Phonology and Phonetics 101: Vowels pt 1

In phonetics and phonology there is an important distinction to be made between sounds that can be broadly categorised into two divisions: consonants and vowels. For this post, however, I will be focusing on the second, and considered by some to be the more problematic, division. So, what are vowels? For one, they probably aren’t just the vowels (a, e, i, o, u) you were taught in during school. This is one of the big problems when teaching the sounds systems of a language with such an entrenched writing system, as in English, especially when there is a big disconnect between the sounds you make in speech and the representation of sound in orthography. To give a simple example: how many different vowels are there in bat, bet, arm, and say? Well, if you were in school, then a typical answer would be two: a and e. In truth, from a phonological standpoint, there are four different vowels: [æ], [e], [ɑː], [eɪ]. The point that vowel-sounds are different from vowel-letters is an easy one to get across. The difficultly arises in actually providing a working definition. So, again, I ask:

What are vowels?

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Phonology and Phonetics 101

What I’m going to try and do in this series of posts is follow my phonology module at Cardiff. As such, these posts are essentially my notes on the topic, and may not always come across too clearly. First, I thought it would be useful to give a quick definition of both phonology and phonetics, before moving on to discuss the anatomical organisation of our vocal organs.

Phonetics and Phonology

To begin, phonetics, often referred to as the science of speech sound, is concerned with the physical production, acoustic transmission and perception of human speech sounds (see: phone). One key element of phonetics is the use of transcription to provide a one-to-one mapping between phones and written symbols (something I’ll come back to in a later post). In contrast, phonology focuses on the systematic use of sound in language to encode meaning. So, whereas phonetics is specifically concerned with human speech sounds, phonology, despite having a grounding in phonetics, links in with other levels of language through abstract sound systems and gestures. SIL provides a useful little diagram showing where phonetics and phonology lie in relation to other linguistic disciplines:

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Why a lowered larynx is good for human speech production

Ok, there’s loads of theories as to why humans have a lowered larynx. I went to a talk about this in York probably about a year ago now and when I started reading about all this again it all came back and I thought I’d share Mark Jones‘ hypothesis with you all.

First, here’s a brief history of lowered larynx theories:

Whilst other primates have the ability to lower their larynx to make vocalisations it is only humans who have it permanently lowered. This means that humans when swallowing have to raise the larynx. This is thought to have not evolved in other species as it creates a significant risk of choking on food if the larynx is not raised on time. So if it’s so maladaptive how come it evolved in Humans?

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