Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 11.1: Introduction to Phonology


Chapter 11.1: Introduction to Phonology

The speech sounds of a language are called phones. The primary mistake often made when discussing phones is confusing them with the letters of the alphabet and spelling. As anyone who can read English knows, spelling is a terrible way to learn how to pronounce a word. When thinking of phones, try to ignore spelling as much as possible and concentrate instead on the sounds of words. As an example, the three words “lit,” “late,” and “light” have major spelling differences, both in the number of letters of each word and in the arrangement of those letters. The first one seems rather straightforward as a spelling, but the second one ends with a “silent e,” and the third one has 3 letters between the “l” and the “t.” In terms of sounds though, these three words differ in only one way. They are each composed of three phones: the first is an “l” sound and the last is a “t” sound. The middle vowel sound is the only difference, but we use different ways to indicate those sounds in writing. Is “igh” really a good way to indicate what we call the long “i” sound? We could use the spelling “lite” but even then, why is there a letter at the end that is completely unpronounced? A silent “e” at the end of a word makes no more sense than a silent “gh.”

The reason we don’t have a problem pronouncing these words when we see them is because we understand the conventions of English orthography, or spelling, but only after spending many years in school learning them. Spelling is conventional in the same way that the connection between the signifier and the signified in a linguistic sign is conventional, because as a linguistic community we have agreed that we will use certain symbols in a certain order to represent speech sounds. We have agreed that letters like silent “e” will indicate how to pronounce a preceding vowel; or that in some words “gh” will be silent, and in others it will sound like “f” (as in “enough”). These are purely social conventions that we accept, but they are not unchangeable as long as enough people agree on a change. It’s common today to see spellings like “tonite” for “tonight” or “u” for “you.” These are equally valid as representations, although not everyone agrees with their usage.

As long as this conventional agreement is maintained, there is no serious problem with English spelling, but it is insufficient for the purposes of linguistic
study. Linguists must have a visual way of representing all the different sounds that exist in all the different languages in the world, and the English alphabet
simply cannot handle that variety of sounds. Even if we were to ignore the problem of silent letters above, our other letters can often signify multiple phones. For example, the letter “o” is pronounced differently in each of the following words: open, of, off, shoot, brown, women, pot. It would be far too imprecise for a linguist attempting to specify a certain sound to say “the o sound as in ‘pot’.”

Linguists therefore use a different alphabet to represent phones: the International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA). In IPA, each symbol represents a single sound and only that sound. IPA is written between slashes / / or square brackets [ ].