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

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6 responses to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: The world speaks in harmony | Sesquiotica

  2. I love reading your posts. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: The vowel circle | Sesquiotica

  4. CanadianAmerican

    What Americans hear as “oot” for the Canadian version of “out” is actually closer to “oat” –it’s the Scots who can be found saying something closer to “oot” …

  5. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: The long and short of it | Sesquiotica

  6. Pingback: This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Inauguration Day, gun control, biblio-cats | Wordnik

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