Language and sounds Ahmed Qadoury Abed


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Ahmed Qadoury Abed
Ph D Candidate
Baghdad University College of Arts
English Dept

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Language and sounds Ahmed Qadoury Abed

  1. 1. Language and Sounds The two terms ‘language’ and ‘sound’ are so common in introductory textbooks about language and linguistics and wherever there is a need to talk about communication. Both terms can raise the need to think of such following general questions: 1
  2. 2. General Questions What is ‘language’? What is ‘sound’? What is the relationship between language and sounds? Can any sound be part of a language? Do sounds work separately or together? If Yes/No, how can this be done? Do we have non-verbal languages (languages with no sounds)? What about animals? Can we consider their crying, singing, and dancing a language? How are human sounds produced / analyzed? And there are more! 2
  3. 3. Selected Definitions ofLanguage In a comprehensive view on these definitions of ‘language’ presented by Lyons (1981:3-8) and Gimson (1970:3), it is so evident that language is a means of communication: Sapir Bloch & Trager Hall Gimson 3
  4. 4. Sapir’s Definition According to Sapir (1921:8): “Language is a purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of voluntarily produced symbols”(Cited in Lyons,ibid.:3). 4
  5. 5. Bloch & Trager Bloch & Trager (1942:5) wrote: “A language is a system of arbitrary vocal symbols by means of which a social group co-operates” Cited in Lyons,ibid.:4). 5
  6. 6. Hall’s Definition Hall (1968:158) states that language is “the institution whereby human communicate and interact with each other by means of habitually used oral-auditory arbitrary symbols” (Cited in Lyons ,ibid.). 6
  7. 7. Gimson’s Definition Gimson states that “a language is a system of conventional signals used for communication by a whole community”. 7
  8. 8. The Actual Purpose oflanguage In spite of their references and defects, these definitions reflect more than one fact about the actual purpose of language: 1- a method of communication, 2- a system of arbitrary vocal symbols, 3- the institution, and 4- a system of signals all can reflect that language is an organized entity of symbols. 8
  9. 9. Basic Features of thesesymbols These symbols or signals are used to1- interact, 2- communicate, 3-co-operateThe other point is being1- vocal, 2-oral, 3- auditory.Also , these definitions contain certain words or phrases , like1- ‘human’, 2- ‘arbitrary’ ,and 3- ‘habitually used’,which all indicate that those scholars believe in specifying the term ‘language ‘ for humans , not for other means of communication whether these are related to animals or artificial. 9
  10. 10. Lyons’ Point of View This opinion is fully clear in Lyons’ analysis and discussion of these definitions stating that the word ‘language’ is recently used ‘metaphorically’ (p.4),since we have nowadays :- body language,- face language ,- programming language, etc. 10
  11. 11. The meaningful nature ofthese symbols Another issue in these definitions is the use of ‘symbols’ to mean sounds. Thus, sounds are vocal, oral, or auditory, but meaningful .This means that there are meaningless and meaningful sounds. For a recently –born baby, sounds articulated by his parents, brothers and sisters, and relatives are meaningless, but may be with social function. For adults, like Iraqis, we laugh when we hear Chinese or Japanese, to the extent that both are identical, and imitating them will bring fun. 11
  12. 12. Basic Questions &PhoneticiansTherefore, what is a sound? And how are these meaningful sounds be realized? Who said this?These three questions were answered by those people who spent efforts in analyzing sounds into meaningful and meaningless. They are called phoneticians. Simply, they are people, worked and still working on recording, analyzing , and then classifying these sounds into categories or types. 12
  13. 13. Diachronic and SynchronicThis importance of studying sounds is both diachronic and synchronic since “the natural or primary medium for human language is sound” (Lyons,1981:66). 13
  14. 14. Sound is the primary mediumof human languageFor this reason, the study of sound is of more central importance in linguistics than is the study of writing, of gestures, or of any other language –medium whether actual or potential.But it is not sound as such, and not the full range of sounds, that is of concern to the linguist or phoneticians.He is interested in the sounds that are produced by the human speech-organs in so far as these sounds have a role in language. Let us refer to this limited range of sounds as the phonic medium and to individual sounds within that range as speech-sounds 14
  15. 15. The Nature of Sound A speech sound is one of the individual sounds produced in sequence during speech. When we speak, the several speech organs are all in constant motion: the lips, the jaw, the velum, the glottis and the several parts of the tongue are all moving about at their own pace, with only the occasional moment of motionlessness. Nevertheless, we hear the result as a linear sequence of individual sounds, each following the last, and each having its own distinguishing characteristics. Each one of these perceived sounds is a speech sound. And yet the individual sound is not, properly considered, an element of speech at all, for speech is a significant function and the sound as such has no significance. 15
  16. 16. Single Sound but meaningful It happens occasionally that the single sound is an independently significant element (such as French a “has” of the verb ‘avoir’). 16
