would such flowing sounds cause any trouble?

And they are flowing sounds. English has two phonemes of the type called liquids: /r/ and /l/. Mind you, they do each have more than one allophone.

Liquids are consonants that involve contact or near-contact of the tongue with the palate but allow ample air to pass around – more than for a fricative. They produce no buzz or hiss. You could actually almost drink some kind of liquid (water, beer, wine) while holding your tongue in the position to say a liquid, but the swallowing would cause you to say a nasal instead.

Liquids are lovely, lush, lyrical. You can sing them, though your voice teacher will probably tell you to sing vowels instead. The singability of these sounds means that they can be syllables, and often are. Say burble, turtle, gurgle. If you’re like most Canadians and Americans, your first syllable of each word has not a vowel per se but simply a sustained /r/ with the tongue not really moving during it. And while you may or may not slip in a little vowel – a short schwa – before the /l/ in burble and gurgle, you almost certainly don’t in turtle, where the tongue can maintain the tip contact and simply release the sides to go from the /t/ to the /l/, making the peak of the syllable not a vowel but the liquid /l/.

So why aren’t liquids considered vowels? In the case of /l/, the tongue tip touches the roof of the mouth, so that rules it out. But in both cases, even though they can be peaks of syllables (meaning you can use them where you would use vowels in words like turtle and gurgle), they don’t behave like vowels anywhere else. We use them where we use consonants, at the beginnings and ends of syllables. And liquids aren’t the only consonants that can be the peaks of syllables: we also do it with nasals (like the syllabic /n/ we usually say in button).

We don’t have unvoiced versions of these sounds in English, though they do exist in other languages – Welsh, for instance. Well, let me make a small correction here: we don’t have separate unvoiced phoneme pairs for these. But we do sometimes say unvoiced versions of them, thanks mainly to our habit of aspirating voiceless stops at the beginnings of stressed syllables (remember that from “Stop! What are you doing”? Don’t make me explain it all over again!). If the stop is followed by a liquid rather than a vowel, the aspiration makes at least part of the liquid voiceless. Say play and pray. If you pay attention, you will find that your voice doesn’t really start up again until the ay part – the /l/ and /r/ are said mostly or entirely voiceless.

There are some other allophones of liquids as well. You’re probably used to saying /r/ with your tongue humped up in the middle but not touching (except at the sides). But you’re surely also used to hearing trilled versions, from languages such as Spanish and Italian but also from Scots English and some other kinds. Trills are actually not liquids. They’re functionally similar to liquids and tend to be used in the same ways and places, but the difference between a trill and a liquid is like the difference between dribbling a basketball (trill) and just picking it up and running with it (liquid). Except that you don’t get whistled out for saying a liquid.

A further effect of this is that /r/ can be said in some dialects as tap – rather than a trill, which is multiple bounces, you say just one bounce. This is why some British accents can sound to North Americans like they’re saying “veddy” when they say very: we only use a tap for /d/ and /t/, not for /r/. But it goes both ways: a Yorkshire accent can sound to someone from southern England like it’s saying “gor any” rather than “got any” because they, like North Americans, tap /t/ in that position, while in the standard southern British accent only a /r/ would tap in that position.

To add to the fun, in English we have two kinds of /l/, a “bright” one and a “dark” one. The difference is that the “bright” /l/, which is used at the beginnings of syllables, has the tip up but the back fairly low, whereas the “dark” /l/ has the back well up, and sometimes the tip doesn’t quite touch, especially if it’s before another consonant. Compare la la la la la with all all all all all. And then say elk elk elk elk elk and see how the /l/ is reduced to something almost like /u/ without lip-rounding.

Oh, and speaking of lip-rounding, you will notice, if you observe for a bit, that we normally round our lips to some extent when saying /r/. This makes the sound more distinctive. Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself say ring. Say it slowly and clearly. Maybe take a little cell phone video of yourself doing it. You will see that your lips are rounded. Now say wring. When you say that, you think of your lips being rounded. And they are. But they’re just as rounded when you say ring.

Liquids are certainly mellifluous sounds, though holding them too long can have a sort of “low class” sound to them, just due to established norms in speaking English. Say “haaaaaaard” and then say “harrrrrrrd.” The latter sounds like what? A pirate, perhaps? Now say “faaaaaaaall” and then say “falllllllllll.” Does it sound like a dog, or like someone’s choking you? The effect is much less, however, at the starts of words: “rrrrrright” and “llllllllush” probably sound simply emphatic, and perhaps even a little upper-class – again, due entirely to association with who is heard to say them when.

What do liquids feel like to say? Well, in theory you can sustain them indefinitely, but in practice you will find that your tongue tires out sooner than you might expect because it’s being held in a tensed position. This is especially true of the “dark” /l/, which can feel a bit like choking. Ultimately, in their fluidity, liquids are rather like the fish in the stream of your speech. They’re slick and smooth and wet, and as lovely as they are to look at you probably won’t enjoy holding them for all that long.

