Vowels and Consonants
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Vowels and Consonants

Peter Ladefoged, Sandra Ferrari Disner

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eBook - ePub

Vowels and Consonants

Peter Ladefoged, Sandra Ferrari Disner

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About This Book

This popular and accessible introduction to phonetics has been fully updated for its third edition, and now includes an accompanying website with sound files, and expanded coverage of topics such as speech technology.

  • Describes how languages use a variety of different sounds, many of them quite unlike any that occur in well-known languages
  • Written by the late Peter Ladefoged, one of the world's leading phoneticians, with updates by renowned forensic linguist, Sandra Ferrari Disner
  • Includes numerous revisions to the discussion of speech technology and additional updates throughout the book
  • Explores the acoustic, articulatory, and perceptual components of speech, demonstrates speech synthesis, and explains how speech recognition systems work
  • Supported by an accompanying websiteat www.vowelsandconsonants3e.com featuring additional data and recordings of the sounds of a wide variety of languages, to reinforce learning and bring the descriptions to life

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Sounds and Languages
1.1 Languages Come and Go
Once upon a time, the most important animal sounds were those made by predators and prey, or by sexual partners. As mammals evolved and signaling systems became more elaborate, new possibilities emerged. Nowadays undoubtedly the most important sounds for us are those of language. Nobody knows how vocal cries about enemies, food, and sex turned into language. But we can say something about the way the sounds of languages evolved, and why some sounds occur more frequently than others in the world’s languages.
Although we know almost nothing about the origins of language, we can still consider the evolution of languages from a Darwinian point of view. Remember that Darwin himself did not know anything about the origin of life. He was not concerned with how life began but with the origin of the various species he could observe. In the same spirit, we will not consider the origin of language; but we will note the various sounds of languages, and discuss how they got to be the way they are. We will think of each language as a system of sounds subject to various evolutionary forces.
We will begin by considering why people speak different languages. There are many legends about this. Some say it was because God was displeased when the people of Babel tried to build a tower up to heaven. He smote them so that they could not understand each other. Others say that the Hindu God Shiva danced, and split the peoples of the world into small groups. Most linguists think that languages just grew apart as small bands of people moved to different places. We know very little about the first humans who used language. We do not even know if there was one origin of language, or whether people started talking in different parts of the world at about the same time. The most likely possibility is that speech developed in one place, and then, like any wonderful cultural development, it spread out as the advantages of talking became obvious.
People speak different languages because languages change, often quite rapidly. Elderly people cannot readily understand what their grandchildren are saying, and the same is true in reverse. My granddaughter does not know what I’m talking about when I mention a jalopy (old car) or a davenport (couch). New words are always needed for new things like email, texting, and television, which my grandfather did not know. Any change in living conditions will bring changes to the language. Time itself is often sufficient to bring about changes. When people are isolated from their neighbors, living in places where travel is difficult, they develop new ways of speaking. Even when travel was comparatively simple, as it is along rivers in many tropical areas, prehistoric groups became independent. If the land provided sufficient food, they had no need to trade or interact with their neighbors. When a small group lives by itself it develops its own way of speaking after only a generation or so, producing a new dialect that its neighbors will understand only with difficulty. In a few hundred years the group will have a new language which is different from that of their ancestors and of everybody else around them.
Languages come and go. The language you are reading now, English, did not exist 1,500 years ago. The people in England spoke a Celtic language at that time. Then the Angles and Saxons and other tribes invaded, bringing with them their own Low German dialects, which gradually evolved into English. English may last another 1,500 years, but, like Latin, it may disappear as a spoken language more quickly.
Historical forces have produced about 7,000 languages in the world today, but in 100 years or so there may be less than half that number. It is worth examining why languages are disappearing and considering whether it is a good or bad thing. At the moment nearly half the people in the world (actually 44 percent) speak one of the 10 major languages: Standard (Mandarin) Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, Russian, Japanese, and German. The first three of these languages are each spoken by more than a quarter of a billion people. (See “Acknowledgments” at the beginning of the book for the basis of numbers such as these.) But most of the world’s languages are spoken by comparatively few people. Fifty-one percent of all languages are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people, the number in a small town in industrial countries. Nearly a quarter of all languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers, about the number of people in a village. It’s only due to accidents of history that Chinese, Spanish, and English are so widely spoken. If other circumstances had prevailed, the Eskimo might have become a dominant power, and we might all be speaking a language with only three vowels.
More than half the 7,000 languages are spoken by small tribes in three tropical areas, one in the rain forests of South America, another in the equatorial regions of Africa, and the third centered on Papua New Guinea. In these areas there is ample rainfall and the people have been relatively self-sufficient for thousands of years. As a result, many of them have lived in small groups for untold generations. Until recently they had no great need to talk to people outside their group. They had the resources to live and talk in their own way. Quite often they developed new sounds, constrained only by the general pressures that affect all human speech.
Now that governments, schools, radio, and even television are spreading into remote regions on every continent, the smaller tribes may want to learn more of the language of their dominant neighbors. Most of the world’s population is at least partially bilingual, and a high proportion speaks three or more languages. With the advent of more trade and businesses the smaller groups are becoming part of larger communities and their languages are becoming endangered. Generally a language dies because mothers do not speak it to their children and the language of the home changes. Parents learn a new language that their children are learning in school. Soon the children no longer speak their parents’ first language and their mother tongue is lost.
