How is Language Studied? Phonetics and More

The Mouth

Any serious study begins with a lot of jargon or vocabulary that helps students and teachers talk about particular aspects of the study. Just as in baseball, you have to know what is a foul, what out means, what a base is, who the pitcher is, and etc., in linguistics we begin with the mouth and the sounds we can make.

Their are areas of the mouth that generally are used to form sounds. I say generally, because much of what makes a language sound different is that these areas blend into one another. One person's "t" sound may sound quite different from another's depending on where that "t" is articulated, or where the tongue is put to make the sound. "Articulate" is the word that means where the sound is made. Here in the image above, you can see the areas of the mouth, the lips (labial) the teeth (dental) the top of the mouth (palatal) the back of the mouth (velar) and the throat (glottal.) These words are Latin so they will not sound as familiar to you as English words. But English is clumsy when it is used for science. Rather than say "between the lips and the teeth" we say "labio-dental." With any study, once you get used to the jargon or lingo, you feel that you can begin to understand the field. Refer back to this article when you get confused. This is a new field, so jargon is added and changed more often than chemistry or cartography.


The following is a list of nonsense sounds to get you used to the consonants. Consonants come in different varieties. Plosives or Stops are points in the mouth where the breath of air is blocked. Either the breath is just breath, or there is a sound with it. A fricative is a place where the tongue or the lips or the glottis can partially close making a hissing sound or one that is voiced like strumming a guitar. If a person opens the nasal passages and some of the air goes through the nose, the sound echoes in the head like a drum. Other times the tongue moves to the side so that you hear the sound from the sides of the mouth. Try these sounds. Yes, the whole field makes everyone feel like two-year-olds, so laugh all you want.

Points of Articulation

These sounds are merely to let you feel for yourself where things take place in the mouth. You may notice right off that some of the words have open or broad vowels (a, o, ou) and some of the words have narrow or slender vowels (e, ee, u(oo). Much of what happens in languages is that the vowels are pushed forward or back in the mouth. Often the vowels shift to make the word easier to say. Here is a vowel picture.

Vowel Points

English, like Danish, has an ancient vowel sound that is changing. If you think of American English or the English of Yorkshire, the sounds are very "flat" sounding compared to the round vowels of the British upper class that have been influenced by the Continent. When we say our vowels we say: "eh, ee, aye, owe, you" rather than what they do in Europe: "ah, eh, ee, o, oo." Most English vowels are two or three vowels crammed together called a dipthong. When something is spelled "bow" it is pronounced "ba-owe". This is confusing for foreigners who often have very short sounding vowels by comparison. The other very common thing that people here is that many articulate their consonants very clearly, sounding to Americans to be uptight and snooty. American English, heavily influenced by Irish and an older version of English that has not changed as much, is what I call a "muttering" language. In Latin languages, the speed can be increased by the addition of vowels between consonants. You will find in many of these languages that there are rules that you cannot blend many of the consonants. In Germanic languages, the consonants are blended to a degree that often the vowels are dropped out and the language sounds breathy, choppy, and gutteral. In English, French and the Celtic tongues, speed is increased and flow achieved by "muttering" or dropping consonants or voicing consonants to the point where the speech sounds like a string of singing or murmuring that may sound gutteral or nasal or just hard to understand. Gaelic is so flattened that it is often difficult to make any sense of the way it is written. French has this problem. Many American kids are totally confused by names like "Chevrolet" which cannot be said with an English pronunciation. The name Kennedy has had the spelling changed to match this flattening, the original spelling being: "O Ceanneidigh" which would confuse Americans!

The mouth

Here again is the more detailed picture of the mouth which you will find at the University College London. Most of the study of Phonetics tries to understand and map what sounds are possible for humans and what sounds are used in which languages. It is impossible to pick up any text on linguistics without running into immediate problems with these names and with the tendency to use the Internation Phonetic Alphabet. Often, if children do not hear the sounds of their own languages in the first two or three years, they are incapable of making all the sounds. Most people can learn a language with almost no accent up until they are twelve. After that, there is almost always an accent. An accent is a tendency to say the vowels and consonants the way that your mouth was trained for them at an early age. Comedians who specialize in mimicry have the ability to shift their minds into another "accent set" at rapid speeds. Actors often have to learn new accent sets to be believable.

There is an amusing interview done by Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show where he is talking to the comedian Robin Williams. Robin Williams talks about learning to speak like the President of the time, George Bush. He said that he takes his impression of the actor, John Wayne, a typical old West American accent, and "tightens his ass." But what he is doing is moving the vowels from the back of the mouth to the front and raising his tone a little. The result has a psychological effect as well as a sound effect which is the punchline of the joke in that moving the vowels and "tightening" the voice by raising it, sounds like tension to Americans, who usually speak with broad vowels in the back of the mouth. A woman describing how to speak with an Irish accent aslo moves the vowels to the front of the mouth and articulates them more clearly.

Linguists have names for flattening, moving the vowels, articulating, turning voiceless consonants into voiced consonants (English laugh verse love) and other shifts that occur in language accents. Part of what makes languages languages is when a shift occurs and keeps going until a dialect becomes a separate language. You can see where the American dialect is very different from country speech in East England or Northern Scotland or Australia. If you can imagine this going on without the people talking to one another for many decades you can imagine how languages emerge from a parent tongue. The study of how languages emerge and change is called "diachronic linguistics" as oppose the the study of languages as they are today "synchronic linguistic" which means "same time" or "syn - chronic." The study of etymology or word roots depends on knowing where the word changed in the past. This is a difficult field since much of it depends on the written record. That is such a mess that I have written another article about it.


Over the years, people have attempted to set down the phonetics of the language that they wish to mock. The tendency in the West to try to spell what the words sound like has made a mockery of spelling in languages like English that are not only the result of invasion and heavy modification and change, but are also the result of trying to "honor" the roots of the word in the spelling. Here is an example of some of the ludicrous attempts to standardize English spelling. The English are not the only ones who have this problem. Languages like Irish, which were set down in foreign alphabets, are also undergoing futile attempts to standardize writing so that it is easier to understand. Writers have the problem of trying to learn spelling that was modified by people who did not understand phonetics but were trying to keep "borrowed" word groups together by spelling. English is a language that borrows and assimilates almost every language that it touches. So you get problems where some child cannot know that "science" is a Greek word, and "ceiling" is a French word, and "ascend" is a Latic word, and "sing" is a Germanic word so all of them have different ways of spelling the same sound!

In the articles that follow, I hope to clear up some of the density of this field by showing you articles in English. I am not going to say much more about particular sounds, but the less specialized fields of spelling, the psychology of language and the way in which the Celtic tongues have influenced French and English, the flattening effects in English and the murmuring effects of Celtic and the ways in which we tried to study the languages of Anieth that were proto-Celtic in nature.

© 2018, A.R. Stone

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