We just completed a class called Phonemics. No doubt you’ve heard of phonetics, which has to do with the different sounds in a language. Phonemics also involves the different sounds in a language, but it has more to do with the analysis and classification of those sounds. You probably don’t care about all the details involved in analyzing a language, but I thought you might enjoy seeing some fun examples in the English language of the kind of thing we’re working with.

In the English language, we have too many consonants and not enough vowels. For example, the letter “x” is not needed. In each word it is used, it could be replaced with either “cks,” as in “ox,” or “z,” as in “xylophone.”  And each vowel we have is used for more than one sound. The one letter “a” is used to represent a different sound in each of these words: apple, allude, ate.  But not only do the single-letter vowels represent multiple sounds, there are some letter combinations that represent different sounds, as in the different pronunciations of “ough” in each of the following words: Though, through, rough, cough.

English is messed up! It is one of the few languages in which Spelling B’s could even exist; in most languages, if you know how a word is pronounced, there could only be one way to spell it.

One thing we must consider when analyzing a language is how the native speakers of a particular language view the sounds in their language.  There may be multiple sounds that they view as the same sound. In  English, we view many different sounds as the “t” sound. The “t” in the word “water” is not really a phonetic “t” sound. It is actually a “flapped r” sound, as in the Spanish word “pero.” But, we perceive it to be a t sound (You can see why I say that by watching a parent slowly pronounce the word “Wa-ter” to their kids. They probably won’t use a flapped r. They use the actual t sound when they slow the word down to teach it to someone).

Also, every single native English speaker pronounces t’s that are at the beginning of words a little bit differently than we pronounce t’s  that are in the middle or the end of words. The t sound that we use at the beginning of words is actually an “aspirated t,” which is a completely different phonetic sound than an “unaspirated t,” which we use when a t is in the middle or end of a word (If a consonant is aspirated, it means that a puff of air is released when we make the sound). You may not even be able to tell the difference between the sounds if you listen to yourself, but native speakers of many other languages think the aspirated consonants we use in English (initial t’s, p’s and k’s) sound awful, especially when we carry them over to their languages. For example, in the Spanish language, no consonants are ever aspirated, but we native English speakers, when speaking Spanish, tend to aspirate the t’s p’s and k’s that are at the beginning of Spanish words, and that is one of the many little things that gives us a foreign accent when we speak Spanish. Likewise, native Spanish speakers usually don’t aspirate any of their t’s p’s or k’s when they speak English, and that is one of the many little things that gives them an accent when they speak English.

Interesting stuff! Jim and I will need to be able to analyze an unwritten language with great detail so that we can appropriately reduce the language to writing. And we’re digging into it so that one day we can deliver the written Word of God to a people group who has never had it before!

One thought on “Phone-what?

  1. Hey Jim and Rachel,

    I just wanted you guys to know that I am going to be following your blog and recommended that the members of NL come check out your blog as well. We want you guys to know that we are thinking of you and praying for you at least every three weeks if not more! So, keep up the great posts so we can stay updated.


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