Speaking in Tongues

People give compliments pretty freely in Chinese culture. If you’re not used to it, it can seem patronizing. Back when I lived there, a lot of expats would joke about hearing, “Your Chinese is very good!” from locals – in English. In actuality, only people with poor Chinese will hear this line. Hearing it in Chinese (你汉语说得很好!) is a small step up. I didn’t start to think my Chinese was actually good until people didn’t bother to compliment me, they just had a normal conversation with me. But if your pronunciation is really on point, people will act shocked when they hear you. Not a lot of white people speak decent Chinese.

I have a knack for phonics. I didn’t always. In high school, when I did French, I could barely do it. I wasn’t any better than anybody else. The teachers don’t teach it right, and I don’t know why. They just ask you to say it like they do. Listen to these people, and speak like they do. What good is that? An infant might learn in that way, but we weren’t infants.

In my freshman year of college, I started to become interested in phonology. This was before I was really interested in languages at all. Phonology is the study of the sounds produced by people in language. These sounds are organized under a system called the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a system you might already be familiar with if you went to school in a country that doesn’t have garbage foreign language education.

Using IPA, all the sounds of a language can be fitted into a neat little chart according to the physical action involved in the articulation of those sounds. One thing that’s always interesting to see is how patterns emerge in these charts. For example, many consonants in English come in pairs, with contrasts in voicing. Voicing basically means that your vocal cords vibrate when articulating a particular consonant. The s sound is basically z, except z is voiced and s is not. We see the same thing in f and v, and we also have two th different sounds which work this way. Don’t believe me? Try saying “thy thigh” out loud. They sound different, don’t they? But they rhyme, so the difference is in their initial consonants. The th in “thy” is voiced, but the th in “thigh” is not.

In some of our consonants, our unvoiced sounds are sometimes aspirated. English has six “hard consonants”, technically called stop consonants or plosives, which are p and b, t and d, and k and (hard) g. In each of these pairs, the former is unvoiced, and the latter is voiced. However, when these voiceless consonants are the only consonant at the beginning of a stressed syllable, they become aspirated. So for example, the c in “care” is aspirated, but the c in “scare” is not. As in interesting side note, try holding your hand up in front of your mouth and see if you feel a puff of air when you say something. The puff of air is aspiration.

Most languages do not aspirate their voiceless consonants. Many, perhaps most languages simply have pairs of consonants contrasting voicing with no aspiration, or equal aspiration. For some languages, such as Ancient Greek and Middle Chinese, consonants come in trios of voiceless unaspirated, voiceless aspirated, and voiced unaspirated. For Greek these were pi, phi, and beta, tau, theta, and delta, and kappa, chi, and gamma. Note that for the aspirated consonants, these are all written with an h after the first letter, originally signalling aspiration, but now functioning as digraphs representing completely different sounds. And yes, some languages even do four-way contrasts in their consonants, to include the last possible combination of voicing and aspiration, the voiced aspirated consonant. This is common in South Asian languages, such as Hindi and Nepali.

In addition to aspiration and voicing, consonants are described by their manner of articulation, and place of articulation. Manner of articulation refers to what kind of consonant it is. This is really hard to explain in simple terms, but here’s what a few examples: I already mentioned stop consonants, like p and b, and you also have fricatives, which are “breathy” sounds, like f and s, and you also have affricates which are hard to explain but English has two, which are ch and j, and you also have nasals like m and n, and there’s also approximants like l and r. There’s also subcategories to all of these which I don’t want to get into.

Place of articulation refers to where you’re making the consonant. To understand this, you really need to know what the inside of your mouth looks like. Here’s a few examples of places of articulation: bilabial, which means both lips, which includes p, b, and m, and if you’re wondering what sounds use just one lip, that would be labiodental, which includes f and v. There’s alveolar consonants, which refers to the alveolar ridge, which is the part of your palate right behind your teeth, which you touch to make t and d, and the velar consonants, referring to the velum, which is the soft palate, which you touch to make k and g.

There are weird quirks some languages throw into the mix to make this more complicated, but essentially, all consonants in all languages can be divided along these lines. If you understand these things, you can make any sound. Or at least you’re on the right track.

So what are the elements of vowels then? I think vowels might actually be easier than consonants. Vowels are essentially built along three dimensions: height, backness, and roundedness. Height and backness have to do with where your tongue is in your mouth when you make the vowel, and how open your mouth is. For example, the vowel sounds in “tee” and “too” have the same height. When you say them, it shouldn’t feel like your mouth is opening any more to say them. Now compare that with “toe”, “ten”, and “tan”, the vowels of which are increasingly more open, so you open your mouth more when you say them.

Backness refers to whether the highest point of your tongue (which is generally arched) is towards the back or front of your mouth. The vowel in “tee” is a front vowel, but the vowel in “too” is a back vowel. The vowel in “ten” is a front vowel, but the vowel in “ton” is a back vowel.

The last thing is rounding. Rounding is when you make a circle with your lips to say a vowel. These are usually high, back vowels like “oo” and “oh”, but several major languages, such as French, German, and Chinese, have front rounded vowels. There’s actually a chapter in the WALS (which I talked about yesterday) which talks about this. See here: http://wals.info/chapter/11 .

I don’t know how I got so into phonology in the first place, but it still really interests me. I love learning about languages with weird sounds, or that are missing really common sounds. I think it was the organization of the system, and its apparent completeness. I loved the idea of having a complete, organized system for describing something that occurs in nature. I think something about that just tickles my obsessively analytical brain.


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Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1158657297/sethian-a-sci-fi-language-puzzle-game Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sethiangame Twitter: https://twitter.com/sethiangame

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