Thankful for Phonetics

One of our classes right now is Phonetics. In the upcoming years we will likely be learning an unwritten language, so we have to be able to recognize, as well as reproduce, many sounds that we English speakers are not used to making. Jim and I both really enjoy this class, so we want to give you a taste of what we’re learning.

One thing we’ve had to learn to do is to make “unaspirated stops.” The letter “p” is one that English speakers aspirate when it is at the beginning of a word, but not when it is in the middle or end of a word. We are so used to this that it is often very difficult to not aspirate a “p” that is at the beginning of a word. To make an unaspirated “p,” put your hand an inch or two in front of your mouth, and try to say the word “pill” in a normal voice without letting a puff of air out with the “p.” … Can you do it? It will sound similar to the word “bill,” but there is a slight difference between the unaspirated “p” sound and the “b” sound. It is important to be able to distinguish between the two, because in many languages it will be the difference in two completely different words. In Thai, for example, the only difference in the word for “older sister or father or mother” and the word for “crazy” is that the former begins with an unaspirated “p,” and the latter begins with a “b.”

Vowels. Can you tell the difference between the vowel sounds in the words “caught” and “cot?” Perhaps you say these words the same, but there should be a slight difference in your mouth’s position – and this slight difference, in a tribal language, could be the difference in you speaking correctly and in you embarrassing yourself horribly or insulting your listeners. When we are learning our language in the tribe, our tribal language-learning helpers will not think to point out these seemingly slight differences to us – just as to us English speakers, we would not think that the words “pete” and “pit” sound similar, but most Indonesians cannot distinguish the difference in the two words. So, in order to learn the language, we must be able to recognize the slightest differences in vowel sounds.

Glottal Stops. Say “cotton” out loud. I’m willing to bet that you did not pronounce the t’s in the middle of the word, but instead made a glottal stop by closing your glottis (in your throat) to stop the air. Some British dialects use heavy glottal stops for words such as “bottle,” or “cattle.” Virtually all native English speakers unconsciously use glottal stops before words beginning with a vowel. Say the letter “a” out loud. Can you tell that you closed your throat before making the sound? Now say “hay.” Now say “hay” again, but this time with only thinking the “h,” and say the “ay” out loud.  In English, the presence or absence of glottal stops does not change the meaning of words, so we don’t even recognize that we use them. But the presence or absence of glottal stops in many other languages can determine the meaning of words. For example, in one language in the Solomon Islands, the only difference between the word for “you” and the word for “adultery” is nothing more than the glottal stop. – yikes!

This Thanksgiving season, I am grateful for NTM’s training!

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