Phonology 1: Consonants: Articulation and transcription

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Introduction to General Linguistics

Hubert Truckenbrodt

Phonology 1:

Consonants: Articulation and transcription

Important things you will learn in this section:

• A first idea about what phonology and phonetics are about.

• Important elements of our internal biological arrangement that we use in articulation.

• How the consonants of English and German are articulated.

• How the consonants of English and German are transcribed.

1 Orientation

Remember that the writing system is viewed as secondary in cognitive linguistics, and that spoken language is our primary competence of our mother language. Languages work very well without a writing system, and there are still many languages today that do not have a writing system. Dialects, also, are seen as languages that are just a little bit different from other linguistic systems, often allowing mutual understanding. Dialects, too, often don't have a writing system, but are systems of communication that work just as well as any written language for the purposes of oral exchange.

Phonetics and phonology are both about the pronunciation of spoken language. Phonology studies the sound systems of individual languages. It also compares these across languages, to arrive at theories about universal aspects of language that are then seen as part of universal grammar, our innate linguistic competence. These universals provide the frame for those aspects of individual languages that are learned as part of our linguistic competence.

phonology [G. Phonologie]: the study of the sound systems of languages, and of the general or universal properties displayed by these systems.
Notice that language, if we think of it as a cognitive ability of native speakers, connects in two ways to the real world. One of these concerns the message conveyed: We saw in semantics that we typically (though not always) speak about things in the real world. So the message we convey is about the real world. Another connection to the real world, however, comes from the code in which we convey our messages: When we pronounce a word or sentence, of course we pronounce this in the real world (in the obvious sense that our pronunciation is a real event, taking place in the same real world). Our pronunciation is transmitted through the air by making the air vibrate in certain ways. These vibrations in the air travel from someone speaking to someone listening. The listener in turn receives these vibrations of the air in her ear, processes them further from there, and recovers the message from them that the speaker intends to convey. These events also take place in the real world. They are shown in the following picture, which also includes a feedback link by which the speaker monitors her own pronunciation.


Denes/Pinson: "The speech chain.", p.5.

These are the aspects of the pronunciation that phonetics in concerned with.

phonetics [G. Phonetik]: the study of the physical and physiological aspects of human sound production and perception; generally divided into articulatory, acoustic, and auditory branches.
Phonetics is generally divided into three branches, corresponding to three important aspects of this picture.

Articulatory phonetics is the study of how the speech sounds are produced, or articulated, by the vocal organs of the human anatomy. Phoneticians have created many experimental techniques for studying this. These include things like plastic palates with electrodes in the mouth of test persons, with cables out of the mouth etc., to find out where the tongue makes contact with the roof of the mouth during articulation; or a little hose with a tiny video-camera in front, inserted through the nose of a speaker, to film what happens further inside (in the larynx) during pronunciation. Even if we don't do any of these things at the SfS in Tübingen, it may be good to know that high ethical standards are usually applied when such techniques are applied to test persons.

Acoustic phonetics is the study of how the information generated by the articulation is present in the vibrations of the air that transmits them: the sound waves. This is usually done with computer programs that analyze these properties. These programs extract information from the sound waves in ways that is generally comparable to the way our ear extracts this information when we listen to language. The computer programs visualize these properties on a screen, and allow phoneticians to measure them. This is useful for studying properties of the articulation, which are often very precisely reflected in these properties of the vibrating air. It is also useful for understanding how the listener perceives language, since these air vibrations/sound waves are the input to the perception process.

Auditory phonetics, or perceptual phonetics, is the study of how the listener recovers the speech sounds and the words from the sound waves that reach the ear of the listener. Beyond the first processing in the ear, the further processing is neurological (related to electric impulses in the nerves) and much of it is in the brain. (So it's useful that our ears are attached to our head, rather than, say, to our feet :). There are now more and more studies that have some success in studying aspects of this neurological processing with techniques that pick up reflexes of these electrical impulses from outside of the head (neurolinguistics). However, a large part of what we know about human speech perception comes from experiments that present artificially generated, and controlled, sounds (sound waves) to the ear of test persons, and that then ask the test persons what they perceive. These are perception experiments. An important result of such studies is that speech perception does not directly recover such information as 'this is the sound [a], and this is the sound [n]'. Instead, the process seems to involve recovering the articulatory movements that gave rise to the signal that is processed. This information is then used to identify the sounds and words that have given rise to the signal.
articulatory phonetics [G. artikulatorische Phonetik]: the study of how the speech sounds are made ('articulated') by the vocal organs.

acoustic phonetics [G. akustische Phonetik]: the study of the physical properties of speech sound, as transmitted between mouth and ear; usually conducted with the help of computer programs that analyze speech recordings and visualize their properties.

auditory phonetics, also perceptual phonetics [G. auditive Phonetik]: the study of the perceptual responses to speech sounds, as mediated by ear, auditory nerve, and brain.
In this class, the phonetics we will be doing is limited to basic aspects of the articulation.

