Posted by: lcm | April 12, 2012

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 1

The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 1:
What We Have to Pay Attention to and What We Can Ignore

We have to pay attention to these guys!
Edward “Sound Patterns” Sapir (1884-1939) and
Leonard “The Phoneme” Bloomfield (1887-1949).

A fun part of my job is to introduce beginning students to the joyous and inspiring world of linguistics. The courses I teach most frequently are Language Variation in American English and a course in the history of the English language. There are no prerequisites for these courses, which is an issue but not one I am going to get into now, except to say that it means most of the students have not taken any linguistics courses before, which further means that we have to spend the first few weeks of the semester on a general introduction to the discipline before we can get into anything really juicy.

The general intro involves, among other things, helping students learn how to talk about language. Like everything else, linguistics has a language of its own. Happily, the students usually have little difficulty in understanding the basic terminology, which most of them pick up quickly and can use comfortably to discuss fairly sophisticated topics in a matter of weeks.

But there is one concept that really messes with their heads, and that is The Phoneme.

And rightly so. Unlike a lot of general linguistic terminology, the idea of the phoneme does not necessarily make sense right away. For some linguists, it does not make sense at all. But even for those who find it a useful concept (which I do, and I will countenance no disrespect of my main men Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield), it takes time to understand the phoneme in all its mystery.

We start off talking about terminology and in the process, we use the terms as they learn them to help them think about other terms. So we start with what I call the lex terms, the words about words. Every time they see lex-, I tell them, it’s a good bet we’re talking about something vocabulary-related. There’s lexicon, lexical, lexeme. I point out the –eme in lexeme and mention that when they see –eme on the end of a word, a lot of times it will mean unit of, as in lexeme, a unit of vocabulary, or, you know, a word. So far, so good. Same with morpheme, a unit of meaning, the smallest meaningful unit in language, sort of the meaning-atom of the linguistic world. And we get into different kinds of morphemes, and this is usually OK too. But then there’s The Phoneme. That’s when the betrayal happens.

“Yes!” I respond enthusiastically to the students who suggest “unit of sound?” as the definition for phoneme. They have learned well that when they see a phon– word, it is going to have something to do with sound. I used to say that the phon– morpheme (see what I did there?) should be an easy one to remember, and I’d hold an imaginary phone to my ear to demonstrate why. “Get it? Phone? Sound?” But increasingly I am encountering students who never use their phones for anything that actually involves speech sounds. And while I am sympathetic to that – one time my phone malfunctioned to where I could not receive any incoming calls, and it turned out to have been going on for two weeks before I noticed it (and I only realized it because it was pointed out to me by irritated friends whose calls I kept missing and not returning because I didn’t know about them) – it is not a helpful development for the teaching of linguistic-terminology mnemonics.

But I digress. Which is really what this blog is for. So deal.

Anyway, yes, a phoneme is a unit of sound, specifically a unit of speech-sound, but…. And here’s where the story starts to fall apart.

As everyone who teaches knows, it is a sad thing to see the bright sunshine of understanding* on the faces of the students (“Hey, this really isn’t that bad!”) and then have to stand by and watch as it fades into storm clouds of dismay* as they begin to realize that you have pulled a fast one on them and are going to change the rules just as the other team is getting the hang of the game.*

* These metaphors are offered as evidence for why I am a linguist and not a poet.

Yes, I say, a phoneme is a unit of speech-sound, but there’s a little more to it than that. I say I will write down this ever so slightly more complex definition so that they can copy it down and everyone will have it in front of them and then I will explain it thoroughly. I mean the thoroughly part to be reassuring but instantly realize that this is a mistake. It just disheartens them further. (“This really requires ‘thorough’ explanation? Yikes.”)

I write on a clean sheet of paper placed on the doc cam, using a fresh new Sharpie in an extra special awesome color so that they will see that I am still on their side, but most of them are not convinced. They sit, grimly silent, as the definition appears in letters now twelve times the size of God (as the writer Hunter S. Thompson once described a similarly horrific scene) on the large screen in the front of the room:

phoneme = a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound.

