Phonology: Tools for Language Wizards

Remember in Harry Potter, when the Hogwart’s gang had to take all these obscure classes that they were not great at, but it was good for a few laughs as they learned… but then at the end of the movie they were glad they took it, because the knowledge ended up being the key to a puzzle, saving someone’s life, or at least making their lives a whole lot easier?

They all wanted to do Defense Against the Dark Arts, for example, but they were really glad that Neville found his niche in Herbology….

So imagine all us cute junior linguists in Phonology class, memorizing the IPA, practicing our points and manners of articulation; fulfilling our Phonology requirement dutifully, but knowing we’d never need our Phonology skills later in the movie.  After all, there’s no Tri-Linguist Tournament to win, no Verbamort to vanquish.

It turns out, I’m glad I took the class.

This middle section is might get a little technical, so if you’re only reading this post for the Harry Potter content, you might want to skip down to the third section, which is about magic words.


I remember doing my study abroad in Avignon, France, and thinking, “I’ll always have this stupid American accent.” The problem, for the most part, was my vowels.  I was bringing my American vowels to the French language, and although I could make myself understood just fine, I couldn’t land that liquid, pouty… French sound.

Bringing American vowels to French pronunciation is like going to the Metropolitan Grill and ordering something off the Burger King drive-thru menu that you picture in your head.  I’m sure they can bring you a fair semblance of a double Whopper with cheese, curly fries and a Coke, but eventually you’re going to realize that having it “your way, right away” is not always the best choice for you to make at every occasion.

So anyway, I got back to the States and I learned me some Phonology and found that the vowel chart was the master list of every vowel sound I’d ever need to know.  Not all the vowels in the chart are used in my brand of American English, but wouldn’t you know it, some of those vowels were the crazy French vowels I could never figure out.

Bam.  With a few months of practice my French vowels had fallen into place.  Haha, now the Frenchies had to find some other way to tag me as an American, because my pronunciation became awesome.  Now, they had to resort to my lack of vocabulary and my failure to find any of their humor funny.

Also, I discovered that my early exposure to my parents’ Pangasinan language has made me native in a couple of things that speakers of American English can’t usually do.  For example, I can start any syllable, word, or sentence with /ŋ/, no problem.  I’m also a native speaker of the vowels /ɯ/ and /ɤ̞/, so I can say “pinakbet” properly, without reducing it to the pathetic Tagalog pronunciation “pak-bit.”

Phonology class served again when I was studying Mandarin; they have a  bunch of phonemes that sounded exactly the same to my ear.  So you know that stereotype of  Chinese people reversing /l/ and /r/ when they speak English?  (“You and me leery need to talk, girl!“)  Well, when Americans speak Chinese, it is a hot mess of confusion between pinyin x, s, and sh; between pinyin j, q, and ch; between r and zh…  I still have trouble hearing the difference sometimes, as these eight distinct Chinese phonemes are all allophones of just a few of phonemes in English.

And if you think you don’t hear it, think of the poor Latinos, who hear them all as allophonic variants of Spanish /s/ and /ch/.  So they are really, really screwed.

But luckily, having taken Phonology, I could always fall back on place of articulation, and at least start reorganizing my concept of sound based on what my mouth was doing.  And the fact that I was in southern China gave my sibilants and affricates some wiggle room.

FYI, there are plenty of people, Americans, Latinos, or whatever, who have learned the Mandarin phonemes and can handle them just fine without ever having studied phonology; they just figured it out.  I felt, though, that my phonology training was a HUGE advantage.

You can read Alto’s explanation of Mandarin pronunciation and his own particular journey of phonological discovery if you just can’t get enough of this topic.

So yes, studying Phonology is totally useful in my language learning odyssey.  I’m a little annoyed now that I dropped out of Phonology II:  Autosegmental, because who knows what kind of Turkish I could learn if I had only stuck with it.


Magic words  

Ok, enough technical stuff, here are the personal stories…

The other night, I was talking to a woman who is moving to Shanghai later this month.  She’s was fretting about learning Chinese, and she asked specifically, what is that pinyin /r/ sound?  I asked her, you’re a speech therapist, right?  Sure, she answered.

No problem, that pinyin /r/ sound is a voiced alveolar fricative, retroflex.

Really?  she asked.  That’s all?

That’s all, I assured her.  Being able to talk to other speech professionals about place and manner of articulation makes life a lot easier.


My friend S is a syntactitian and super Slavic-specialist.  Our common language (besides English) is French, which she gets to practice a lot with her francophone husband who we call Belgie.

S was telling me some stories about Belgie’s family, her in-laws, and we started talking about Belgie’s brother, Quintin.  In the middle of the story, she got a distracted by her pronunciation of his name.  She said after 10 years she still didn’t know if it was pronounced [kãtã] or [kõtõ], or whatever combination it was.

Belgie said, listen, it’s “Quintin,” pronouncing it perfectly naturally in French, wondering why she still hadn’t got it after all this time.  She is, after all, a professor of linguistics.

Right, she said, I don’t hear it!  Is it [kãtã] or [kõtõ] or what?

At that point, I chimed in.  “[kɛ̃tɛ̃],” I said, “unrounded.”

“Unrounded,” she repeated thoughtfully, and then with a very focused look in her eye, said, [kɛ̃tɛ̃] Quintin perfectly, five times in a row.

Yah!  said Belgie, you really got it!

“Unrounded!”  she said, socking him in the arm,  “why didn’t you tell me that 10 years ago?  It’s so simple!”

“Of course, unrounded!” said Belgie, not sure of what just happened.  You can’t really blame Belgie, he’s climate scientist and a mathematician; he never had the benefit of Phonology class.


So back in grad school, I had a Cuban American friend who had never smoked a cigar, so I told him I’d show him how (as if I was an expert).  So we bought some, and I showed him how to hold it, how to light it… but then I had to show him how to puff it.

Are you inhaling? he asked, am I doing it?

He wasn’t, and to be honest, I was really struggling with teaching him how to puff.  I could do it myself, and show him, but he wasn’t seeing how it was done.  And his cigar was burning away.

Finally, after struggling with a few minutes, I remembered, wait a second, this guy is a diachronic Spanish specialist; he’s had phonology.

Ok, think of in this way, I told him.  It’s a voiceless bilabial implosive.

A bilabial implosive? he asked.  He thought about it for about two seconds, and then did a perfect puff, and then did a bunch of perfect puffs in a series.

And then we laughed that the magic words that made all the difference had come from phonology class.

3 thoughts on “Phonology: Tools for Language Wizards

  1. Pingback: Crazy Ivan 2011 « you don't have to read v2.0

  2. I wasn’t sure how to respond to this other than: it’s so cool to see phonology applied to real life situations.

    I especially like the cigar. It’s funny how one little sound can make all the difference.. a friend of mine taught me how to pronounce ö in German just by telling me “put your lips together a bit” (rounding), and from then on I finally got it. Who said linguists can’t take over the world, JP? 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Stop making that noise! | you don't have to read v2.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s