  17. 17. The Physical nature of sound According to Finch(1998:49), “sound exists only when it is going out of existence… Sound is ephemeral, it seems to lack substance. After all, in physical terms speech sounds merely consist of breath”. Sounds are produced by a stream of air which comes from the lungs and passes through the vocal cords into the mouth and nasal cavities. The noises we make come from deep inside us and will vary in pitch and volume according to the way in which we manipulate the air with our lips, tongues, and other vocal organs ( or articulator). 17
  18. 18. Articulators 18
  19. 19. The Musical Nature of Sound With speaking, as in playing an instrument, we have to learn to synchronise a number of different activities to produce a smooth sequence. In this sense, speaking is like following a score. Speaking, then, is in some ways akin to singing. The sounds we produce are notes. And, as with music, rhythm, tempo, and pitch are all important in speech production. 19
  20. 20. The Conceptual Nature ofSound The true, significant elements of language are generally sequences of sounds that are either words, significant parts of words, or word groupings. What distinguishes each of these elements is that it is the outward sign of a specific idea, whether of a single concept or image or of a number of such concepts or images definitely connected into a whole. The single word may or may not be the simplest significant element we have to deal with (Sapir,1921: 5ff). 20
  21. 21. Human language and animalcommunication Again, what about animals? Do they have languages? Majority of linguists agree that there should be a kind of distinction between human languages and animal communication. Crystal (2006: 9f) ,for example, states that such difference in human language and animal communication systems is due to the existence of certain properties in human languages ; properties that contribute to its flexibility and versatility ,such as arbitrariness ,duality, discreteness, productivity , etc. Sound change is also considerable. 21
  22. 22. Animal language Recently, and due to the vast scientific research, the term ‘language’ is applied to bees dancing, animals (like ants) walking in a queue, etc. Another justification for this difference between animal and human systems is presented by Gimson (1970: 42)where majority of animal sounds are produced in isolation and without the meaningfulness imposed by a linguistic system; therefore, they are no more than phonetic terms. Animals produce sounds as a reflex of certain basic stimuli to signal fear, hunger, sexual excitement, and the like (p.7). 22
  23. 23. Difficulties of the PhoneticApproach Gimson goes further to state that any phonetic approach to the sounds of language encounters considerable difficulties: firstly, the identification and delimitation of the sound unit ( or segment) to be described , and secondly, the way in which different sounds are treated as if they were the same. 23
  24. 24. Stages of sound production As far as sound production and analysis, all books of phonetics state that there are three stages (see Ladefoged,2006): Speech production (studied by articulatory phonetics) Speech transmission (studied by acoustic phonetics) Speech perception ( studied by auditory phonetics) 24
  25. 25. Dealing with an unknownlanguage According to O’Connor (1973), in dealing with an unknown language: one has to approach the drawing up of a phoneme inventory in this way,- considering the sounds,- looking at their distribution ,- finding out whether they can make differences of meaning or not,- and then grouping them together as representing the same phoneme. At best it is a hazardous and difficult operation. In one’s own language it is much easier to proceed from larger to smaller units – to start with whole utterances and break them down by comparison into smaller and smaller elements until finally you arrive at something which cannot be broken any further, and this is the phoneme. 25
  26. 26. Phonetician’s difficult task indescribing sounds O’Connor himself states the difficult task of phoneticians in describing and classifying phonemes: “complete description is beyond our powers since it would mean mentioning an infinite number of features”(p.125). In classifying sounds, “all we need to do is to mention those features by which they differ and leave it at that”(p.126). 26
  27. 27. Different aspects in specifyingsoundsDifferent aspects are mentioned to be important in specifying sounds ( Gimson,ibid.:53): The source of air movement (lung air ,pharynx air, mouth air) Direction of air movement ( ingressive or egressive) Amount of air pressure (fortis or lenis) Vocal-cord action (voiced, voiceless) State of soft palate (velic closure / opening) Place of interference (glottal…bilabial) Manner of interference (plosive …lateral) 27
  28. 28. Sound Differences Speech sounds can differ from one another in three ways:1- stress2- pitch3- quality 28
  29. 29. Sound Quality Sound quality is related to two factors: sound spectral pattern and the actions of the vocal organs produced the sound. O’Connor (ibid.:103) states an example of this by comparing two pronunciation of the word see concluding that no similarity in sound production even in two people either for articulators or acoustic reasons ( like differences in size and shape of individual’s vocal cavities, structure of vocal cords ,and air –flow characteristics). The important point here is that your pronunciation of these sounds is your individual voice quality, a tendency common among us in identifying certain social, cultural, demographic features. 29
  30. 30. Factors influencing soundunderstanding and recognition Furthermore, understanding and recognizing the message delivered by the sound or sound sequence is influenced by other factors: prosodic such as 1-stress, 2-pitch, 3-intonation, 4-rhythm, 5- voice quality, 6- loudness, etc.,and paralinguistic, such as context of situation. 30