Sunday, 14 September 2014


The Slightly Interested Person's Guide to Language: Part One

My Purpose

I was asked to create a short course on language for ordinary people. I didn't know what to call it. I couldn't say "Beginners" because you're not. You've been talking and writing for years. And every alternative I came up with didn't work either, so that's what it's called. So, this is not a proper academic course. It won't be academic at all, come to think of it. It's meant for the layperson, it's the Discovery channel version. If you have studied linguistics at any level it's not going to enthuse you (although you may wish to correct me if I err, just remember that most of this arose to help a Grade 7 student). I shall simply try to cover those things they glossed over in school, or you weren't paying attention to (!), or didn't understand. My aim is to give you "Aha!" moments. I'll try to make it as entertaining as possible.

When my son James was in Grade 7, I got a call from his teacher to say he was struggling with phonemic awareness, and she was sending home some exercises to help him. I had no idea what a phoneme was and her explanation didn't help, so I looked it up online, and fell down a rabbit hole. What I found was the linguistics websites of several universities, and instead of just getting a better definition of "phoneme" I discovered a whole new world.

Language had always been my "thing". But understanding what goes on to make it happen, I found to be utterly fascinating. Not everyone does. It bores some people silly. But ever since then I've waffled on about it anyway, and one thing I learned is that many people share James's "poor phonemic awareness". That is to say, explaining this stuff is one thing, but can they actually hear it? Not always. So I've spent a long time finding ways to explain it better.

So, WTF is a phoneme anyway?

It's a single sound, used in speech, which we can represent by writing a letter or two. As a simple example I want you hiss like a snake. Go on, do it. This is a "join in" sort of course. Scare the dog. Hiss. That is a phoneme, and we write S to represent it. Does that mean S always sound like a snake? Well, no. That's the biggest problem we face. Since the invention of alphabets, a long, long time ago (the Bronze Age, actually) they have faced all sorts of variations and changes. The alphabet we use, commonly called the Roman alphabet, has had enough twists and turns of its own, is used in many languages, which in turn have changed over time.

So, today, in German, as an example, if you see the letter S, and it comes before the letter T, it is pronounced "sh" instead. Like Sean Connery impersonating a snake. (BTW if you hadn't noticed Sean's way of pronouncing the letter S, then you may have poor phonemic awareness.)

The point I'm labouring here is that a letter and a phoneme are not necessarily the same thing. This is sometimes true of just about any phoneme, there are few (if any? EXPERT PLEASE) that are always represented by the same letter. No, not even M, have a look at Gaelic. Or don't. Stay away from Gaelic, it'll mess with your head! For now PLEASE AVOID GAELIC. 

But that's the problem. Letters of the alphabet represent whatever the language in question deem they represent, no matter how strange it seems to those who are not familiar with said language. And don't think English is "normal" in any way.

Remember how to spell fish?


That is a perfectly logical spelling of fish according to English spelling.

George Bernard Shaw (writer, and great wit, 1856-1950), pointed out that you can spell fish as ghoti. How? Like this:

GH as in ROUGH
O as in WOMEN

(GH, O, and TI there all represent phonemes. Get it now? Good.)

Shaw actually wanted to change English spelling because of weirdness like this, and he wasn't the only one. Noah Webster (yes, he who created that dictionary) actually did change the spelling of some English words, at least in the United States. He objected to words like "colour" and put his own version into his dictionary, single-handedly manipulating the language of an entire nation. 

So, why DON'T we change the spelling to represent the way words are pronounced, make it phonetic? 

Because you can't. Oh, you could tweak it a bit, here and there. But people don't all talk the same. Not even within a small country. Just because people speak the same language doesn't mean they pronounce words the same way. What's more, there's no right or wrong involved. So you can't insist on any given pronunciation. Why? Because people have different accents.

What's an accent?

I still, regularly, run into people who don't understand what an accent is. Read this carefully:

An accent is the group of phonemes an individual uses in order to speak.

This is why the idea of "having no accent" is silly. If you don't have an accent you can't speak. 

What people really mean, when they say "I don't have an accent" is "I talk like everyone around me". Yes, you all have the same accent. If you travel elsewhere, your accent is now different to those around you. It's wrong to say "they" have an accent. Everyone does, they just vary.

This is also why you can't "lose" an accent, despite the frequency you hear this being said. You can change your accent, either deliberately, or over time simply by being exposed to a different one. You can learn accents, and be able to copy them. You can try very hard to speak a different language without an English accent. But no matter what you do, you cannot speak without some sort of accent. 

Although accents affect all phonemes to a certain extent, they have the most impact on vowels. 

Part Two will be about vowels. 


  1. Yes indeed. Having had a grandmother with a pronounced North London accent and also being a fan of British TV, I grew up being able to distinguish "English" from "Canadian" or even "American".

  2. Absolutely...and language changes still. It does take an 'ear' to get the phonemic nuances. Love it! ~ Blessings! :)