Great Ideas in Linguistics: Consonants and Vowels

Consonants and vowels are one of the handful of linguistics terms that have managed to escape the cage of academic discourse to make their nest in the popular conciousness. Everyone knows what the difference between a vowel and a consonant is, right? Let’s check super quick. Pick the option below that best describes a vowel:

  • Easy! It’s A, E, I, O, U and sometimes Y.
  • A speech sound produced without constriction of the vocal tract above the glottis.

Everyone got the second one, right? No? Huh, maybe we’re not  on the same page after all.

There’s two problems with the “andsometimesY” definition of vowels. The first is that it’s based on the alphabet and, as I’ve discussed before, English has a serious problem when it comes to mapping sounds onto letters in a predictable way. (It gives you the very false impression that English has six-ish vowels when it really has twice that many.) The second is that isn’t really a good way of modelling what a vowel actually is. If we got a new letter in the alphabet tomorrow, zborp, we’d have no principled way of determining whether it was a vowel or not.

Letter dice d6.JPG
Ah, a new letter is it? Time to get out the old vowelizing dice and re-roll.  “Letter dice d6”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

But the linguistic definition captures some other useful qualities of vowels as well. Since vowels don’t have a sharp constriction, you get acoustic energy pretty much throughout the entire spectrum. Not all frequencies are created equal, however. In vowels, the shape of the vocal tract creates pockets of more concentrated acoustic energy. We call these “formants” and they’re so stable between repetitions of vowels that they can be used to identify which vowel it is. In fact, that’s what you’re using to distinguish “beat” from “bet” from “bit” when you hear them aloud. They’re also easy to measure, which means that speech technologies rely really heavily on them.

Another quality of vowels is that, since the whole vocal tract has to unkink itself (more or less) they tend to take a while to produce. And that same openness means that not much of the energy produced at the vocal folds is absorbed. In simple terms, this means that vowels tend to be longer and louder than other sounds, i.e. consonants. This creates a neat little one-two where vowels are both easier to produce and hear. As a result, languages tend to prefer to have quite a lot of vowels, and to tack consonants on to them. This tendency shakes out create a robust pattern across languages where you’ll get one or two consonants, then a vowel, then a couple consonants, then a vowel, etc. You’ve probably run across the term linguists use for those little vowel-nuggets: we call them syllables.

If you stick with the “andsometimesY” definition, though, you lose out on including those useful qualities. It may be easier to teach to five-year-olds, but it doesn’t really capture the essential vowelyness of vowels. Fortunately, the linguistics definition does.

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Great Ideas in Linguistics: Paradigm Levelling

One of the great things about being human is our ability to figure patterns and then apply them in new situations. In fact, that pretty much describes the vast bulk of scientific inquiry– someone notices a thing, notices other things like it, figures that they must be motivated by some underlying process and then tries to figure it out. From gravity to DNA to the fact that maybe DDT wasn’t such a panacea after all, all important scientific discoveries have sprung from that same general process of recognizing patterns.

And that process is at work in language as well. Let’s take a look at the following way of conjugating English verbs.


I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walks                    They walk


Now, if you’re the noticing type of person you might find that there’ s a glaring problem that’s messing up an otherwise nice, predictable pattern: that odd out-of-place “s” in “She walks.” Why, it’s downright irksome. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense just to get rid of it entirely and have a nice, lovely, completely predictable conjugation like this one:


I walk                     We walk

You walk                    You walk

He/she/it walk                   They walk


Of course it would. And in fact, there are some speakers of English who do just that. Dropping the third person singular “s”, as it turns out, is a common feature of African American English. And if similar processes in other languages, such as Latin, are any guide, we may all one day adopt this entirely sensible practice, which is commonly referred to as “paradigm levelling”.

In fact, English has already undergone a massive process of morphological simplification, including a lot of paradigm levelling, once before. During the transition from Old English to Middle English, we lost a whole bucketful of cases and person markings. This was partly due to language contact in the Danelaw, where Viking settlers interacted and intermarried with the local English-speaking population. Being no-nonsense second language learners, they did away with a lot of the odder patterns and left us with something that much more closely resembled the comparatively morphologically streamlined English of today.

