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Structure in language: sounds. The Language Detective Villiers Park 9-13 July 2007. Sounds and spellings. What different sounds are represented by the letter shape <f> in English? [f] in for ; [v] in of What letter(s) can be used to represent the sound /f/ in English?

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structure in language sounds

Structure in language: sounds

The Language Detective

Villiers Park

9-13 July 2007

sounds and spellings
Sounds and spellings

What different sounds are represented by the letter shape <f> in English?

[f] in for; [v] in of

What letter(s) can be used to represent the sound /f/ in English?

<f> in for; <ff> in off; <gh> in cough; <ph> in phone

How would you spell the following nonsense words?

transcription activity
Transcription activity
  • What rules did you apply?
  • Where there exceptions to those rules?
  • How much variation is there across the group?
  • What kinds of generalisations can we make about this?
historical note
Historical note

In OE, [f] and [v] were allophones of the same phoneme

[What’s an allophone? What’s a phoneme?]

OE feoll ‘fell’; ofer ‘over’; lufian ‘to love’; cræft ‘skill’; wulf ‘wolf’; wulfas ‘wolves’

[f] and [v] differ only in terms of voicing

[What’s voicing?]

Other voiceless/voiced pairs: [s] and [z]; [p] and [b]; [t] and [d]

some welsh borrowings from english
Some Welsh borrowings from English

actif 'active‘; ffigur 'figure‘; ffocws 'focus‘; lefel 'level‘; proffesiwn 'profession‘; tancer 'tanker‘; cic 'kick'

What observations can you make about the relationship between sound and spelling of certain consonants in Welsh, based on the data above?

What are the phoneme correspondences for these Welsh letters?

Is there a general difference between the spelling of borrowed words in Welsh and in English?

Which language is likely to have more regular correspondences? Why do you think that might be?

welsh pronunciation
Welsh pronunciation

Guess how the following Welsh names are pronounced (NB: <ch> = /x/) and transcribe them:

  • Fforest Fach
  • Ffestiniog
  • Cefn
  • Caernarfon
some facts about welsh
Some facts about Welsh
  • Welsh is one of the Celtic languages, spoken in Wales, and a small colony in Patagonia (in the Chubut province of Argentina)
  • Related to Breton and Cornish as a P-Celtic language
  • Establishment of Brittonic area after the series of invasions in the 4th - 6th centuries
  • Act of Union 1536 and language planning:

no Welsh monoglot speakers were able to hold public office

1536 act of union
1536 Act of Union
  • English as language of the courts; monolingual Welsh speakers could no longer hold public office.
  • Many areas of Wales were inhabited by speakers who only spoke Welsh; this meant that there was a significant need for people to work as interpreters and translators, in order to facilitate the operation of government
  • This is an example of language planning: the English government wanted an administrative team in Wales who would be emblematic of the new regime (partly political, partly concerned with projecting or enforcing an identity, partly practical)
  • Increasing numbers of Welshmen wanted to learn English, which became an H language in the diglossic community.
  • Its associations with working class, non-mobile speakers served to develop and reinforce stereotypes about the language and its speakers.
transparent orthography
Transparent orthography
  • Compared to English, Welsh orthography is more transparent: the phoneme-grapheme correspondences are more regular
  • This has led researchers to investigate whether it is easier to learn to read in Welsh than it is in English (the answer is yes!)
variation in english indefinite articles
Variation in English indefinite articles

What is the rule that operates to determine whether or not a or an is selected as the indefinite article in English?

Data set: pear, apple, orange, school, youth, uncle, hotel, university, yard, rope, almond, euro

  • Sort the set into two (those that take a and those that take an)
  • Is the rule based on letters or sounds?
sets and the rule
Sets and the rule

Those that take a:

Pear, school, youth, university, yard, rope, euro

Those that take an: apple, orange, uncle, almond.

Where does hotel fit?

Rule is: select a before a (spoken) consonant; select an before a (spoken) vowel

historical note12
Historical note

OE had no indefinite articles as such (sense of indefinites was expressed by just a bare noun); articles arose from OE an ‘one’

an cyning = one (unique) king

Some reanalyses:

OE nædre ‘snake’ > ModE ‘adder’

OE ekename ‘also-name’ > ModE ‘nickname’

how do we study sounds
How do we study sounds?
  • Consonant vs. vowel: phonetic properties
  • Phonology as the study of an abstract system of sounds (importance of establishing a set of contrasts that can give rise to words of different meanings: bit vs pit vs lit vs writ etc.)
  • Phonotactics and the constraints of combinations
phonotactic constraints
Phonotactic constraints

Do you have an ‘r’ sound in the following words; if so, where in the word does the sound appear?

Hope, rope, poor, farm, cat, roar, nurse, square, north, force, sport, short, arrive

  • All speakers of English have an /r/ in the onset of a syllable (rope, roar, arrive)
  • Only some have an /r/ in the syllable rhyme (poor, farm, roar, nurse, square, north, force, sport, short)
does a word have to contain a vowel
Does a word have to contain a vowel?
  • Spoken vs. written language
  • Is <y> a consonant or a vowel?
  • What sounds are represented by <y> - consider fly, youth, rugby, hay
some non english data czech and welsh
Some non-English data: Czech and Welsh

Why might the following words look odd to monolingual English speakers?

  • Czech: trg 'market', vlk 'wolf', strč prst skrv krk ‘stick the finger through the throat’

  • Welsh: cwm 'valley', cwt 'tail', bwlch 'gap', winc 'wink', wns 'ounce'
syllabic consonants
Syllabic consonants
  • Some consonants form the sonority peak of a syllable
  • Most sonority peaks are vowels
  • Not all consonants can function as peaks
  • Letter shapes that are used to represent spoken consonants in one language may be used to represent vowels in another
  • Some speakers of English have syllabic consonants in words like button, bottom and little
why structure matters
Why structure matters
  • To make generalizations about a language or Language, we need to refer to structures (like syllables) so we can talk about constraints (i.e. what is possible and what is not possible)
  • This issue about structure is important at lots of levels of the grammar (e.g. in terms of word structure and clause structure)
  • Some aspects of structure hold true across languages, some are specific to particular language