Analysis of Language


Linguists divide the study of spoken language into two categories--phonology and grammar.  Phonology click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is the study of sounds.  Grammar click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced is how the sounds are used to make sense.


Phonology

The smallest unit of sound that can be altered to change the meaning of a word is called a phoneme click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  In English, for example, the words gin, kin, pin, sin, tin, and win all have different meaning due to the fact that the initial sound, or phoneme, is different.  Phonemes do not have meaning by themselves.  The sounds represented by the g, k, p, s, t, and w in the words above are meaningless alone but they can change the meaning of words.

  map of Southern Africa highlighting !Kung territory in Namibia and Botswana

Different languages may use somewhat different sets of phonemes.  For instance, Polynesian languages usually use about 15 phonemes and generally favor vowel clusters rather than consonant clusters in words.  This pattern can be observed in the Polynesian words Kauai click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, Maui click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and Samoa click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.   In contrast, English speakers use 40-46 phonemes and often combine consonants into clusters.  This can be heard in the American English words schedule click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, months click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, and shrill click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.  The San languages of southwest Africa (spoken by the Ju/'hoansi click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and others) use some sounds that are not found in English or most other languages elsewhere.  These are click sounds click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced that serve as consonants.  The Ju/'hoansi language has four distinct kinds of clicks that are produced by sharply pulling the tongue away from different locations in the mouth. 

If your language does not have some of the sounds of another language, it is usually difficult for you to hear the differences and to pronounce them correctly.  For this reason, the R and L sounds in English are difficult to distinguish for native Japanese speakers.  Try making these two sounds and think about the shape of your mouth and of the placement of your tongue.  They are quite similar for both sounds.   Native English speakers rarely have difficulty in distinguishing the R and L sounds because they have been familiar with them from early childhood.  They are experts at hearing the difference.  However, English speakers have difficulty with unfamiliar sounds in other languages, such as the San language clicks mentioned above and the V and B sounds in some Spanish dialects.

Learning and using the sounds of a language can be significantly complicated by the writing system.  English has more than 1100 combinations of letters that are used to produce the 40 commonly used sounds of the spoken language.  It becomes a problem when words share the same phoneme but spell it differently.  This occurs with the "e" sound in me, tea, tree, key, country, piece, and reprise.  In addition, many English words have the same letter combination but are not pronounced the same.  This is the case with mint and pint, clove and love, as well as cough and bough.  By comparison, the 33 sounds used in Italian are spelled with only 25 letter combinations.  Italian words are spelled just as they are pronounced.  Consequentially, Italians rarely have to ask each other "how do you spell your name."  It is not surprising that English is a far more difficult language to learn.  It is also much more difficult for people who are dyslexics.

Perhaps, the most complicated writing system is used in Japan today.  It combines symbol elements from several different writing systems, sometimes in the same sentence--kanji, katakana, hiragana, and the Latin script that is used in the written form of most European languages.  Kanji is a variant of the Chinese writing system.  Katakana is a derivative of Kanji that is used for words borrowed from other languages and for special purposes, such as telegrams.  Hiragana originated as a cursive form of katakana.  Use of the Latin script is complicated by the fact that there usually are several different ways of spelling the same word.  These various symbol elements may be written from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom.  Adding further confusion is the fact that the kanji symbols sometimes have several different meanings.  Educated Japanese are expected to know about 2000 kanji character symbols.  Complicating the matter is the fact that Japanese writing is rapidly changing as it adapts to the massive influx of new words and concepts from the Western World.  As a result, older people in Japan, who were educated several decades ago, usually have difficulty reading popular newspapers and magazines targeted at teenagers and young adults.


Grammar

Grammar is divided into two categories for analysis--morphology click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced and syntax click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced Morphology is concerned with how the sounds (phonemes) are combined by language into larger units called morphemes click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced.   Morphemes are the smallest combination of sounds that have meaning and cannot be broken into smaller meaningful units.  Words can be one or more morphemes.  For example, the English word cow is one morpheme while cowboy is composed of two (cow and boy).  Some morphemes have meaning but can not stand alone in standard English like cow.  The prefix dis in the word dislike is an example of such a bound morpheme

Morphemes in the form of words are combined into larger utterances in normal speech.  These larger groupings are phrases and sentences.  Syntax refers to the standardized set of rules that determine how words should be combined to make sense to speakers of a language.  All native speakers of a language learn the basic rules of syntax as they grow up.  Even before entering school, people acquire these rules from their family and friends.  In school, they are taught to modify and augment them to coincide with patterns more acceptable to the society.

Different languages are unintelligible not only because the vocabulary is alien but also because the syntax rules are different.   In English, word order is particularly critical to changing meaning.  For example the words you, are, and there can be combined in three different ways to alter meaning:

There you are.          You are there.         Are you there?

In Latin derived languages, such as Spanish, French, and Italian, the word order is not usually as important.  Meaning is primarily determined by the endings of words (suffixes).  In a very different kind of language, Mandarin Chinese, meaning is primarily changed by tone.  The same word can mean radically different things depending on how it is pronounced.  For instance, the word ma can have four distinct tones:

tone:  high rising falling
  then rising 
falling
 Mandarin:    click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced    click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced  click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced
English:  mother linen,
hemp
horse   scolding, 
to scold

Mandarin Chinese is not the only tonal language in the world.  There are others in Asia and Africa.

Native speakers do not have to memorize all possible sentences that can be created.  Instead, they learn the rules (syntax) for creating and understanding all possible sentences.  This is much easier.  All languages have logical rules.  Also, there frequently are exceptions to rules such as the English past tense of eat being ate rather than eated.  However, such irregularities are generally few in number.

 

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This page was last updated on Wednesday, September 19, 2007.
Copyright 1998-2007 by Dennis O'Neil. All rights reserved.
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