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Figuring out how to read and pronounce the sounds of your language

William F. Weigel

Finally, it looks like you've hit the jackpot, but what the...?

So why didn't these linguists write your language the same way they wrote English?
Two reasons:

Your language probably has sounds that don't occur in English. English spelling is an inconsistent mess, so if you try to write the same way you do English, readers probably won't pronounce it right

Your language probably has sounds that don't occur in English

In the Wiyot example, there are:

Two kinds of l's (l and L). L stands for a nonEnglish sound There are two a's: and . Both occur in English, but you wouldn't know it from English spelling The letter is another non-English sound

English spelling is an inconsistent mess, so if you try to write your language the same way you do English, readers probably won't pronounce it right
(thanks to Leanne for showing me this poem)

Ivy, privy, famous; clamour And enamour rhyme with hammer. River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb, Doll and roll and some and home. Stranger does not rhyme with anger, Neither does devour with clangour. Souls but foul, haunt but aunt, Font, front, wont, want, grand, and grant, Shoes, goes, does. Now first say finger, And then singer, ginger, linger, Real, zeal, mauve, gauze, gouge and gauge, Marriage, foliage, mirage, and age.

The Good News: The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is a universal standard for phonetic writing

The Bad News

The linguists who worked on your language probably didnt use the IPA. They more likely used some variety of what is called the Americanist system, so you need to understand how they are using the letters of their phonetic alphabet (which will vary from linguist to linguist and by time period). This means you need to learn a little bit about how sounds are made and how we describe them.

The Phonetic Principle:

One Sound, One Letter If writing follows this principle, then:

You will always know how to pronounce a word based on its spelling, and If you hear a word pronounced, you will know exactly how to spell it.

(this is the general principle that linguists try to apply in writing down native languages)

A brief note about practical writing systems for day-to-day use

Sooner or later, you may want to develop a language program and a practical writing system for ordinary people to use. The system you develop probably will not look much like the one used by the lingusts who documented your language, even if you do follow the one-sound, one-letter rule. But thats a whole other topic...

Human Speech and the Human Body

The speech chain involves taking a source of energy (i.e., air from the lungs) and converting it into various sounds

Now, let's do some hands-on exploration of our speech equipment

The lips The teeth The gum ridge The hard palate The soft palate The uvula The tongue

How are some common English consonant sounds produced?

The t in time The p in peak The k in kill The d in dime The b in beak The g in gill

A subtle distinction
Q: What is the difference between the d in the English word day and the d in the Spanish word donde? A: The Spanish sound is produced with the tongue against the back of the upper teeth, not with the tongue on the gum ridge (a difference of a fraction of an inch) (Some California languages have one kind of d, some the other, and at least one has both!)

How are the consonants in the left column different from the right column
The t in time The p in peak The k in kill The d in dime The b in beak The g in gill

Put your finger on your Adam's apple, and notice the difference between b and p in rabid and rapid

r a b i d

r a p i d

(b is said to be voiced, and p is voiceless)

How are the consonants in the left column different from the consonants in the right column?
The t in tick The p in pier The c in coy The s in sick The f in fear The x in xoi* *Wukchumni for 'deer'

So we now have three ways of describing consonant sounds

Place of articulation: For example, p is pronounced with the lips, t with the tongue tip on the gum ridge, and k with the back of the tongue raised to the soft palate Voicing: p is pronounced without the vocal chords vibrating, but b is pronounced with vibration Stops vs. Fricative: For example, p and t briefly block airflow, so are called stops, but f and s allow some through, and are called fricatives

To summarize what we have said so far about consonants

Voiceless stops Voiced stops Voiceless fricatives Voiced fricatives Lips Lips/teeth p b f v gum ridge t d s z soft palate k g x

Technical terminology: Lips: Labial, or bilabial Lips/teeth: Labiodental Gum ridge: Alveolar Soft palate: Velar

How are the consonants in the left column pronounced differently from same consonants in the right column?
The t in take The p in peak The k in kill
The t in stake The p in speak The k in skill

Sound the same to you? Now try saying each pair of words with your hand about 1 inches from your mouth. The puff of air you feel in one case is called aspiration. In English, p, t, and k are usually aspirated at the beginning of words Such aspirated stops are prominent in many California languages. If they occur in your language, you can practice producing them with your mentor

One more time: How are the consonants in the left column different from those in the right column?
The n in nine The m in meek
The d in dine The b in beak

A Hint
You have a bad cold. You try to say: My nose is stuffed up But it comes out sounding more like: By doze is stuffed up Why?

m and n are Nasal Consonants

The nasals m and n are produced just like b and d, except that air is allowed to pass out of the nose in the case of the nasals (That's why it's hard to produce a proper nasal consonant if your nose is stuffed up)

Odds and ends

Here are some additional consonant sound types that might occur in your language: Affricates: these are a stop + fricative Glottal stop: this is just a quick closing and then opening of the vocal chords, a catch in the breath, as in Uh-Oh! This is not exactly a normal sound of English, but it is a basic sound in many California Languages. It is usually written with a special symbol (), or just with the apostrophe: or


There is another major category of consonants that are called sonorants. They involve the mouth being more open than for stops and fricatives, but less than for vowels. They include sounds like those of English r, l, y, w, etc.

This is a type of sound that doesnt occur English, but is common in California languages. They are a special way of pronouncing sounds like p, t, or k. They are most often written p, t, and k. They are hard to describe. Some people say that they involve a popping sound. My friend Paula Rogers tells her students to try pronouncing the regular sound while holding your breath.

Ejective examples: Yowlumni

Wanka nan keexani Give me money pow gall-bladder tayak little finger

Time for an exercise

Oldtimers: Would you like to volunteer to give us an example or two of an unusual consonant sound from your language? Newbies: Meet with your mentor and report back in a few minutes with two unusual (non-English) consonant sounds from your language

Vowels are actually easier than consonants. There arent as many, and they usually arent that hard to pronounce. When trying to figure out just what sound your linguist was hearing, the best single piece of advice is Think Spanish. That is, the vowels are usually going to be pronounced roughly as they are Spanish, not English.

The vowel space.

Vowels pronounced with the mouth fairly wide open, so we cant be as precise in describing them. Usually they are classified by their position in a vowel space:

The vowel space: what the chart means

The chart represents the side view of the mouth (facing rightjust like the earlier drawings) The position of a letter tells you roughly where the tongue is most extended So, for example, the vowel ithink Spanish!is pronounced with the very front of the tongue raised toward the frond of the mouth, while the vowel a is pronounced with the tongue depressed very low.

More about vowels

Terminology: the vowel space chart uses the terms close, close-mid, etc. Many linguists instead use high, mid and low, or some variation The chart expressed what are called vowel height (close vs. open) and vowel backness (back, central, front). Another variable that matters sometimes is rounding. Notice the difference between i and u with regard to whether your lips are pursed.

More about vowels: long and short

In grammar or spelling class in school, you were probably taught that mat has a short a and mate has a long a. You were brainwashed! Actually, mat and mate have two completely different vowels. When linguists talk about vowel length, they mean simply how long the vowel lasts in time.

Some final odds and ends

This has been a whirlwind tour that has left a great deal out. There are lots of sounds in California languageand even in Englishthat we havent touched on. So ask your mentor (or me) if you are puzzled by something you find.

For tomorrow: See Leanne's homework handout for the whole week. It starts with the phonetics homework that should be completed by Tuesday morning.