Liquids are called approximants by linguists. But they’re not the only approximants out there. Along with these consonants that can behave like vowels, there are sounds that are vowels behaving like consonants…

A Word Taster’s Companion: Sushi thief!

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

Sushi thief!

Fricative. Say sushi thief!

Congratulations. You’ve just made all four voiceless fricatives we have in English.

What’s a fricative? It may sound like a name for some fried and sauced meat dish, but the resemblance ends at the hissing and sizzling sound. A fricative is a consonant made by tightly constricting the air stream at some point in the mouth. There are four places where we make fricatives in English, and three of them aren’t places where we make stops or nasals. Two of these places, in fact, involve the teeth, which we don’t use for any other kind of sound.

So: sushi thief. The consonants in this phrase are /s/, /ʃ/, /θ/, and /f/. An equivalent phrase is harder to make for the voiced ones, especially since the voiced partner of the one we normally write sh – /ʃ/ – is relatively new and uncommon in the English phonemic set. None of the voiced ones, in fact, were separate phonemes in Old English. They were all just variants (allophones) of the voiceless ones, just as the tongue tap is a variant of /t/ and /d/ between vowels. But that was then and this is now. Your four voiced fricatives show up in the beige visor, along with /b/ and /r/: /ð/, /ʒ/, /v/, and /z/.

So we can match the consonants we’ve looked at so far by place, voice, and manner:

Bilabials: voiceless stop /p/, voiced stop /b/, nasal /m/

Labiodentals: voiceless fricative /f/, voiced fricative /v/

Dentals (i.e., with tongue): vls fric /θ/, vd fric /ð/

Alveolars: vls stop /t/, vd stop /d/, tap /ɾ/, nasal /n/, vls fric /s/, vd fric /z/

Palatoalveolars (or alveopalatals or postalveolars – there’s a terminology fight ongoing over this): vls fric /ʃ/, vd fric /ʒ/

Velars: vls stop /k/, vd stop /g/, nasal /ŋ/

You will see there are some gaps. We have fricatives where we don’t have other sounds and vice versa. Why is that?

We match the labiodental fricatives to the bilabial stops and nasal, since the teeth are better at letting the air through. Some languages do have bilabial fricatives, but they’re so similar to the labiodental ones, you’ll have either one or the other.

Some languages have stops behind the teeth as well as on the alveolar ridge. We don’t. Many languages don’t have those dental fricatives. We do. So it goes. Not all places in the mouth are equally well suited to all manners of sound; the tips of your teeth don’t make for good stops. But languages can be quite capricious in the sets of sounds they use.

We used to have velar fricatives in English. German still has a voiceless one, as in ach. Some languages (Greek is one) have a voiced velar fricative. We used to as well. Why did they disappear? Probably under the influence of French, which was the language of the ruling class for a while in England and had a huge effect on our vocabulary and pronunciation. It may have taken away, but it also gave – distinct phonemes for the voiced fricatives. In the final reckoning of phonemes we came out ahead, and we didn’t lose our dentals.

Where else can we stick a fricative? You’d be surprised. Welsh has one in the same location as [l]. You can have them farther back than [k], too: back to the back of your throat, even down into it. Some classifications call /h/ a fricative too. It does produce sound in something of the same way, but not really through constriction. And /h/ doesn’t pattern with fricatives in English. For example, you can put a voiceless fricative before [t] at the end of a word – laughed, last, lashed, frothed – but you can’t put /h/ there. (In some languages, yes; in Old English, even, yes; but not in modern English.) What makes a phoneme what it is has a lot to do with how we use it, how we think of it, not just how we make it.

What do fricatives feel and sound like to say? Although they share the hissing sound, the voiceless ones easily divide into two pairs. The ones with the teeth are soft, whiffling like corduroys, but because of their location they tend to be associated with spitting and similar acts (and /f/ is forever associated with a well-known vulgarity, but that’s another level we have yet to get to). The ones by the alveolar ridge are louder, more strident (that’s even the linguistic term), and their carrying power – like steam escaping – has long lent to their use for attention-getting and denunciation: Sssssst! Sssshhhh!

As to the voiced ones, they have a common buzz that can tickle the tongue or lip, and they seem suggestive of motors and motion – or insects, or zippers. They’re soft but can be a bit racy, especially given the things we may encounter that sound like them.

But does it seem to you that there’s something missing in this set of sounds? Oh, quite a few things still. But one kind of sound we haven’t touched on yet is very similar to a fricative. It’s the consonant equivalent of a diphthong…

A Word Taster’s Companion: Stop! What are you doing?

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

Stop! What are you doing?