And the same process has occurred over and over again the world’s languages.  People notice that something isn’t what you’d expect, given the pattern in place, and choose to follow the pattern rather than historical precedent, tidying away some of the messiness that inevitably creeps into languages over time. Paradigm levelling is a powerful force for linguistic change and a useful theoretical tool in historical linguistics.

Great ideas in linguistics: Language acquisition

Courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood rng, this week’s great idea in linguistics is… language acquisition! Or, in other words, the process of learning  a language. (In this case, learning your first language when you’re a little baby, also known as L1 acquisition; second-language learning, or L2 acquisition, is a whole nother bag of rocks.) Which begs the question: why don’t we just call it language learning and call it a day? Well, unlike learning to play baseball, turn out a perfect soufflé or kick out killer DPS, learning a language seems to operate under a different set of rules. Babies don’t benefit from direct language instruction and it may actually hurt them.

In other words:

Language acquisition is process unique to humans that allows us to learn our first language without directly being taught it.

Which doesn’t sound so ground-breaking… until you realize that that means that language use is utterly unique among human behaviours. Oh sure, we learn other things without being directly taught them, even relatively complex behaviours like swallowing and balancing. But unlike speaking, these aren’t usually under concious control and when they are it’s usually because something’s gone wrong. Plus, as I’ve discussed before, we have the ability to be infinitely creative with language. You can learn to make a soufflé without knowing what happens when you combine the ingredients in every possible combination, but knowing a language means that you know rules that allow you to produce all possible utterances in that language.

So how does it work? Obviously, we don’t have all the answers yet, and there’s a lot of research going on on how children actually learn language. But we do know what it generally tends to look like, precluding things like language impairment or isolation.

  1. Vocal play. The kid’s figured out that they have a mouth capable of making noise (or hands capable of making shapes and movements) and are practising it. Back in the day, people used to say that infants would make all the sounds of all the world’s languages during this stage. Subsequent research, however, suggests that even this early children are beginning to reflect the speech patterns of people around them.
  2. Babbling. Kids will start out with very small segments of language, then repeat the same little chunk over and over again (canonical babbling), and then they’ll start to combine them in new ways (variegated babbling). In hearing babies, this tends to be syllables, hence the stereotypical “mamamama”. In Deaf babies it tends to be repeated hand motions.
  3. One word stage. By about 13 months, most children will have begun to produce isolated words. The intended content is often more than just the word itself, however. A child shouting “Dog!” at this point could mean “Give me my stuffed dog” or “I want to go see the neighbour’s terrier” or “I want a lion-shaped animal cracker” (since at this point kids are still figuring out just how many four-legged animals actually are dogs). These types of sentences-in-a-word are known as holophrases.
  4. Two word stage. By two years, most kids will have moved on to two-word phrases, combining words in way that shows that they’re already starting to get the hang of their language’s syntax. Morphology is still pretty shaky, however: you’re not going to see a lot of tense markers or verbal agreement.
  5. Sentences. At this point, usually around age four, people outside the family can generally understand the child. They’re producing complex sentences and have gotten down most, if not all, of the sounds in their language.

These general stages of acquisition are very robust. Regardless of the language, modality or even age of acquisition we still see these general stages. (Although older learners may never completely acquire a language due to, among other things, reduced neuroplasticity.) And the fact they do seem to be universal is yet more evidence that language acquisition is a unique process that deserves its own field of study.

Great ideas in linguistics: Sociolinguistics

I’ll be the first to admit: for a long time, even after I’d begun my linguistics training, I didn’t really understand what sociolinguistics was. I had the idea that it mainly had to do with discourse analysis, which is certainly a fascinating area of study, but I wasn’t sure it was enough to serve as the basis for a major discipline of linguistics. Fortunately, I’ve learned a great deal about sociolinguistics since that time.

Sociolinguistics is the sub-field of linguistics that studies language in its social context and derives explanatory principles from it. By knowing about the language, we can learn something about a social reality and vice versa.

Now, at first glance this may seem so intuitive that it’s odd someone would to the trouble of stating it directly. As social beings, we know that the behaviour of people around us is informed by their identities and affiliations. At the extreme of things it can be things like having a cultural rule that literally forbids speaking to your mother-in-law, or requires replacing the letters “ck” with “cc” in all written communication. But there are more subtle rules in place as well, rules which are just as categorical and predictable and important. And if you don’t look at what’s happening with the social situation surrounding those linguistic rules, you’re going to miss out on a lot.

Case in point: Occasionally you’ll here phonologists talk about sound changes being in free variation, or rules that are randomly applied. BUT if you look at the social facts of the community, you’ll often find that there is no randomness at all. Instead, there are underlying social factors that control which option a person makes as they’re speaking. For example, if you were looking at whether people in Montreal were making r-sounds with the front or back of the tongue and you just sampled a bunch of them you might find that some people made it one way most of the time and others made it the other way most of the time. Which is interesting, sure, but doesn’t have a lot of explanatory power.

However, if you also looked at the social factors associated with it, and the characteristics of the individuals who used each r-sound, you might notice something interesting, as Clermont and Cedergren did (see the illustration). They found that younger speakers preferred the back-of-the-mouth r-sound, while older people tended to use the tip of the tongue instead. And that has a lot more explanatory power. Now we can start asking questions to get at the forces underlying that pattern: Is this the way the younger people have always talked, i.e. some sort of established youthful style, or is there a language change going on and they newer form is going to slowly take over? What causes younger speakers to use the the form they do? Is there also an effect of gender, or who you hang out with?

changes
Figure one from Sankoff and Blondeau. 2007. (Click picture to look at the whole study.) As you can see, younger speakers are using [R] more than older speakers, and the younger a speaker is the more likely they are to use [R].
And that’s why sociolinguistics is all kinds of awesome. It lets us peel away and reveal some of the complexity surrounding language. By adding sociological data to our studies, we can help to reduce statistical noise and reveal new and interesting things about how language works, what it means to be a language-user, and why we do what we do.

New series: 50 Great Ideas in Linguistics

As I’ve been teaching this summer (And failing to blog on a semi-regular basis like a loser. Mea culpa.) I’ll occasionally find that my students aren’t familiar with something I’d assumed they’d covered at some point already. I’ve also found that there are relatively few resources for looking up linguistic ideas that don’t require a good deal of specialized knowledge going in. SIL’s glossary of linguistic terms is good but pretty jargon-y, and the various handbooks tend not to have on-line versions. And even with a concerted effort by linguists to make Wikipedia a good resource, I’m still not 100% comfortable with recommending that my students use it.

Therefore! I’ve decided to make my own list of Things That Linguistic-Type People Should Know and then slowly work on expounding on them. I have something to point my students to and it’s a nice bite-sized way to talk about things; perfect for a blog.

Here, in no particular order, are 50ish Great Ideas of Linguistics sorted by sub-discipline. (You may notice a slightly sub-disciplinary bias.) I might change my mind on some of these–and feel free to jump in with suggestions–but it’s a start. Look out for more posts on them.

  • Sociolinguistics
    • Sociolinguistic variables
    • Social class and language
    • Social networks
    • Accommodation
    • Style
    • Language change
    • Linguistic security
    • Linguistic awareness
    • Covert and overt prestige
  • Phonetics
    • Places of articulation
    • Manners of articulation
    • Voicing
    • Vowels and consonants
    • Categorical perception
    • “Ease”
    • Modality
  • Phonology
    • Rules
    • Assimilation and dissimilation
    • Splits and mergers
    • Phonological change
  • Morphology
  • Syntax
  • Semantics
    • Pragmatics
    • Truth values
    • Scope
    • Lexical semantics
    • Compositional semantics
  • Computational linguistics
    • Classifiers
    • Natural Language Processing
    • Speech recognition
    • Speech synthesis
    • Automata
  • Documentation/Revitalization
    • Language death
    • Self-determination
  • Psycholinguistics