Speech Sounds and Symbols
Talking was around for quite some time before any type of writing systems were developed. There are many languages still today today that have no written form. In fact, all human beings learn language perfectly well before ever holding a pencil or decoding a scribed word. So even though symbolizing language visually is not essential to communication, written language is one of the most significant and foundational contributions to the civilized world. Writing systems are powerful tools for widespread communication, documenting history, and propagating languages across the world.
1. Speech Sounds
A speech sound is a combination of acoustic properties such as pitch, amplitude, and frequency that are produced to transfer some type of verbal message between speakers. Each speech sound, or signal is a composition of phonetic features strung together to form words. These phonetic features each transmit essential information linked to meaning such that if one feature is altered, the sound and thus meaning are changed. For example, the two sentences below have quite different meanings even though the single feature of voicing on one word is altered.
‘Eat your peas’ vs. ‘Eat your bees’.
The production of speech sounds is natural and an innate characteristic of all neuro-typical human beings
Symbols are a type of written device used to transmit information visually, created by and taught to speakers of any given language. They serve as the building blocks of sound representation in an orthographic system. These symbols, or graphemes symbolize various linguistic forms.
Ideographs are iconic representations of ideas and are widely used today in the media. They do not transmit meaning at the morpheme/word level but rather communicate concepts or ideas. Our discussion will not include ideographs since they are generally not considered graphemes.
Pictographs are one of the earliest forms of writing. These graphemes are iconic pictures that represent entire words and ideas, examples of which were first discovered in Egypt and Mesopotamia and date back to approximately 5,ooo years ago. Of the most significant pictographs are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Several pictographic languages exist today, although it is debatable as to whether any of these writing systems is composed solely of icons. Languages such as Nahuatl and Mikmaq incorporate phonetic components.
A logographic is a grapheme that represents an entire unit of meaning as either a word or morpheme. Logographic scripts always include phonetic elements and can be consonant-based or syllable-based. In a consonant-based system, the glyphs transmit both semantic and phonetic information. For example, the glyph for crocodile not only represents the reptile itself, but also the sound ‘msh’. In a syllable-based system, a glyph represents a syllable. For example, the written representation of crocodile in Korean is악어 ag-eo.
Languages that incorporate pictographs and syllable-based logographs include modern Chinese (Hanzi), Japanese (Kanji), and Korean (Hanja).
A syllabary is a writing system in which graphemes represent syllables. These ‘syllabograms’ are usually formed as a vowel or a consonant plus a vowel. Syllabaries vary across languages. Japanese has two, hiragana and katakana that combined form ‘kana’. These syllables are mostly CV, i.e., consonant, vowel. Below is an example of the tri-syllabic word for ‘hotel’.
ホテル ho-te-ru ‘hotel’
The writing system for Cherokee, devised in the early 1800’s by Sequoyah, is quite elaborate, including the syllabic forms V and CV.
4. Alphabetic Writing Systems
An alphabet is a writing system in which graphemes correspond to individual sounds. Of course, this definition is not quite as simple as it seems, as we will see.
Most languages of the world with writing systems today use the Roman alphabet, which was originally devised for the Latin language in the days of the Roman empire thousands of years ago. Other alphabets that have been adapted to a variety of languages are the Cyrillic alphabet, used to write Russian, several other Slavic languages of Eastern Europe, and various non-Slavic languages spoken in Russia and the former Soviet Union; and the Arabic alphabet, used to write Arabic, and languages of various non-Arab Muslim countries such as Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia, and many languages of central Asia.)
5. Historical Footprints
Not all languages developed their own tailor-made alphabets. This is often due to the affects of contact between languages and has resulted in mixing, matching, and adopting graphemes across languages. When a language adopts an alphabet originally designed for another, various adjustments must be made since not all languages use the same speech sounds.
The three primary devices for such adaptation are:
- the addition of new graphemes to the alphabet (e.g. the old runes ð ‘eth’ and þ ’thorn derived from Anglo-Saxon and brought into Latin)
- the addition of diacritic marks a to existing graphemes (e.g. Spanish ñ)
- the use of digraphs (sequences of two letters together representing only one sound, e.g., in ‘fish’ the digraph sh represents one sound.)
- no longer considering silent letters part of a digraph, e.g. sign
- the use of trigraphs, e.g. German/Yiddish sch,
English borrowings schnapps, schnitzel, schmooze, schlep, schmaltz,
Four or more….chsi in fuchsia
Of all the inconsistencies found in English orthography as a result of the above adaptations, ‘silent’ letters wreak the most havoc. Silent letters are graphemes that once stood for sounds that have since been deleted (lost) in the pronunciation of words — e.g. English love, honest, debt, right.
So remember that there is a distinction between digraphs and silent letters. A digraph represents a phoneme not represented by either of its component letters on their own, e.g., English th, sh, ch, Polish sz, cz, Spanish ch, ll, German ch, where as the presence of an adjacent silent letter does not change the sound of the other. For example, we know that the g in ‘sign’ is silent since n is still articulated and is not altered by the presence of g.
All languages change over time, and spoken language changes relatively quickly in comparison to written language. This phenomenon provides insight into past pronunciations and how languages may be related. Many orthographic inconsistencies and irregularities are based in this fact. English is a prime example.
Consider these facts:
One grapheme ‘i’ can represent two or more sounds:
One sound such as /i/can be represented by more than one grapheme.
e.g., meat, meet, mete, piece, receive, people, Caesar
Single graphemes can represent more than one sound
tax /ks/, unit /ju/, schizoid /ts/
Some graphemes (underlying graphemes) are silent in certain words and pronounced in others
e.g., bomb but bombard, night but nocturnal, sign but signal, cope but copious , receipt but reception.
6. Back to Speech Sounds
When transcribing speech, we use symbols and diacritics (small markers that show added features to sounds). Phonetic alphabets, such as the International Phonetic Alphabet and the North American Phonetic Alphabet provide a one to one correlation between a speech sound and a representation, representing all the sounds of the world’s languages! That is, more or less. Since natural language is affected by elements such as speech rate, neighboring phonemes, and dialectal variations, it is not always possible to give an exact representation of certain sounds, (especially when transcribing vowels) however phonetic alphabets. In transcribing, use symbols to the best of your knowledge.
6.2 Transcription Challenge
Have a try at transcribing this excerpt from Richard Krogh’s poem.
I take it you already know
Of tough and bough and cough and dough?
Others may stumble, but not you
On hiccough, thorough, slough and through?
Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,
To learn of less familiar traps?
Click here for a broad transcription and compare your results to ours.