Tuesday, 30 September 2014

TSIPGTL: Part Two: Vowels

How many vowels are there?





ARGH, I hear you say, I thought I at least knew the answer to THAT one. I learned it when I was small.

But no.

These are simply the letters used to write vowels sounds. They are not really vowels. Vowels are sounds. They are phonemes, see previous blog. You're all grown up now, so you can cope with this concept, oh yes you can!

One letter can represent several different vowel sounds. Why? Good question. That was a choice made by persons unknown long ago. What I can tell you is that English is not a phonetic language, so the written form is very little help much of the time as a guide to pronunciation. 

Was there ever a time when one letter equalled one sound?


Some experts believe that the alphabet we use - the Latin alphabet - was phonetic in Latin, in Roman times, at least to begin with. Unfortunately this theory cannot be proven, because we cannot hear the Romans speak. Latin as it spoken today in churches, etc, is not necessarily the same, and most likely isn't. Of course, there are other languages, known as Romance languages, some of which have fairly easy-to-guess vowels because they descend from Latin (the obvious ones being Italian and Spanish) but then there's French, which has deviated about as far from "pure" Latin vowels as it is possible to go. So, what do we know?

All we can do is learn our language as it is and suck it up, frankly. Children seem to cope, sooner or later, with all the quirks. 

So let's look at each vowel individually.

What does A represent?

It can be the A in cat.
It can be the A in man.
It can be the A in late.
It can be the A in father
It can be the A in all.

So there's 5 vowels already, with just one letter.

Already, I see some hands raised. Yes, you at the back, You are saying that two of these are the same. Say it out loud, I dare you. Oh, now look, that guy to your left, he's telling you that you are wrong. Oh dear, now a fight has broken out.

You're both right. Depending on your accent (see previous blog) you'll have a different quantity of vowels. There simply is no right and wrong about this, but it's another reason why phonetics don't work. It's also why there is no simple answer as to how many vowels there are. Americans have about 15, depending on region. Australians appear to have the most, up to 21. I have counted 20 in my London accent. How many do YOU have?

Vowels are made in different parts of the mouth. Experts talk of front vowels and back vowels, they also talk of high vowels and low vowels, which refers to where your tongue is. Totally deaf children can be taught to speak simply by learning how to shape their mouths. Actors who wish to accurately recreate other accents must pay close attention to this too. The main reason why people "doing" accents get them wrong, is failing to shape their mouths as a native speaker would. 

In fact the bulk of differences between accents is the vowels. This applies to learning other languages too. 

An example is the French word mais meaning "but". Some of you recognize this. You probably have a vague memory of it being pronounced "may". But it isn't. There is a difference between the correct pronunciation of mais and that of may. Knowing that difference, and of course, most of all, being about to pronounce that difference, is all about accent, and is all about getting it right. You will be understood if you say may, but you will sound as bad to the French as a bad English accent sounds to us. 

To hear an English speaker totally insult the French language, please watch this:

(For some reason it won't embed.)

The problem is that some people simply can't hear the difference. This goes back to my previous blog about James and his poor phonemic awareness, almost certainly due, at least in part, to having parents with a different accent. He learned to ignore it, and ended up struggling then to deliberately tell the difference.

Test your phonemic awareness.

You're presumably familiar with the Harry Potter movies. You've heard the actors say Harry in several different accents.

Tell me, do any of them rhyme it with Hairy?

NOTE: One of my friends, who I was hoping would participate in this discussion, due to his perspective from having English as a 2nd language, died suddenly yesterday. Just found out, and such a shock. Treasure your online friends. They are REAL.

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