Tag Archives: what makes a word

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