Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Prologue: This post is around 6 months in coming, so I apologize for the length. I do hope you’ll find it interesting nonetheless.

I came into Linguistics without a real direction, specialty or desire. Truthfully, it was more fate than anything that found me here. Today, I’d like to discuss a little bit of how I found Phonetics, why I love it, and why you might love it too.

Linguistics and Fate

When I started college, I was a Russian language major. I took a year worth of Russian language and culture classes, but I rapidly realized that their teaching style was going to kill me. A “Non-Grammatical Approach” to teaching grammar strikes me as about as effective as a “Non-Driving Approach” to Driver’s Ed, and the Russian department’s adherence to it was driving me crazy. As it worked out, I should probably be sending “Thank you” notes to the people whose terrible textbooks drove me from the department, as their failings brought me to my true passion.

The fall of my Sophomore year, I enrolled in Linguistics 2000, “Introduction to Linguistics”, just out of curiosity. I didn’t know what Linguistics was, but I decided to take it anyways, chalking it up to “College is a time for experimentation”. Well, it grabbed me. Hard.

By midterms, I had added Linguistics as a second major. By finals, I was feeling liberated. By the start of the next semester, I had dropped the Russian major (studying the language on my own instead), and l leaped off into the Linguistic Unknown. I’ve never made a better decision in my life.

Phinding Phonetics

In my intro to Linguistics classes, we touched on all the different fields of Linguistics, but only barely so. We spent a day or two looking at slides of the various IPA characters, briefly discussed the fact that English has around 10 more vowels than everybody thinks we do, and then moved on to the next field.

However, Phonetics really reached out and grabbed me. Phonetics, simply put, is the study of sounds in language, and can involve how we make sounds, how we hear them, and even how sound waves transmit information. I picked up a book, started studying the IPA, and used it in my other side projects (mostly in language creation). As soon as I could, I enrolled in the actual undergrad phonetics course, learning more and more about Phonetics, and at that point, I realized I could no longer deny my love for the sounds of language. I found myself making more and more clicks, glides, and trills, even in bed as I was going to sleep, and sometimes, I found the sounds of speech more interesting than what people were actually saying. Last year, I took the Master’s level Phonetics course offered by my school, and it sealed the deal: I love Phonetics.

I want to share the gospel of speech production; I want to show people that speech is more than just an everyday occurrence, and I want people to know that the alveolar tap in “later” can be just as graceful and precise as any figure skater’s finest trick. I’m passionate about Phonetics, and I think it’s genuinely important. Let me try and explain why.

What do speech sounds have to do with invisible aliens?

All linguists need some background in Phonetics, even if they don’t find it as interesting as I do. I remember that in my undergrad phonetics class, a lot of people really didn’t like it, and even though they wanted to be linguists, they didn’t understand why. Well, I’m going to try and explain why you need Phonetics. Let’s use a metaphor here:

We’ve likely all seen bad Sci-Fi action movies. More specifically, you’ve probably seen a movie where they have to deal with an invisible enemy. Sometimes it’s a guy in an invisibility suit, sometimes it’s a killer alien, sometimes it’s a stealth ship. No matter what, they always lose three or four expendable characters to some invisible menace before they wise up to what’s going on.

Now, imagine you’re writing a grammar of a language that’s never been described before, but you’ve never really had any phonetics training. You’re making good progress, analyzing the structures, translating words, and figuring out what the speaker is doing. Then suddenly, disaster strikes. You’re stuck with these two (made-up) sentences:

  1. nalo bi (meaning “He saw the shrimp”)
  2. nalo bi (meaning “He saw the necklace”)

You’ve checked and rechecked your data, but every time you ask the speaker to say those two sentences, he or she tells you the same thing. You’ve checked with other speakers to make sure it’s not a context thing, and when you repeat them back, you’re either “mispronouncing it”, or their translation varies. At this point, you’ve got the Linguistic equivalent of an invisible alien attacking your grammar.

In our bad Sci-Fi movie, what usually happens once they figure out that the invisible aliens are, forgiving the internet meme, in their base, eatin’ their doodz? Well, the nerdy guy in the basement workshop rigs up a set of (ultraviolet/thermal/spectral/force)-imaging goggles, which let you see the aliens clear as day. Then, they all go outside with their spiffy goggles, kill the aliens, get the parts for their ship, and get back to Earth. In bad movies, all you need to do to defeat an invisible alien is to learn how to detect it.

So, you’re still stuck staring at the “nalo bi” issue in your language. To you, these words sound almost exactly alike, but to the speakers, they’re obviously different. This is where Phonetics training comes in handy.

Phonetics: Invisible alien killer extraordinaire

You see, when we’re very, very young (less than a year), we can hear the differences between all of the different speech sounds in the world (a search for “Infant Phonetic Inventory” will put you on the right track to learn more). However, we’re all raised with a language, and after a while, we learn to subconsciously throw out the sounds that don’t matter in our language. In English, we rapidly stop caring whether our vocal folds are closed or open when we start a word (this is important in the Samoan language), and when people make an “n” further back in their mouths at the start of a word, our brain just turns it into a plain, alveolar “n”.

This is just fine for a monolingual English speaker, but when we get out into the field or study another language, it can cause us to stop seeing invisible aliens. People could be making two distinct sounds, but because they’re not present in our language, we won’t hear them.

You go get some Phonetics training. You learn about how different sounds are made. You listen to recordings and tapes of other languages to sensitize our ears. We study how sounds interact, and how to produce them. We get our ears, our mouths, and our brains to open up and hear the world not as English speakers, but as linguists.

Then, you go back to our invisible alien. They say the first phrase, you hear “nalo bi”, like before. They say the second one, and suddenly, you hear the difference. It’s not “nalo bi”, it’s “ŋalo bi”! The tongue is further back in the mouth, where our K is, and you’ve just been mishearing. You say it back, using your new skill at making the velar nasal (ŋ) at the start of a word, and they understand you. Through the magic of phonetics, you not only see the invisible alien, but you understand it, and can live in harmony with it.

See? Phonetics is phun!

Phonetics is really vital for anybody learning linguistics (or, to a lesser extent, learning languages of the world). We’re raised with one specific sound system, and it bends our mind. The study of phonetics can help free our mind, and let you see the complexity, beauty, and grace of the sounds of language that you’ve been conditioned to forget.

It’s a wonderful field not only because of the subject matter, but because it’s constantly applicable. A particle physicist can only do their work with million-dollar machines in labs. An engineer needs tools and computers to do their work. For a linguist or phonetician to work, all we need are ears, a brain, and language. We’ve always got our ears and our brain, and there’s nothing more omnipresent in human existence than language.

So, if you need a new hobby that lets you work from anywhere, enjoy the beauty in small things, and even catch invisible aliens, Phonetics is for you.

If you’d like resources in getting started, shoot me an email, or just go to your local linguistics department. A word of caution, though: mentioning invisible aliens probably won’t look too good on your application. We like creative people, but.. yeah…


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