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 Phonology, phonemes and phonetics

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Samiha
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عدد المساهمات : 159
تاريخ التسجيل : 2010-01-23
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PostSubject: Phonology, phonemes and phonetics   Fri Aug 20, 2010 4:52 am



Phonology, phonemes and phonetics

You may have known for some time that the suffix “-phone” is to do with sounds. Think, for instance, of telephone, microphone, gramophone and xylophone. The morpheme comes from Greek phonema, which means “a sound”.

* Telephone means “distant sound”
* Microphone means “small sound” (because it sends an input to an amplifier which in turn drives loudspeakers - so the original sound is small compared to the output sound)
* Gramophone was originally a trade name. It comes from inverting the original form, phonograph (=sound-writing) - so called because the sound caused a needle to trace a pattern on a wax cylinder. The process is reversed for playing the sound back
* Xylophone means “wood sound” (because the instrument is one of very few where the musical note is produced simply by making wood resonate)

The fundamental unit of grammar is a morpheme. A basic unit of written language is a grapheme. And the basic unit of sound is a phoneme. However, this is technically what Professor Crystal describes as “the smallest contrastive unit” and it is highly useful to you in explaining things - but strictly speaking may not exist in real spoken language use. That is, almost anything you say is a continuum and you rarely assemble a series of discrete sounds into a connected whole. (It is possible to do this with synthesised speech, as used by Professor Stephen Hawking - but the result is so different from naturally occurring speech that we can recognize it instantly.) And there is no perfect or single right way to say anything - which is just as well, because we can never exactly reproduce a previous performance.

However, in your comments on phonology, you will certainly want sometimes to focus on single phonemes or small sequences of phonemes. A phoneme is a sound segment of words or syllables. Quite a good way to understand how it may indicate meaning is to consider how replacing it with another phoneme will change the word - so if we replace the middle sound in “bad” we can make “bawd”, “bed”, “bid”, “bird” and “bud”. (In two cases here one letter is replaced with two letters but in all these cases it is a single vowel sound that changes.)

The first people to write in English used an existing alphabet - the Roman alphabet, which was itself adapted from the Greek alphabet for writing in Latin. (In the Roman empire, Latin was the official language of government and administration, and especially of the army but in the eastern parts of the empire Greek was the official language, and in Rome Greek was spoken as widely as Latin, according to F.F. Bruce, in The Books and the Parchments, Chapter 5). Because these first writers of English (Latin-speaking Roman monks) had more sounds than letters, they used the same letters to represent different sounds - perhaps making the assumption that the reader would recognize the word, and supply the appropriate sounds. It would be many years before anyone would think it possible to have more consistent spelling, and this has never been a realistic option for writers of English, though spelling has changed over time. And, in any case, the sounds of Old English are not exactly the same as the sounds of modern English.

As linguists have become aware of more and more languages, many with sounds never heard in English, they have tried to create a comprehensive set of symbols to correspond to features of sound - vowels, consonants, clicks and glottalic sounds and non-segmental or suprasegmental features, such as stress and tone. Among many schemes used by linguists one has perhaps more authority than most, as it is the product of the International Phonetic Association (IPA). In the table below, you will see the phonetic characters that correspond to the phonemes used in normal spoken English. To give examples is problematic, as no two speakers will produce the same sound. In the case of the vowels and a few consonants, the examples will not match the sounds produced by all speakers - they reflect the variety of accent known as Received Pronunciation or RP. Note that RP is not specific to any region, but uses more of the sounds found in the south and midlands than in the north. It is a socially prestigious accent, favoured in greater or less degree by broadcasters, civil servants, barristers and people who record speaking clock messages. It is not fixed and has changed measurably in the last 50 years. But to give one example, the sound represented by θ is not common to all UK native speakers. In many parts of London and the south-east of England the sound represented by f will be substituted. So, in an advertisement, the mother-in-law of Vinnie Jones (former soccer player for Wimbledon and Wales; now an actor) says: “I fought 'e was a big fug” (/aɪ fɔət i: wɒz ə bɪg fug/).

You may also wonder what has happened to the letter x. This is used in English to represent two consonant sounds, those of k and s or of k and z. In phonetic transcription these symbols will be used.

“Consonant” and “vowel” each have two related but distinct meanings in English. In writing of phonology, you need to make the distinction clear. When you were younger you may have learned that b,c,d,f and so on are consonants while a,e,i,o,u are vowels - and you may have wondered about y. In this case consonants and vowels denote the letters that commonly represent the relevant sounds. Phonologists are interested in vowel and consonant sounds and the phonetic symbols that represent these (including vowel and consonant letters). It may be wise for you to use the words consonant and vowel (alone) to denote the sounds. But it is better to use an unambiguous phrase - and write or speak about consonant or vowel sounds, consonant or vowel letters and consonant or vowel symbols. In most words these sounds can be identified, but there are some cases where we move from one vowel to another to create an effect that is like neither - and these are diphthongs. We also have some triphthongs - where three vowel sounds come in succession in words such as “fire”, “power” and “sure”. (But this depends on the speaker - many of us alter the sounds so that we say “our” as if it were “are”.) For convenience you may prefer the term vowel glides - and say that “fine” and “boy” contain two-vowel glides while “fire” contains a three-vowel glide.


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