In this section, we begin with the articulation of consonants. Consonants are defined in linguistics as those speech sounds that are produced with a significant constriction of the airflow in the oral tract. For example, when you say a [p], your two lips come together to form such a constriction. Try this now. On the other hand, when you form a vowel like [u], your lips and your tongue are positioned in a particular way, but the air comes out freely from your mouth. Try this also. Thus, there is no significant obstruction of the airflow in the case of the vowel [u].

consonant [G. Konsonant]: speech sound produced with a significant constriction of the airflow in the oral tract.
vowel [G. Vokal]: speech sound produced without a significant constriction of the airflow in the oral cavity.
As you learn about the articulation of different consonant sounds, it will be useful to learn, at the same time, about a writing system for sounds. Writing sounds is also called transcribing, or making a transcription. For example, in the word 'thing', the first two letters 'th' of the writing correspond to only a single sound. We write this sound as [T]. Similarly, the last two letters of the orthography (= writing) of 'thing', namely 'ng', are also just a single sound. This sound is written as [N]. The full transcription of 'thing' is [TIN]. The transcription of the word 'thief', on the other hand, is [Tif]. You can see two different symbols for 'i(e)' used in the transcriptions of these two words. They correspond to two similar, but nevertheless distinct vowels of English. It is important to keep these two 'i'-sounds apart, since the little distinction between them can distinguish words. For example, 'eel' is pronounced [il], while 'ill' is pronounced [Il]. Despite the writing, the [l] at the end of the two words has the same length in the pronunciation. The difference is with the quality (and length) of the 'i'-sound in the two cases. These examples are intended to show you that it is useful to have a system for recording the exact pronunciation, as a tool for theories about sounds in phonetics and in phonology.
transcription [G. Lautschrift, Transkription, phonetische Umschrift]: A method of writing down the pronunciation of a speech sound, word or utterance in a systematic and consistent way.
You may know transcriptions from when you learned a foreign language, and/or from using dictionaries that include the pronunciation of the words with each entry.
2 The vocal tract
In this section, you will learn to understand some of our internal anatomy that is crucial for the production of speech, and some first aspects of this production. You will also learn some terminology in this connection.

During articulation, the lungs produce a steady level of air pressure pushing outward. When we speak, we produce the sounds using the outward flow of air that results from this constant pressure. Try saying a long sentence without taking a breath. You will see that you can go a while before you need to breath again. Compare this with normal breathing out: it is very fast by comparison. You can also try to breathe out very slowly, perhaps so slowly that it takes you as long as saying the long sentence. You will see that this is not easy. Our lungs do a 'special thing' when providing air for speaking, quite different from when we breathe normally.

Where does the air go when it comes up from the lungs?

Let us try the following thought-experiment, with an hypothetical human design that is not the way we are built, but helpful for understanding the way we are built. In our face, we have a mouth, and a nose. The mouth is made with teeth for chewing food, and with a tongue to push the food around during chewing. The nose is good for breathing, as the air is filtered in the nasal cavity. In our upper body, we have a stomach and a lunge. So, the hypothetical design I want you to consider simply takes these parts and connects them in a simple way: The mouth is directly connected by a pipe to the stomach. This is the path of the food we eat. The nose is directly connected by a pipe to the lungs. This is the path for the air we breathe.

It is easy to see why this hypothetical design cannot be the way we are built. Most importantly, we can breathe not only through the nose, but also through the mouth. If we were like the hypothetical design, we might die if we had a cold and our nose is clogged: we could not breathe through the mouth instead. In the hypothetical design, we could also not speak. The sounds we produce crucially depend on the maneuvers of the tongue and lips in our mouth, and on the fact that we perform them over the outgoing stream of air that comes from the lungs. But if the lungs were connected to the nose only, this would not be possible.

In the actual human design, the way we are really built, there is a pipe that leads to the lungs, called trachea [G. Luftröhre], and a pipe that leads to the stomach, called esophagus [G. Speiseröhre]. We can learn from the result of our thought experiment that the trachea must somehow connect to both mouth and nose, because we can breathe through either mouth or nose. But since we can then both breathe and eat through the mouth, the mouth must be connected both to the trachea (to the lungs, for breathing) and to the esophagus (to the stomach, for eating). So trachea and esophagus must come together where they reach the mouth or (the way it really is:) before they reach the mouth.

The way we are really built is shown in Figure 2. Take a moment to find the trachea and the esophagus. Then identify the point where they come together. This is in the neck, at the height where the 'Adam's apple' is at the front of the neck. We will see shortly that this point (at which these two channels come together) is quite important in the process of speech articulation. For now, however, notice that there is also a point at which the channel through the mouth, and the channel through the nose, are separated. This is at the point of the 'soft palate' in Figure 2. Air which comes up from the lungs and moves 'leftward' at that point will flow out of the mouth, and air that moves 'upward' at that point will flow through the nose. This point, and the soft palate, are also important in the articulation of sounds, as we will see shortly.

Figure 2

Denes/Pinson: "The speech chain.", p.49

Before considering the role of these parts in articulation, I want you to learn some more about the internal space we are talking about.

First, the Adam's apple at the front of the neck is the front part of the larynx [G. Kehlkopf]. This front part of the larynx sticks out of the neck most noticeably with adult men, though many people can feel it with their fingers. Try this now. In Figure 2, you can see an arrow pointing to the thyroid cartilage. This is the cartilage that sticks out and forms the Adam's apple; you can also see the cricoid cartilage (below) and the arytenoid cartilage (behind the thyroid). These together are the cartilages that form the larynx (together with lots of muscles and other soft tissue connecting them). [Cartilage is the kind or material your ears are made of [G. Knorpel]]. The larynx is a construction that sits on top of the trachea. It looks a bit complicated in Figure 2 (and is a lot more complicated in reality). To begin with, it is enough to know that the larynx is what we feel as the Adam's apple, and that it sits on top of the trachea, where the air comes up from the lungs.

The whole of the air passages above the larynx is called the vocal tract. It is divided into the nasal tract (the air passage above the soft palate, within the nose), and the oral tract (the remaining air passage between larynx and lips).

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