Stop. No, that’s not an order, that’s a manner. If no air can get through the mouth or nose at all until you release the consonant, that consonant is a stop. All the consonants in decapitate are stops, for instance. Our English stops are voiceless /p/, /t/, /k/ and “voiced” /b/, /d/, /g/. Why did I just stick scare quotes on “voiced”? Because you don’t really keep your voice going during the time your mouth is stopped up. Not usually, anyway. Try it with holding a /b/, /d/, or /g/ and trying to make a voiced sound. Sounds like you’re stifling a sneeze – or something worse. No, the usual difference is actually in how close before the stop the voice stops and how soon after releasing the stop the voice starts again. (Linguists call this voice offset time and voice onset time.) We also tell the stops apart by how long the vowel is before them, as I mentioned in “The vowel circle.” The differences are small, but they’re enough to notice.

Now, let’s get some exercise.

Say picket, kaput, tip-top; doggèd, bagged; debit, batted. Pay attention to your tongue as you say them. Emphasize them. Get a feel for the sound.

If you’ve read “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes,” you know about the aspiration on the first sounds of picket, kaput, and tip-top. (If you haven’t read it, why not? Give yourself one demerit point and go back and read it. Honestly, how do you expect to be an expert if you skip things?) I’m talking about the difference between the /p/ in spit and the /p/ in pit. Also between the voiceless stops in still and skill and the ones in till and kill. Put your hand in front of your mouth while you say them if you want to refresh your memory. Don’t do it in public; people might think you’re checking your breath. Actually, you are, but not that way.

OK, now say a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket… Come on, faster!

Now say gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be… come on, pick it up!

You may have noticed something in picket a and gotta. Most North American English speakers will, in relaxed speech, turn [t] and [d] between vowels into a tap or flap of the tongue – so the dd in madder and the tt in matter tend to be indistinguishable much of the time (thank goodness for context). The IPA symbol for this sound is [ɾ]. The voice never actually cuts out on a tap, which is why people often think it’s just changing the [t] to a [d] – the tap is more like a [d], but it’s not one; it’s as much like a quick British “r,” which is why the symbol is the shape it is, [ɾ] (and why some North Americans think some Brits say “veddy” for very). But you may nonetheless say madder slightly differently from matter. This will be a subtle difference in the voicing length on the [æ], as I’ve mentioned: a vowel is shorter before a voiceless stop. But the difference can often be too subtle to be reliable.

What do stops feel like to say? They’re percussive, but the exact quality varies according to place and voicing. Listen to them as you say them: [p] is lower in tone than [k], which is lower than [t]. This is because of the size and shape of the resonating cavities when you release the stops. This makes [t] the lightest and most fragile-seeming of the bunch. That’s helped by its being on the tip of the tongue, which feels less substantial than the back of the tongue, which kicks with [k], or the lips, which pop with [p]. But the tip is also the most agile part.

Add voicing now – in other words, reduce the voice onset time after release. They’re [b], [d], [g]. They’re blunter, stickier. But they still have the same kind of differentiations as their voiceless counterparts.

But it’s not as though there’s some absolute intrinsic taste to each of them. It varies from word to word, and from speaker to speaker. Say them all several times and decide for yourself how they seem to you: pat kid bag, tap dig back, top dog buck, put big cod… Yes, part of it is in how they play with other sounds. And the meanings and other associations of the words, of course. Oh, we’ll get to that!

Next: The nose knows

A Word Taster’s Companion: The consonant line

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

The consonant line

If vowels are the blood of words, consonants are the bones. And while vowels are in a circle in the mouth, consonants are in a line, because they’re made by contact – or very close constriction – between the tongue and the palate, or the lips with or without the teeth.

Start by getting just a basic sense of what your tongue is doing. Move the tip of your tongue slowly from “th” (as in “thin”) to “s” to “sh,” then back forward. Now do the same but with voice: “th” as in “this,” “z,” “zh.” And back.

Now let’s go just a little crazier: saying “l” (as in “let”), make the same range of movement with your tongue tip. Does it tickle? Oh good.

What you’re doing when you do that is running your tongue tip between the back of your teeth and the back of your alveolar ridge – alveolar comes from the Greek for “wind.” Behind it is the hard palate. Keep curling your tongue farther back if you can and you’ll get to the soft palate, also known as the velum. This is where, with the back of your tongue, you say the final sounds in long, log, and lock. All the consonants in English are articulated somewhere in the line between there and the teeth and lips. (OK, except for [h]. And also the glottal stop, but that’s not a separate phoneme.) Some other languages go farther back.

Consonants may be linear, but they have several ways they can be made, so there are more of them. Linguists classify them by voice, place, and manner. The manner – the type of movement made – is what really makes them interesting. All good word tasters must mind their manners, and in the next six sections I will tell you the manners to mind.

First: Stop! What are you doing?

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

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