When I finish writing, there is an air of anticlimax and polite expectancy hanging over us throughout the room, but I also sense that it has a slight edge of annoyance to it as well. But I’ve been in front of much tougher audiences than this one.

So here I go.

“You know how different people pronounce words in different ways?”

A few nod warily. Others — especially in 4720 — look slightly irritated, since that is one of the exact things they are taking the class to learn more about. One or two more look discreetly but frantically at their watches. I am among this last group.

“Well, one thing that is part of what it means to ‘know’ a language is that you know which pronunciation differences you have to pay attention to and which ones you’re supposed to ignore. So like* if I say the word cat, and another native speaker of American English also says it but pronounces the vowel slightly differently from how I pronounce it, we can all still understand that we are both talking about the same kind of animal. More or less.”

*Yes, I say like in class sometimes. Deal.

Everyone laughs at the slightly-lowered, slightly-backed [æ] I have in my pronunciation of cat despite how awesomely normal it sounds compared to the crazy raised and tensed and diphthongized pronunciations of [æ] that many native Michiganders seems to favor. Oh, of course I kid, I kid. I mean about the “normal” and “crazy” parts. I’m dead serious about the raising and tensing and diphthongization of [æ].

At this point, I introduce the term minimal pair.

“Does this mean we’re done with phoneme?” someone asks.

“Aren’t you sweet,” I respond. I write a new definition:

minimal pair = two words that are phonemically identical except for a single sound in the same position in both words.

“How is that even remotely helpful?” At this point, the voices in the students’ heads are so loud that even I can hear them. Still, I press on and write down some examples of minimal pairs:

sit / seat

lock / rock

pat / bat

“What’s the difference between sit and seat,” I ask, “in terms of sound?”

“The vowels,” they answer.

“Yes,” I reply, “so sit and seat are phonemically identical” (insert meaningful eyebrow raise). “They sound exactly the same – except for the vowel in the middle of the word, which is a single sound in the same position in both words. All the other sounds in both words, meaning the /s/ and the /t/, are exactly the same, in the same order.”

“Ohhhh,” a few murmur.

“Do sit and seat have different meanings?” I ask.

“Well, their meanings are related,” they reply.

“Yes, but are they synonymous?” I demand.

“No. Sit is a verb; seat is a noun,” they say. (Reason #892 that I love English majors: They are all down with the parts of speech, they can always be counted on to know what synonymous means, and they don’t care who knows it.)

“OK, good, yes!”

I write down [Ι] and [i], the phonetic symbols that represent the vowel sounds in sit and seat, respectively.

“So, if changing the vowel sound changes the meaning, the two vowel sounds in sit” — I point to [Ι] — “and seat” — I point to [i] — “are therefore phonemically distinct from each other. Another way to say this is to say that for [Ι] and [i], each one is a member of a class of speech sounds that a native speaker will identify as the same sound but that they are not members of the same class.”

There is some murmuring, but it does not sound overtly mutinous, so I go on.

“And we know [Ι] and [i] are not members of the same class of speech sounds because native speakers will not identify them as the same sound. We know that because all y’all native speakers just said that sit and seat are two different words with different meanings. That means you identified these two vowel sounds as members of two different classes. You just proved that they are. And that means that the difference between [Ι] and [i] is phonemic.”

“Ahhh,” a few more murmur. “Oh crap,” a few others mutter. The ratio is satisfactory.

“So, can we say that [Ι] is a phoneme and [i] is another phoneme?” asks a student.

“Yes,” I respond. “That’s it exactly!” I pause in a way I think probably appears to be thoughtful. “At least in English.”

I see a horrified flash of “Oh, no, what now?” ripple across many faces.

Because I can’t leave well enough alone, and they know it. I have to go and “ruin everything, always!” (according to a student comment in a course evaluation a few years ago, and I quote).

“You know, I should probably mention that just because [Ι] and [i] are phonemic in English doesn’t mean they are in every language,” I say gently.

They wait, withholding judgment. But I know it won’t last. I take a deep breath.

“Any of you studying Spanish?”

