Monday, January 26, 2015

Know your noises

I was going to spell noises 'knoises' as a joke, but I decided against it.
There was a joke among a few friends of mine in America who thought it was hilarious when using the "A as in..." phrase to use a word that had a silent letter at the beginning, for example:
  • K as in 'knowledge'
  • P as in 'psychic'
  • G as in 'gnat'
It cracked us up. But really, English is a  weird language. And whoever is having something spelled to them usually takes a second to catch on. 
Also, I missed last week's second post, so I'm making up for it here with an article heavy on phonology. I haven't gotten into a groove with this blog like I have with Fugue for Thought (which is having its 200th post at the end of this week, so go check it out [the whole blog, not just that post]). That one's a personal endeavor guided wholly by my tastes in and experiences learning about classical music, and I have most of the posts scheduled out (tentatively) through the end of summer and potentially into the beginning of 2016. This blog? Not yet. I just haven't gotten into a groove aside from "post every Wednesday and Friday except for sometimes." I need some projects. And also, here is a mold of my teeth. It is very yellow. My teeth aren't.

It's cracked because I dropped it once and glued it back together, and also, continue reading to see why this is here. 
In any case, something I was talking to a friend about a few days ago was... well, just sounds. 
If someone understood everything you said in English but couldn't make an English 'L' sound, how would you explain to them how to make that sound? How would you verbalize it? What instructions would you give?
This friend, actually a coworker, and I had spoken previously about the pronunciation of consonants at the ends of words like 'cap', 'cat', and 'stop' and why they're (sometimes) pronounced the
way they are. Why is it that (for some people) those 'p' and 't' sounds are so short? They're almost impossible to distinguish between. Get the right (not right as in correct, but as in specific) person with the right accent to say 'cat' and 'cap' and without looking at that person's mouth, you may not be able to tell the difference. Why? How would you describe it?
This coworker and I, just a few days ago, got to speaking about the softness, or general difference of sound, between P and B in French and in English. They're the same sound, right? Well, yes and no. Why is it that the same four 'parl-' letters sound so different as in the English word 'parliament' and the French word 'parler' (aside from the treatment of the R sound)? Let's get to know the letter P. I'm sure there's a lot about it you don't know. Just read that first. 
While the letter P in both languages is a voiceless bilabial plosive (read that article too) (a plosive [or in some cases a stop] is a type of occlusion). These words are super important, I think, because all the kinds of these words describe how your mouth moves to make the sounds of a language, and in most of the world's languages (aside from Chinese, the only one I can think of that doesn't apply), there is a writing system that essentially just represents movements of your mouth strung together. 
So the P sound tells you to put your lips together (bilabial means 'two lips'), don't hum (voiceless) and that it stops whatever sound came before it. There are other variations on the P, as found in other languages like Thai and Hindi, but we've learned enough about the P for now (assuming you've read both of the linked articles so I don't have to quote it all). 
What is my purpose in talking about all this? Well, it's that even though the letter P represents the same sound in both languages, and the mouth generally moves the same way to make that sound, they still sound different. Why? Well, it's because they're not made exactly the same. 
My coworker has spent more time studying French than I have, but I have an advantage as a native English speaker so it is innately more familiar to me than to him. In any case, we both described the sound as 'softer,' 'mouthier,' or 'fuller' than its English equivalent. He also brought out that it is almost voiced, it seems, and causes confusion because it sounds much more similar to a B sound because of that (in all other respects, B and P are the same, being voiced/unvoiced consonants, they share all other qualities, at least in English). So why did I find this conversation so interesting?
"God is in the details." I've had more than one boss say this, and it's true with language too. It's these tiny, sometimes nearly-imperceptible differences in pronunciation that make all the difference when you're trying to sound like a native speaker. And if you can't identify and hear those differences, you'll never be able to imitate them. 
A healthy mouth has all of the same functioning parts as any other, and it's what we use to make different noises. There are top and bottom teeth, top and bottom lips, an airway, an upper palate, and a tongue that flaps around in the middle of it all. It's a great exercise to think about those sounds you make thousands of times a day and really analyze how you make them. If you're bilingual (or more), think about those 'same' sounds in another language and how they're similar but (perhaps) just slightly different. Why? What makes them different?
Some languages classify their consonant of vowel sounds into things like 'open' vs. 'closed' or 'front' vs. 'back' and will only put one type of one with the same kind of sound, but we're not so organized in English. We have no such thing as vowel harmony as in Turkish (that's a fantastic wiki article, by the way!), so we're used to pairing all sorts of weird sounds in all sorts of weird ways quite willy-nilli-ly, such that they give non-native speakers some problems. For example, the 'sh-' sound in Chinese is reserved for use with vowels like the 'a' in 'father', the 'ow' in 'house', the 'way' in 'sway', the schwa'd 'u' as in 'butter,' the 'oo' as in 'too' or the 'wa-' of a Broolyner saying 'walk' (something like a 'wuo' sound, if I had to approximate), or the almost entirely absent 'empty rime' -r represented in pinyin by "shi.". For those of you who read Chinese (or want to look up the sounds on Forvo), I'm referring respectively to 上, 少, 水, 蛇, 書, 說 or 是 (I think that's all of them). 
It does not work with vowel sounds like the 'ee' in 'bee.' So it's very difficult for some Chinese speakers to say 'she' because these are two sounds that never appear together in Chinese. For a word that has a sound similar to 'sh' (represented in pinyin by an 'x', as in 'xi') you'll need to look up the words 西 or 休息, which is the sound used for that kind of vowel (and is a sound that doesn't exist in English). Does that make sense?
All I'm saying here is that it's so much easier to teach others the sounds of a language, including learning them yourself, if you know precisely how they're made. Start with the sounds of your language. Analyze them, watch yourself in the mirror, record yourself even, and think of how you'd describe how that sound is made to someone having trouble making it. Observing is super important, and that's why I still have that mold of my teeth. I used to use it with students as a model to show them where exactly my tongue goes for certain sounds in English, not just how to use Chinese sounds to approximate English ones. 
Listen and observe. And imitate. But start with your own language first, and learn all of those phonology terms in the articles linked above and begin to identify them in your language (or languages). 

No comments:

Post a Comment