When a language disappears much of the culture often disappears with it. In the face of socioeconomic changes, small groups are forced into a choice that can seldom be fully satisfactory. They have to choose whether to keep at least partially to themselves, maintaining their traditional lifestyle, or to gain the benefits of belonging to a larger group by joining the world around them. They may (and it’s a big may) gain access to schools, health care, and a higher standard of living. But they may lose many aspects of life that they hold dear. However, outsiders should note that the choice between remaining apart and assimilating can be made only by the members of the group themselves. No one except the speakers should decry the loss of a particular language. Others who do so are being paternalistic and assuming they know what is best for other people. Some groups may be better off if they retain their language and culture, which would require some degree of separateness. Others might find it preferable to change, and allow the loss of their mother tongue. As a linguist I am sad that many languages are disappearing so that I will no longer be able to study their wonders. But it is not up to me to decide whether efforts should be made to keep a particular language alive. The speakers may find the costs too great, and the benefits small in comparison with becoming potentially equal members of a larger group.
Studying endangered languages (as I have done for more than 10 years) may reveal previously unreported sounds. It’s not that endangered languages are more likely to have unusual sounds. These languages are not endangered because of their sound systems, but because of socioeconomic changes. Many well-known languages have unusual sounds, but that does not make them likely to become endangered. American English has a rare vowel, the one in words such as her, sir, fur. This r-colored sound occurs as a vowel in less than 1 percent of the world’s languages, but it won’t cause the death of American English. Some endangered languages have complex sets of sounds and others do not. But they are all a joy to phoneticians because there is always the chance that some of their unstudied sounds are unusual. By investigating little-known languages we get a further glimpse into the range of human phonetic capabilities, and the constraints on possible speech sounds.
1.2 The Evolving Sounds of Languages
The sounds of languages are constrained, first by what we can do with our tongues, lips, and other vocal organs, and second by our limited ability to hear small differences in sounds. These and other constraints have resulted in all languages evolving along similar lines. No language has sounds that are too difficult for native speakers to produce within the stream of speech (although, as we will see, some languages have sounds that would twist English-speaking tongues in knots). Every language has sounds that are sufficiently different from one another to be readily distinguishable by native speakers (although, again, some distinctions may seem too subtle for ears that are unfamiliar with them). These two factors, articulatory ease and auditory distinctiveness, are the principal constraints on how the sounds of languages develop.
There are additional factors that shape the development of languages, notably, from our point of view, how our brains organize and remember sounds. If a language had only one or two vowels and a couple of consonants it could still allow words of half a dozen syllables, and make a vast number of words by combining these syllables in different orders. But many of the words would be very long and difficult to remember. If words are to be kept short and distinct so that they can be easily distinguished and remembered, then the language must have a sufficient number of vowels and consonants to make more than a handful of syllables.
It would be an added burden if we had to make a large number of sounds that were all completely different from one another. It puts less strain on our ability to produce speech if the sounds of our languages can be organized in groups that are articulated in much the same way. We can think of the movements of our tongues and lips as gestures, much like the gestures we make with our hands. When we talk we use specific gestures – controlled movements – to make each sound. We would like to use the same gestures over and over again. This is a principle that we will call gestural economy. Typically, if a language has one sound made by a gesture involving the two lips such as p as in pie, then it is likely to have others such as b and m, as in by and my made with similar lip gestures. If you say pie, by, my, you will find that your lips come together at the beginning of each of them. If a language has pie, by, my, and also a sound made with a gesture of the tongue tip such as t in tie, then it is also likely to have other sounds made with the tongue tip, such as d and n in die and nigh. You can feel that your tongue makes a similar gesture in each of the words tie, die, nigh. The sounds that evolve in a language form a pattern; and there is a strong pressure to fill gaps in the pattern.
Societies weight the importance of the various constraints – articulatory ease, auditory distinctiveness, and gestural economy – in different ways, producing mutually unintelligible languages. But despite the variations that occur, the sounds that all languages use have many features in common. For example, every language uses both vowels and consonants to produce a variety of words. All languages use outgoing lung air in all words (though some may use ingoing air in parts of a word). And all languages use variations in the pitch of the voice in a meaningful way.
1.3 Language and Speech
The main point of a language is to convey information. Nowadays a language can take various forms. It can be spoken or written, or signed for those who cannot hear, represented in Braille for the blind, or sent in Morse code or semaphore or many other forms when necessity arises. Speech is the most common way of using language. But speech is not the same as language. Think of what else you learn just by listening to someone talking. There are all sorts of non-linguistic notions conveyed by speech. You need only a few seconds to know something about a person talking to you, without considering the words they use or their meaning. You can tell whether they come from the same part of the country as you. You know the social group they belong to, and you may or may not approve of them. Someone talking with a so-called Harvard accent may sound pretentious. In Britain the differences between accents may be even more noteworthy. As Bernard Shaw puts it in the Preface to Pygmalion: “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without maki...

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