Some hands go up.

“Yes? Thank God. Well, in Spanish, for example, [Ι] and [i] are not phonemically distinct. That means that the difference between [Ι] and [i] is a difference you have to pay attention to in English, but it’s a difference you can ignore in Spanish. In Spanish, it’s just an innocuous little pronunciation variant that no one pays any attention to. So you can imagine how hard it must be for native speakers of Spanish to get their heads around the distinction between words like sit and seat when they’re learning English because, you know, [Ι] and [i] are not phonemically distinct in Spanish. They’ve spent their whole lives ignoring the distinction and then all of a sudden they have to start actually noticing it. The sentence ‘Sit in the seat‘ must be particularly infuriating.”

When we get back from our break (we take 10 halfway through the hour+fifty class meeting), I ask how everyone is feeling about everything we’ve gone over so far. They mostly nod encouragingly. WMU students tend to be very stoic and determined people. They also possess what I believe is a higher-than-average level of empathy.

I casually* ask whether they have ever noticed that native speakers of Japanese who are learning English sometimes seem to mix up /l/ and /r/ in English words. Yes, many of them have noticed this. Well, I point out, native speakers of Japanese are used to ignoring the differences between /l/ and /r/ in their native language, but in English, it’s a difference that speakers have to pay attention to. I write down lock and rock. 

*The students are not fooled.

Lock and rock are two completely different words in English” I observe. “Why?”

“Because in English /l/ and /r/ are members of different classes of speech sounds?” offers a student.

“Yes! That is it exactly. Anyone else have another way to say that?”

“The difference between /l/ and /r/ is phonemic in English,” like twelve students say, most of them sighing and rolling their eyes but also a little bit pleased with themselves, you can tell.

Huzzah! My heart sings. Who doesn’t love a happy ending?

Except it is not the end. We will continue to have variations on this conversation for the Next. Three. Months. We will have those conversations because we have to. What a phoneme is will be forgotten. It will be relearned and forgotten again. Quizzes will be failed. Tears will be shed, occasionally even by a student. But it does get easier after this. It is slow going at times, but it does get easier. For all of us.

Don’t hate me because I have
many, many awesome Sharpies.

Next up: The Phoneme and the Many Lives It Has Destroyed, Part 2: Dog Linguistics and the Perception of Categories

The usual disclaimer applies: I am a professor of English linguistics, so I am like totally credible and everything, but this blog has not been vetted or peer reviewed and therefore is not to be considered a scholarly source for anyone out there who might be looking for information for a research paper. Also, these are my original words, and while some of what is posted herein is based on widely known and available information, that doesn’t mean you can take my words or my ideas and use them as your own. That’s plagiarism and it isn’t right, so don’t do it.

All images in this post are in the public domain, except for the Sharpies photo, which I hope will not get me into any trouble with the law.


  1. Sharpies are indeed pretty things, but the ink bleeds through everything. Forever.

    I have a hardcover sketchbook in which one artist did a drawing using a black Sharpie on page three. Over the years, the ink has slowly bled through the remaining 127 pages and the back cover. I once foolishly left the sketchbook on an end table for almost a week, and it bled through the tabletop and down to the floor where it migrated through the carpet, carpet pad, subfloor, and concrete-slab foundation—like the acid blood of those creatures in the movie _Alien_.

    (I may possibly be exaggerating, but by only a little.)

  2. Linguistics 101 taught by the inimitable Dr Colette Craig at the University of Oregon, circa 1989. In her French accent, Colette explains what a phoneme is with the warning, “I’m gonna tell you things that you do, and you’re gonna get mad because you don’t wanna hear that you do it.” To illustrate allophones in English, she has us all say the word “cookie”. I can feel it. I feel the difference in my mouth between the palatal and the velar stops. As Colette continues to lecture, about 150 students are mumbling, “coo-kie, coo-kie, coo-kie……” That class changed everything for me.

    • >about 150 students are mumbling, “coo-kie, coo-kie, coo-kie……”

      I love that! 🙂

      • She was an amazing teacher.

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


%d bloggers like this: