Saturday, June 16, 2007

I Love Phonemes...

It’s the place where linguistics most clearly intersects with education: the phoneme. Yet most people aren’t even aware of it, can’t tell you what it is. That’s understandable; professionals argue over the precise definition…

More than anything else, a phoneme is an idea. It is a psychological unit inside your head. If you speak English you probably have about 50 of them. Maybe 48, maybe 53 or 54. It depends on where you grew up, on whether you speak the English of Billy Graham (the rural, lowland dialect of the southeast United States), or the New England English of Ted Kennedy, or the English of Paul Hogan (“Crocodile Dundee”).

A phoneme is an idea that people have in their head about how to organize different sounds together into meaningful groups of sounds that we can give a name to. Probably when I say “sounds” you think of names for groups of sounds you already have in your head and you ask yourself something like, “you mean like M and N, or like L and R?” The answer is no, that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is that a phoneme is an idea about how to group all the sounds together that you call “L” – different sounds that together make up “L” in your mind. Most people look at you when you say that and their response is something like, “What do you mean? L is L.” And I have to say, “Not really.”

Think about it for a moment. When you say “like” you take the tip of your tongue and press it fairly hard against the back of your two top front teeth and you spread your tongue out like it was a hammock inside your mouth. When you say “full” your tongue may not touch your front teeth at all; instead of spreading it out, you bunch it up in a ball in the back of your mouth and maybe the tip of it rests gently on the bony ridge you have behind your top teeth. You make a different sound at the beginning of “like” than at the end of “pull,” but you call both of them “L” if you speak English, because English speakers group them together as one phoneme.

Doesn’t everybody do that? No. In Russian those two sounds each get their own letters. You can put the “L” in “pull” at the beginning of Russian words and the “L” in “like” at the end of Russian words.

The phoneme is why when you say “wanna” other people hear “want to” and why when you say “fry-n chicken” other people hear “frying chicken.”

And if your kindergarten teacher doesn’t manage to make you aware of the phonemes in your head, you’re mostly just confused when you look at letters. And reading becomes a difficult task indeed!

I’m sure we’ll talk more about the phoneme…

No comments: