Lies your English teacher told you: “Long” and “short” vowels

I remember, long ago in elementary school, learning how to spell. “There are five vowels,” our teachers told us, “A, E, I, O, U. And sometimes Y.” (“That’s six!” we saucily retorted. (We were seven.))

“When a vowel is by itself,” our teachers continued,”it’s short, like in pat. When there’s a silent e at the end, the vowel is long, like in pate1.” Then there were a dozen exceptions and addenda (including the fact that A could be five different sounds), but the long and the short of it was, there are long vowels and there are short vowels.

And you know something? There are long and short vowels in English. We actually briefly discussed this before, many moons ago during our introduction to vowels, but I wanted to add a little more detail today.

The first important thing to remember is that writing is not equivalent to the language itself.2 Our spellings are generally standardized now, but they are only representations of words, and they do not dictate how a word actually sounds. Furthermore, English orthography uses five or six symbols to represent more than a dozen different vowel sounds (not exactly an efficient system). In our example above of pat and pate, these words actually contain two distinct vowels pronounced in two different places in the mouth. The same is true of the other “long” and “short” vowel pairings. It’s almost like these sounds ([æ] and [eɪ], in IPA) aren’t really related, they just timeshare a spelling.

In another sense, though, it’s not so incorrect to say that pat has a short A and pate has a long A. To illuminate this claim, we’ll need two ingredients: an understanding of vowel tenseness in English, and an important sound change from the language’s past.

For scholars of English, a more important distinction than vowel length is vowel tenseness. Like the long/short vowel spelling distinction, linguists have identified pairs of vowels that are separated by no more than a little difference in quality. The difference, though, is not a matter of length, but whether the vowel is tense or lax, i.e. whether the muscles in the mouth are more tensed or relaxed in the production of the sound. These pairings are based on the sounds’ locations in the mouth and are therefore a little different than those traditionally associated with the letters. Pate and pet demonstrate a tense-lax pairing, as do peek and pick. The sounds in these pairs are very close together in the mouth, pulled apart by the tenseness, or lack thereof, of their pronunciation.

In some dialects of English, like RP or General American, tense vowels (and diphthongs) naturally acquire a longer duration of pronunciation than lax vowels. In short, the tense vowels are long. Therefore, it wouldn’t actually be false to say that pate has a long A and pat has a short A, but the length of the vowels is an incidental feature of English’s phonology and isn’t really the important distinction between the sounds (not for linguists, anyway).

It isn’t always that way in a language, and in fact, it wasn’t always that way in English. We’ve mentioned this before, but it’s pertinent, so I’ll cover it again: in some languages, you can take a single vowel (pronounced exactly the same way, in the same place in the mouth), and whether you hold the vowel for a little length of time or for a longer length of time will give you two completely different words. This is when it become important and appropriate to talk about long and short vowels. Indeed, farther back in English, this was important. In Old English, the difference between god (God) and gōd (good) was that the second had a long vowel ([o:] as opposed to [o], for the IPA fluent). In all other respects, the vowel was the same, what many English speakers today would think of as the long O sound.

In a way, these Old English long/short vowel pairings are really what we’re referring to when we talk about long and short vowels in English today (even if we don’t realize it). The historic long vowels were the ones affected by the Great English Vowel Shift, and the results are today’s colloquially “long” vowels. The short vowels have largely remained the same over the years. Maybe in this sense, as well, it’s not so bad to keep on thinking of our modern vowels as long and short. So many other quirky aspects of English are historic relics; why not this, too?

In the end, maybe the modern elementary school myth of long and short vowels isn’t entirely untrue, but there’s certainly a lot more to the story.


1 This is a delightful, if somewhat archaic, word for the crown of the head. I love language.
2 I imagine some of our longtime readers are fondly shaking their heads at our stubborn insistence on getting this message across. Maybe it’s time we made tee shirts.

Sherlock Nouns and the Case of Morphological Declension

Ah, nouns. Classically defined as “people, places, and things,”1 these little (and sometimes not so little) words can carry a lot of meaning, encompassing everything from cats to triskaidekaphobia2. Pair them with verbs (those things you do), and you’ve really got something.

In English, there’s a comforting solidity to nouns. Not like verbs, that throw on endings and even, le gasp, change vowels like they’re trying on hats. Nouns, now—nouns are dependable.

Or so you thought. When you change the form of a verb to reflect who’s doing what and when, that’s called conjugation. Here’s the bombshell: nouns can do that, too. It’s called declension.

In some languages, the form of the noun changes to indicate its role in a sentence. For example, a noun may have one form when it’s the subject of a sentence but have a different form when it’s the object. (As a refresher: in ‘Rebekah wants haggis’, ‘Rebekah’ is the subject, and ‘haggis’ is the object.) These noun forms are called cases. Adjectives, pronouns, participles, numerals, and demonstratives (this or that) can also decline. Declension occurs in languages like, oh, English. Or Spanish. (Just a little bit.)

In English and Spanish, the presence of cases is most evident in their pronouns:

English Spanish
subject he él
direct object him lo
indirect object him le
possessive his/hisn su/suyo
reflexive himself se

(Hisn is a dialectal form like mine for the third person.)

For regular nouns, English only distinguishes between singular and plural and between possessive and non-possessive. Spanish distinguishes between singular and plural and declines for grammatical gender (e.g. the adjective blanco will become feminine blanca when describing la tortuga blanca ‘the white turtle’). The diversity of their pronoun forms3 is a remnant of their parent languages, Old English and Latin respectively. These older languages had full, healthy case systems that affected all their nouns. They in turn inherited their noun cases from a common ancestor, namely Indo-European (IE).

The Indo-European Noun Cases

Based on the structure of its surviving daughters, linguists have determined that Proto Indo-European had eight noun cases:

case role example in an English sentence
nominative subject amīcus ‘boy’/puella ‘girl’ (Lat) The boy plays.
accusative direct object amīcum/puellam He loves the girl.
dative indirect object amīcō/puellae He gives the girl a flower.
ablative movement away from amīcō/puellā She runs from the boy.
genitive possessive amīcī/puellae The boy’s tears
vocative addressee amīce/puella Boy, where art thou?
locative physical or temporal location domī ‘at home (Lat) She stays at home.
instrumental by means of which something is done þȳ stāne ‘with a stone’ (OE) He raps on her window with a stone.


This is a rather simplified representation of the situation. The actual distinctions and usages of the cases vary from language to language, particularly because very few IE languages utilize all eight cases (like Sanskrit does). It’s the nature of languages to change, and cases have a propensity to merge, a process called syncretism4. It’s like when you’re working on a group project, and half the group doesn’t show up, leaving the kids who want a good grade to pull double duty and fulfill the delinquents’ obligations as well as their own. For example, in Old English, the dative case fills some of the same uses as the ablative case in Latin because Old English doesn’t have an ablative.

The case of noun cases shook out a little differently across the Indo-European language family. As previously mentioned, Sanskrit has eight cases. Latin has seven. Old English has five. Icelandic and German have four (although German doesn’t show it on nouns so much as on articles and adjectives). And languages like English and Spanish don’t so much have cases anymore as much as they have pictures of their old case-infused relatives hanging on their walls.

A college classmate of mine once stated rather authoritatively that the reason the modern Romance languages have generally done away with cases is because it’s too hard to decline all those Latin nouns in your head. To be fair, Latin has five different groups of nouns (called declensions), all with their own endings for Latin’s seven cases. And it is true that many modern IE languages employ far fewer cases than their ancestors, if any at all. But the idea that cases are too hard for our brains to manage in everyday speech? Hogwash. Russian, another IE language that is very much alive and kicking, has six cases. Our friend Finnish (of Uralic descent) has fifteen. (You should also take from the example of Finnish that noun cases are not unique to the Indo-European languages.)

We’ve discussed before (repeatedly) that one language isn’t really harder than any other; they’re just different. The human brain is well equipped to utilize any of them it can get its neurons on. If our homo sapien super computers couldn’t handle a given linguistic structure, it wouldn’t develop. Easy as pie.

To Word Order or Not to Word Order?

Now, a robust system of noun cases (and verb conjugation) in a language can affect more than just the morphology. Because so much important information is embedded in the words themselves, word order is less important and more flexible than in languages like Modern English.

In Old English, ‘Se hlāford lufaþ þā frōwe’ and ‘Þā frōwe lufaþ se hlāford’ both mean ‘The lord loves the lady.’ In Modern English, ‘The lord loves the lady’ and ‘The lady loves the lord’ have very different meanings (although, for the sake of romance, one hopes that both statements are equally true). To say ‘The lady loves the lord’ in Old English, you would decline the nouns differently and say ‘Sēo frōwe lufaþ þone hlāford.’ (Maybe this wasn’t the best example as there aren’t noticeably distinct ending on the verbs, but you can see the difference in case in the demonstratives.) This is not to say that Old English doesn’t have rules about word order, but it’s less crucial than in today’s English.

Languages that rely on declension and conjugation (both types of inflection) to convey meaning are called synthetic languages. Languages that rely more on word order are called analytic. These distinctions are not binary but rather are a matter of degree.

So, there you have it. (It being a brief rundown on noun cases.) As parts of speech go, nouns are pretty straightforward. But like a duck paddling on water, nature’s got a lot of beautiful stuff going on underneath the surface.


1 Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock.
2 A fear of the number 13.
3 Pronouns generally resist change (the stubborn things), hence the moderate survival of cases where they were generally lost throughout the rest of the language.
4 This phenomenon is propelled by things like sound change. If the endings for two cases start to sound identical, it becomes hard to distinguish them as separate forms.

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter G

It’s time for the HLC with our very special guest, Proto-Germanic! Yaaay!

Ah, English spelling. That prickly, convoluted briar patch that, like an obscure Lewis Carroll poem, often falls just a little too shy of making sense. Or does it?

It wasn’t always like this. English spelling actually used to be pretty phonetic. People would just write down what they heard or said.1 Then, the printing press was introduced. Books and pamphlets began to be mass produced, literacy levels rose, and spelling began to be standardized. At the same time, English continued to move through some fairly dramatic shifts in pronunciation. The language moved on as the spellings froze.

Throughout the years, people have occasionally called for reforms in English spelling. Like that time in the early 20th century when Andrew Carnegie, Melvil Dewey, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, et. al. colluded to “improve” some of the more confusing orthographic practices of English. Personally, this linguist is glad such efforts have by and large failed.

Sure, you could look at English spellings and tear at your hair at the monumental insanity of it all. But I like to think of our spellings more as fossils preserving the dinosaur footprints of earlier pronunciations. Granted, sometimes the footprints are from five different species, all overlapping, and there’s, like, a leaf thrown in.

Where are they all going?!

Let’s take, for example, the letter <g>2 and its many possible pronunciations.

First on the menu is the classic [g], a sturdy stop found in words like grow, good gravy, and GIF. This dish originates in the Proto-Germanic (PGmc) voiced velar fricative /ɣ/3. (Refresh your memory on our phonological mumbo-jumbo here.) This velar fricative had a bit of an identity crisis during Old English (OE)4, spurred on by hanging out with sounds all over the mouth.

“But what we found out is that each one of us is a front vowel…and a back vowel…and a palatal approximant…an affricate…and a voiced velar stop…Does that answer your question?”

Around front vowels (such bad influences—triggering umlaut wasn’t enough for them?), it became [j], as in year, from OE ġēar. Between back vowels (the big bullies), it became [w], as in to draw, from OE dragan5. At the end of words, it lost its voicing and became [x] (the sound in loch), as in our own dear Edinburgh (whose pronunciation has since changed again). Ah, but before back vowels, and when backed up by sonorants like [ɹ], it held its ground a little better and became our trusty [g].

As you may have noticed, a lot of the sounds that came from /ɣ/ are no longer spelled with <g>. Alas. We’ll come back to how Edinburgh wound up with an <h> in a minute.

But first, there was another sound that came from PGmc /ɣ/. Old English had something going on called gemination. Sometimes, it would take a consonant and double its pronunciation. Like the <kk> in bookkeeper. Bookkeeper is just fun to say, but these long consonants were actually important back in OE. The wheretos and whyfors of gemination are another story, but just like how /ɣ/ became [j], the geminate /ɣɣ/ was pulled forward and dressed in new clothes as the affricate [d͡ʒ], like in bridge and edge, from OE bryċg and eċg.

Gemination didn’t get around much. It was pretty much restricted to the middle of words. When mushy, unstressed endings began to fall off, the leftovers of gemination found themselves at the end of words, but a little nudge was needed before [d͡ʒ] found its way to the prime word-initial position. Later on in Middle English, the language ran around borrowing far more than a cup of sugar from its neighbor across the Channel. As English stuffed its pockets with French vocabulary, it found a few French sounds slipped down in among the lint. One of those was Old French’s own [d͡ʒ], which on the Continent was simplifying to [ʒ]6 (the <s> sound in measure). This [ʒ] sound didn’t exist in English yet. Our forefathers looked at it, said “nope,” and went on pronouncing it [d͡ʒ]. Thus we get words like juice, paving the way for later words like giraffe and GIF.

This is a GIF. Or is it a GIF? I mock you with my scholarly neutrality.

It was only later, after the end of Middle English, that /ʒ/ was added to the English phoneme inventory, retaining its identity in loanwords like garage and prestige. It’s worth noting, however, that these words also have accepted pronunciations with [d͡ʒ].

Alright, so what about the <gh> in Edinburgh? It turns out there’s another sound responsible for the unpaid overtime of the letter <g>. Meet the sound /h/. In Middle English, Anglo-Norman scribes from France introduced a lot of new spellings, including <gh> for /h/. The <h> part of the <gh> digraph was probably a diacritic meant to indicate a fricative sound. Remember that by this time, the old <g> didn’t really represent a fricative anymore. In words like Edinburgh, the [x] from /ɣ/ had merged with the [x] version of /h/, so it is from /h/ that we get our <gh> spellings. Over time, these [h] and [x] pronunciations weakened and disappeared completely, bequeathing us their spelling to baffle future spelling bee contestants. We have them to thank for bright starry nights, the wind blowing in the high boughs of the trees. But before these sounds went, they left us one last piece to complete our <g> puzzle: after back vowels, sometimes [x] was reanalyzed as [f]. We’ve all been there, right? Your parents say something one way, but you completely mishear them and spend the rest of your life pronouncing it a different way. I mean, did you know the line in the Christmas song is actually colly7 birds, not calling birds? Now imagine that on a language-wide scale. I’m glad for the [f]s. They make laughing more fun, although sometimes convincing your phone not to mis-autocorrect these words can be rough. Had enough? Okay, I’ll stop.

The point of all this isn’t really about the spellings. Just look at all these beautiful sound changes! And this barely scratches the surface. A lot of the big sound changes that warrant fancy names seem to be all about vowels, but as <g> can attest, consonants have fun, too.8 Speaking of big, fancy vowel changes, get your tickets now because next week, Sabina’s going to talk about one of the most famous and most dramatically named: the Great English Vowel Shift.


1 It wasn’t a perfect system, though. Sometimes, a single scribe would spell the same word several different ways in the same document. Was this reflecting variations in utterances? An inability to decide which letter represented which sound? Transmission errors through copying down someone else’s writing? Who knows.
2 As far as the letter itself goes, the Anglo-Saxons actually used a slightly different symbol known as the insular g. The letter we use today was borrowed from the French during Middle English and is known as the Carolingian g.
3 It’s the voiced version of the sound at the end of Scottish loch. It can be heard today in the Dutch pronunciation of wagon.
4 Refresh yourself on the periods of English here.
5 Actually, draw, drag, and draught/draft are cognates. Knowledge, am I right?
6 This is actually one of my favorite phones. I’m a linguist. I’m allowed to have favorite phones.
7 Because they’re black like coal. And my heart.
8 Admittedly debatable and unnecessarily anthropomorphizing, but we’re already in this thing pretty deep.

Phonology 101: Vowels

And so we come at last to vowels, the final stop on this journey we call Phonology 101. So far, we’ve talked about the vocal tract (here), phonemes (here), and consonants (here). There’s also a post on the International Phonetic Alphabet (here).

As far as human speech sounds go, I feel like consonants are pretty straightforward. Sure, some are harder to produce than others, but you can point to a relatively clear place of articulation that’s easy to feel when you produce the sound yourself. When you produce [m], your lips are together. When you produce [t], your tongue touches right behind your teeth. Vowels are…squishier.

Let’s start with the easy part: all vowels are, by nature, voiced.1 Like consonants, vowels can be either oral or nasal, depending on whether the velum is raised or lowered (see if you can tell the difference between the vowels in mat /mæt/ and man /mæn/). Vowels can also be rounded or unrounded; this describes the shape of the lips during production.

Now, we need one more thing, one more feature, something similar to the consonants’ place of articulation, to distinguish each vowel from all the others. That magic feature is the position of the tongue within the vowel space. Well, it’s actually two features: height (or closeness, as you’ll see on the IPA chart) and backness.

IPA Chart,, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Vowel height is kind of what it sounds like: how high (close) or low (open) in the mouth the tongue is. Backness refers to which part of the tongue is providing the pertinent interaction with the height variable—the back (closest to the throat), front, or center.

When talking about vowels, it’s good to keep in mind that as far as words meaning “middle” are concerned, “central” refers to the horizontal feature and “mid” refers to the vertical.

So, why do I say vowels are kind of squishy? In consonants, the tongue hits specific points along the roof of the mouth. In vowels, the tongue is interacting with empty air—a much less precise target to hit thousands and millions of times while speaking. In fact, phoneticians call our phonemes target vowels.

But what’s all this talk without some examples?

In cheese /t͡ʃiːz/, we find the high, front, unrounded vowel. The front of the tongue is high in the mouth, and the lips, rather than pursed, are pulled back into something resembling a smile (as many a subject of a painfully posed photograph can attest).

In choose /t͡ʃuːz/, the tongue is again high, but this vowel is back and rounded.

A few more:

The vowel in chess /t͡ʃɛs/ is low-mid front unrounded.
The vowel in Chaz /t͡ʃæz/ is low front unrounded.
The first vowel in Chaucer /t͡ʃɔːsəɹ/ is low-mid back unrounded.

You get the picture.

I’d like to point out a couple funny things you may have noticed in my phonemic transcriptions of these words.

First, I used /i/ to represent what native English speakers commonly think of as the E sound. The symbols used in IPA are a mix of letters and specialized characters. In the case of the vowels, the commonly familiar letters correspond to the so-called Continental vowels, i.e. they represent the sounds they spell in most European languages. English is the misfit here. The spellings we use for vowels are mismatched to the way they’re treated in other languages. There’s a very good reason for this, but that exciting story will have to keep for another day. As for /e/, this is used in IPA for what we English speakers think of as the A sound.

Next, the keen-eyed will have noticed that when I transcribed cheese, I didn’t just use /i/. There’s two funny dots after it that look like a colon. This symbol indicates that the vowel is long. American schoolchildren learn that the difference between Pete and pet is that the first has a long E and the second has a short E. This is not what I mean. For a phonologist, that sense of “long” and “short” is erroneous (and in fact, those two words have completely different vowels). Rather, this symbol means that the vowel is held for a longer length of time; it indicates duration. In some languages, vowel length is phonemic, i.e. it differentiates one word from another. Heck, it used to be phonemic in English way back in the day. You don’t have to worry about whether your vowels are long or short in Modern English. That’s one of those allophonic2 features that just kind of happens.

Last, there’s a second vowel in Chaucer that I haven’t mentioned yet, represented by a flipped-around lowercase E: /ə/. A lot of these symbols I’m using are probably new and unfamiliar, so you may not have noticed it hiding there, but this disoriented little letter is special. It’s name is schwa. It represents a mid central unrounded vowel, which is to say it represents a relaxed, mushy, indiscriminate vowel sound. It’s often found in unstressed syllables, and it can be an allophone of a lot of other vowels when you’re not going out of your way to enunciate every word. It never really satisfies the phonemic requirement of separating one word from another, but it’s an important little sound nonetheless, this lazy vowel. Plus, schwa is fun to say.

There are a few more things to bear in mind about vowels. First, very few of the vowels we produce in English are pure, single sounds. Much like the consonantal affricates, sometimes two vowels get produced in such close sequence they act like a single sound. For vowels, these are called diphthongs. You can hear diphthongs in words like chase /t͡ʃeɪs/ and chai /t͡ʃaɪ/ (or the names of the letters A and I).

Second, vowels tend to vary a lot more from dialect to dialect than consonants do. You can look at all the varieties of English across the world, from Canada to New Zealand, and draft almost identical lists of consonants for all of them. On the other hand, you don’t have to be a linguist to tell that they all use (sometimes drastically) different sets of vowels.

Several times throughout this series, I’ve encouraged you to stop and to try producing some of these sounds. This is especially useful if you’d like to get a handle on vowels. Say some. Just roll sound around in your mouth. Make random, vowel-ish noises. I can give you clinical definitions of consonants. Vowels you’ve got to feel.

This is the end of Phonology 101, but if you’ve fallen in love with the science of speech production and sounds the way I have, don’t you fret. Phonology has a starring role in some of the most exciting stories English has to offer, and you can bet we’ll be bringing them your way. For now, you Scots lovers better hold onto your hats. Lisa’s back next week to help us understand some of the differences between English and Scots.


1As a point of curiosity, some languages, like Japanese, occasionally have voiceless vowels in specific contexts. But, this is a rarity. Like how hand sanitizer claims to kill 99.9% of germs.
2I know this is a blog, and we’re kind of asking a lot by asking you to remember all this terminology. Your cheat sheet for phonemes and allophones is right this way.

Phonology 101: Consonants, or “Let’s Make a Sandwich”

Well, well. Here we are again. Back for more Phonology 101. Today, we’re finally going to start putting names to faces, or, uh, sounds. That’s right, it’s time to talk about consonants!

Phones (as we learned to call speech sounds last time—catch up here) can be broadly divided into consonants and vowels.1 As you probably know, words can be divided up into syllables. A quick and dirty way to separate vowels and consonants is that vowels form the nucleus, i.e. the middle, of a syllable, and consonants are the sounds that go around the outside.2 If syllables were sandwiches, consonants would be the bread and condiments and the pickles and the lettuce and all that good stuff you put around the meat, i.e. the vowels.

But really, the main distinguishing characteristic of a consonant is that the flow of air through the vocal tract is impeded in some way. The nature of the impediment is called the manner of articulation.3 Together with place of articulation and voicing (which we discussed in part one of Phono 101—here), the manner of articulation is one of the three major defining characteristics of a consonant.

If you’ve been studying up on your IPA, the manner of articulation is listed in the left column of the pulmonic consonants chart:

IPA Chart,, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

Today, I’m going to go over several types of consonants, which will cover the bulk of the chart. The consonants I won’t cover are trills and taps (which you can see on the chart above), and clicks, implosives, and ejectives (which are listed elsewhere on the complete IPA chart, viewable here). These are much rarer in the world’s languages and, wouldn’t you know it, a bit trickier to grapple with. The sounds I will cover are all present in English, and that’s where I’ll be pulling my examples from. This is not because English is somehow more exemplary than other languages, but I’m writing in English, so I assume you, my trusty reader, have at least some familiarity with its sounds.

Our first type of consonant is called a plosive or a stop (the terms are interchangeable). (Ideally, I would say stops are wheat bread or mayonnaise or some other sandwich-making component, but this is a shaky metaphor that I’m afraid will quickly fall apart if spread too far.4) In these sounds, the airflow is completely blocked somewhere along the vocal tract and then released. The sound is stopped, then explodes outwards. (Most of the consonants have helpful names like that. Thankfully, we linguists don’t always use fancy Latin terms for things.) For example, when producing [b], both lips come together and part, stopping and releasing the flow of air. When producing [t], the closure is made by placing the tongue along the alveolar ridge. (I asked you before to try saying different sounds to get a feel for the places of articulation. You should definitely try that again today, this time paying attention to the manner of articulation. Go on. You know you want to.)

Another type of consonant is the fricative. Here, the flow of air is highly restricted but not completely cut off. These sounds tend to buzz or hiss, and the name of the game here is friction. Excellent examples are [v] (a voiced labiodental fricative) and [s] (a voiceless alveolar fricative). Fricatives are fun because you can drag them out as long as you want as long as you’ve got enough breath support.

Now sometimes, occasionally, when a stop and a fricative really love each other, those two crazy kids get together and form an affricate. An affricate is a stop followed in such close sequence by a fricative, they overlap to create what sounds like one phone. English has a couple of these. The first and last sounds in church (/t͡ʃ/) and judge (/d͡ʒ/) are affricates. There’s some debate over whether affricates should be treated as one sound or as a sequence of two.

Stops, fricatives, and affricates can, generally, be either voiced or voiceless. Due to how they’re produced, this isn’t necessarily true for some of the other types of consonants.

Some of those perpetually voiced sound are known as approximants. In these sounds, the airway is restricted, but the air passes around the sides of the tongue or passes through the narrowed areas without the friction characteristic of fricatives. This category includes sounds like [l], [ɹ], and [w]. “Approximants” is actually kind of a catch-all term for some of the most complicated consonants to produce, and they can be broken up into several subcategories. We’re not going to dive into those right now; I don’t want to make your head hurt more than I have to.

In all of these sounds (stops, fricatives, affricates, and approximants), the air passes through the oral cavity. For some sounds, the velum is lowered, allowing the sound to pass through the nasal cavity, like in [m] and [n]. This one’s easy: these sounds are called nasals.

That’s the whole grocery list, so let’s get back to our tenuous sandwich analogy. Some sandwiches/syllables are simple—just two pieces of bread and a slice of roast beef, like cat. Some have mayonnaise and tomatoes and cheese and all sorts of other fixings, like strength (the linguistic term is consonant clusters). Some sandwiches/syllables are open-faced, like do. No matter how you serve it up, put all the ingredients together and you wind up with something delicious.

In two weeks, I’ll be back to finish off Phonology 101 with an exploration of that phonemic delicatessen, vowels. Next week, Riccardo will be here to bend your mind on the subject of linguistic prejudice and a little something called phonaesthetics.


1Finally! Something intuitive, am I right?
2There are a couple consonants that occasionally blur this line, but contrary to what you might expect, none of them are represented by the letter Y.
3Technically, vowels also have a manner of articulation, but it’s the same for all vowels. Manner of articulation isn’t really important for vowels, but it’s crucial for consonants.
4Get it? “Spread”? I’m sorry.

Phonology 101: Phonemes, aka phonology’s little superheroes

Welcome back to Phonology 101! Last time, we talked about the vocal tract and two major features of speech sounds, namely place of articulation and voicing (catch up here). Today, we’re going to stop using the word “sound” in favor of some more precise terms: phone, phoneme, and allophone. You may also find it useful to catch up on IPA (here); I’ll be introducing some important notation, and moving forward, I’ll be using IPA more and more.

Individual speech sounds are called phones. In talking about speech production, we keep distinguishing between phonetics (the concrete/physical) and phonology (the abstract/mental). Phones exist on the phonetic plane. Our mental representations of the sounds in our language are called phonemes. If your brain was a computer running a language program, phonemes would be all the sound files. As mentioned previously, the International Phonetic Alphabet is the standard for transcribing phones and phonemes. When using IPA, brackets put around the symbols indicate whether phonetic or phonological data is being represented. Phones go in square brackets (e.g. [a]), and phonemes go between slashes (/a/). On both levels, this notation can be used for individual sounds, complete words, or even phrases and longer utterances.

More technically, a phoneme is “a minimal contrastive sound unit of a language.”1 What that means is, phonemes cannot be broken down into smaller units, and switching a single phoneme for another can make the difference between one word and another. To determine the phonemes of a language, linguists look for something called minimal pairs, i.e. pairs of words that differ in pronunciation by a single phone. An example of a minimal pair is mine /maɪn/ and kine /kaɪn/,2 which demonstrates that /m/ and /k/ are phonemes in English. As you can guess, minimal pairs have a tendency to rhyme, but the differing sounds don’t need to be at the beginning of words. They can also come at the end, as in mine /maɪn/ and might /maɪt/, or in the middle, as in can /kæn/ and kin /kɪn/.3 (These examples also nicely illustrate the point we keep emphasizing about how separate spelling and pronunciation actually are.)

Now, the thing about phonemes is, the sound we think we’re producing isn’t always technically the sound that comes out. Based on where it is in a word or the sounds surrounding it, a single phoneme might be pronounced in several ways. The physical manifestations of a phoneme are called allophones. Some phonemes might have only one allophone, while others might have several. Some allophones might be associated with more than one phoneme. I’ve had several teachers who explained it like this: Sometimes Superman is Superman, and sometimes Superman is Clark Kent. Sometimes, he’s even Kal-El. How he appears depends on the environment he’s in, but at the end of the day, it’s all the same guy. A linguistic example: In my dialect, I pronounce rot as [ɹɑt], but rotten is [ɹɑ.ʔən]. (Like generic phones, allophones go in brackets.) My “t” sound in rotten is something called a glottal stop. Even though it’s a different phone, my brain says the middle sound in rotten is the phoneme /t/ (an alveolar stop). This comes out when I enunciate it and it sounds more like [ɹɑ.tən]. [ʔ] is an allophone of /t/. (As we haven’t really talked about any specific sounds yet, I’ve tried to pick examples that would be kind of intuitive for most speakers. Even so, it was hard to avoid using some sounds and symbols that may be making you go, “Huh?” Here’s an interactive IPA chart with sound clips if you’d like to hear what I’m talking about.)

Some allophones are pretty obvious to spot, but others are more subtle. In ram [ɹæ̃m] the vowel takes on a nasal quality not present in rat [ɹæt] through the influence of the following nasal consonant /m/. This is how allophones tend to come about. In actual speech, no sound is produced in a vacuum. In the interest of ease of articulation, our mouths carry over features from previous sounds or, as in the case of ram, anticipate upcoming sounds. This process is highly predictable and regular. A phoneme will consistently produce the same allophone in a given environment.

Okay, so what? This is all well and good for linguists who just want to Know, but does it have any impact on your life? Well actually, yes. Every language variety has its own phoneme inventory. Phonemes in one language may only be allophones in another (or may be missing entirely). When we pick up a language as children, our boxed set of language features includes a list of sounds we consider phonemes. As we grow up, this internal phoneme inventory solidifies and becomes very hard to alter. This explains why people have an accent when they learn a second language—they’re unconsciously using their native phonemes.

Our phoneme inventories don’t just influence the way we pronounce words. They also filter how we process what we hear. In my dialect, I pronounce merry, marry, and Mary the same. In some dialects here in the United States, these words contain three different vowels and therefore have three distinct pronunciations. I’ve studied phonology long enough that I can carefully reproduce these pronunciations (when I remember which vowel goes with which word), but I still can’t hear the different when a native speaker of this dialect produces these words. For me, all these vowels get lumped into the same phoneme, so that’s how I hear them.

This isn’t a big deal for a situation like mine, where the phoneme difference is slight and it will be easy for me to figure out what’s being said. The differences between phoneme inventories can get more pronounced4, and interfere more with comprehension, when you’re speaking a second language. For example, in Arabic, [b] and [p] are not distinct phonemes, so it’s hard for a native Arabic speaker to distinguish between English barking and parking.

And this is why we’re wading through all this terminology and technical swampland: Language is a real world phenomenon with real world consequences. As in the Arabic example, phonology can have an effect on actual communication, as can morphology, syntax, semantics, and the other basic disciplines of linguistics. Once we’re done laying the groundwork, we can get to the fun stuff (like, what’s up with English spelling? And how do you pronounce GIF?).

There will be two more posts in the Phonology 101 series (for now). In two weeks, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of consonants, and then in March, we’ll go over vowels. Before we get to that, though, Sabina will be back next week to talk about something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and ask the big questions: Does our language influence how we think?


1Giegerich, Heinz J. 1992. English phonology: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
2An archaic plural of cow. I just really wanted to use it.
3Another somewhat archaic word for family and relatives. (But maybe you knew this one.)
4Lol, phonology puns.

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Wizengamot

Salvete, amici!

It’s Tuesday, and you know what that means: Fun Etymology time!

This week, we’re getting a little literary. J. K. Rowling snuck a lot of clever things into the Harry Potter books. One of those is the word “Wizengamot.” In the books, the Wizengamot is the wizards’ highest court of law and parliament. The name is a blending of “wizard” and the Old English word “witenagemot,” meaning “meeting of the wise men.” Like the wizarding equivalent, the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot was a governing council that advised the king.

“Witenagemot” breaks down into two words. “Witena” comes from “wita,” meaning “wise man.” “Gemot” means “meeting or council.” It also appeared without the prefix as “mot,” which is the source of our Modern English word “moot” (meaning “debatable or irrelevant”). The modern sense of the word comes from a Renaissance usage by law students to refer to a discussion of hypothetical law cases, hence “debatable.” (Anyone who’s sat through a pointless meeting or a discussion that’s gone on way too long and circled back around can guess how that morphed into “irrelevant.”)

Speaking of literature, Old English “mot” is also the source of Tolkien’s Entmoot, literally “meeting of the Ents.”

Books, am I right?

Phonology 101: Let’s Get Physical

We briefly explained phonology and phonetics when we gave a general rundown of some of the major disciplines of linguistics. Phonology has been a big part of linguistics from the beginning, and some of the stories we’re most excited to share with you are all about phonology. Even for some of the other topics we’re going to cover, a basic understand of phonology will be pretty useful. To that end, over the next couple months, I’m going to give you a brief crash course in Phonology 101. We will cover some of the basics of how we produce speech, the concept of phonemes and how we distinguish individual sounds, and how consonants and vowels work. For those who aren’t all that excited by this prospect, don’t worry. This series will be interspersed with other topics from my co-conspirators.

You ready? Let’s get started!

A quick recap: When we talk about phonology and phonetics, we’re talking about the sounds of speech. Phonology studies the way our fantastic brain-machines store and organize those sounds and the rules used for spitting them out. Phonetics studies the physical production of sound, including things like acoustics and the way sounds inevitably influence each other when produced in sequence (like when you’re saying a word or phrase). A shorthand way to think about this is that phonology deals in the abstract and phonetics in the concrete.

Whichever side you’re studying, it’s good to know the basics of the vocal tract and all the moving parts in our throats and mouths that work together to produce speech. Even in the abstract, the three main features linguists use to define individual sounds are the place of articulation (i.e. the relevant part of the vocal tract most engaged in producing the sound), the manner of articulation (i.e. the way air is moving through the vocal tract), and voicing.1

We’ll talk more about manner of articulation down the road when we get to consonants. Today, let’s focus on place of articulation and voicing. Let me just apologize in advance for the amount of terminology I’ll be throwing at you today. Just think of it as us inducting you into our secret linguists club.

To talk about place of articulation, we’re going to have to start with a little anatomy lesson:

Side view diagram of the vocal tract.
I know. I’m sorry. There is not a non-horrific way to draw this. Believe me, I’ve tried. Drawing this diagram is a rite of passage all young linguists must undergo.

This is a side view of the oral and nasal cavities. The lips, the teeth, and the tongue are, I hope, familiar features of the mouth. If you run your tongue across the roof of your mouth right behind your teeth, the bumpy, raised part is the alveolar ridge. Moving towards the throat, the hard part of the roof of your mouth behind the alveolar ridge is the palate, and the soft part behind the palate is the velum. The uvula is the little piece you can see dangling down in the back of the mouth when cartoon characters scream hysterically.

Generally, though not always, the place of articulation is where the flow of air through the mouth is most restricted. We use the Latin terms for the anatomy of the mouth to define place of articulation, so sounds involving the lips are called labial and sounds involving the teeth are called dental.

  • When the both lips come together, like when pronouncing ‘b’, a sound is called bilabial.
  • When the top teeth are against the bottom lip, like when pronouncing ‘v’, a sound is called labiodental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the teeth, like when pronouncing ‘th’, a sound is called dental.
  • When the tip of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge, like when pronouncing ‘d’, a sound is called alveolar.
  • When the front of the tongue is against the alveolar ridge and the front of the palate, like when pronouncing ‘sh’, a sound is called palato-alveolar or post-alveolar.

There are also palatal, velar, uvular, pharyngeal (referring to the pharynx, the back of the throat), and glottal sounds. You get the idea. Play around with it. Say some random consonants or say words slowly and see if you can’t get a feel for where the sound is “coming from.” (That’s always been one of my favorite parts of phonology: talking to myself and calling it studying.)

So, those are the basic places of articulation. The other feature we’re going to talk about today, voicing, has to do with the position of the vocal folds (colloquially, the vocal cords) and the glottis. This isn’t so much two things as a package deal. The glottis is the empty space between the vocal folds. (I didn’t draw a picture of this because vocal folds are ugly.)

When the vocal folds are drawn together and the glottis is narrowed but not completely closed, the air moving through the vocal tract has less space to pass through. Some sciencey stuff happens and the vocal folds begin to vibrate, causing the air to vibrate in turn, and the result is a voiced sound. When the vocal folds are held apart and the glottis is open, the air passes through the throat largely unhindered, and the result is a voiceless sound. You can try this out, too. Touch the front of your throat in the vicinity of the Adam’s apple and make some sounds. Can you feel the difference? (Hint: try producing ‘b’ and ‘p’. Be careful not to accidentally tack a vowel on the end!)

This may all sound a little complicated, and the terminology can feel like a lot to wade through when you’re first starting out, but don’t you fret. I promise this will all start making a whole lot more sense when we focus in on the consonants and vowels.

Phonology 101 will pick back up in February. Before we get to specific sounds, we’re going to talk about phonemes and how linguists (and our very own brains—yes, yours, too) separate sounds. Next week, Sabina will introduce us to the intricacies of language families (and you thought holidays with your relatives were complicated).


1This is all still basically true for vowels, but they get a little trickier. We’ll get to that.

Happy Holidays from the HLC

We here at the Historical Linguist Channel would like to wish you happy holidays. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Yule, or nothing at all this time of year, whether your New Year comes with 1 January or the first new moon, we hope the rest of December treats you right.

We’re going to pause the semi-serious linguistics for a few weeks to spend time with our loved ones. We’ll be back 4 January with Phonology 101 and more, and in the meantime, Fun Etymology Tuesdays will continue uninterrupted over on our Facebook page.

As our gift to you, here’s a topical story from the history of English:

Once upon a time (let’s call it 1536), a poor guy named William Tyndale was executed for heresy after a merry chase across Europe that abruptly came to an end when he was betrayed in Belgium. His crime? Translating the Bible into English.

The charge of heresy was completely silly and unfair for several reasons:

  1. The Bible was already available in most of the other major languages of Europe.
  2. Two years later, King Henry VIII, the very same who had so adamantly insisted that Tyndale be apprehended, authorized an official English translation of the Bible; it drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation, as did the famous translation later commissioned by King James I.
  3. The Bible had been translated into English before, some of it probably translated by King Alfred himself. (That would be Alfred the Great. And he was. Great. At least, I think so (Hi, this is Rebekah).) Of course, this was before-before—before William and his Norman-French clerics and his Norman-French nobles and their beardless Norman culture.1 (I don’t actually have any beef with William the Conqueror. The dude was a beast, and honestly? England was kind of a mess when he showed up. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that the Anglo-Saxons were having a grand old time running around translating the Bible and handing it out to everybody long before Henry VIII got all snippy and execution-y just because William Tyndale called him out on the fact that annulling his marriage to Catherine of Aragon wasn’t exactly copacetic vis-a-vis scripture.)

Old English glosses and translations of the Bible were mostly based on the Vulgate Latin Bible. Many of the translations were incomplete, but one translated passage tells a little story you may have heard before:


Soþlice2 on þam dagum wæs geworden gebod fram þam Casere Augusto
Truly3 in those days happened a command from that Caesar Augustus

þæt eall ymbehwyrft wære tomearcod.
that all the circle of the world was to be described.

Þeos tomearcodnes wæs æryst geworden fram þam deman Syrige Cirino
This census first happened by that governor of Syria Cirinus

and ealle hig eoden and syndrie ferdon on hyra ceastre.
and they all went and separately traveled into their city.

Ða ferde Iosep fram Galilea of þære ceastre Nazareth
Then traveled Joseph from Galilee out of that city Nazareth 

on Iudeisce ceastre Dauides seo is genemned Bethleem
into the Judean city of David which is named Bethlehem

forþam þe he wæs of Dauides huse and hirede.
because he was of David’s house and family.

He ferde mid Marian þe him beweddod wæs and wæs geeacnod.
He traveled with Mary who was married to him and was pregnant.


It’s Luke 2, the account of Christ’s birth, in the language of the Anglo-Saxons. A translation of a translation, from Ancient Greek to Latin to Old English. The language tells as much of a story as the words do. For example, they call the world a circle because that’s what they thought it was: a flat disk. In some ways, it’s impossible to separate our language from our culture, or our culture from our language. Our languages convey things that, like music or art, are sometimes a little bit untranslatable (which is how your friendly neighborhood linguists got into a discussion the other day about whether certain Disney songs are better in English or Swedish).

Do you have any Christmas or Hanukkah or Saturnalia (or whatever) stories you’d like to share with us? Any stories or songs that just don’t sound right if you try to translate them? We’d love to hear from you! Comment or send us an email or message in the language of your choice (even if you suspect we don’t speak it).

See you in January!


1There’s a fantastic lecture series available on audiobook called 1066: The Year That Changed Everything if you’re interested in learning more about the Norman Conquest.

2Modern transcriptions of Old English texts usually include diacritics to indicate vowel length and certain consonant pronunciations. I’m going to ask you to cut me a break on leaving these out here because a. It’s Christmas, b. This isn’t a formal publication, and c. The diacritics are, generally, a modern convention not found in the original manuscripts anyway.

3This is my own translation into ModE. Some of the phrasing may sound a little funny because I’ve gone for something between a gloss and a full translation to give you a sense of the original.

The International Phonetic Alphabet

Like a lot of academics and professionals, we linguists are swimming in a creamy alphabet soup of shorthand jargon and abbreviations. One of our favorites (that is, one of the most used) is IPA. No, we’re not all holed up brewing India pales ales and waiting for the next convention of the International Polka Association (although, some of us might be—I really can’t speak for everyone). To us, IPA stands for the International Phonetic Alphabet.

As Lisa explained last week, phonetics and phonology concern themselves with the sounds of speech. English writing uses 26 letters. So, does English have 26 sounds? Think about the letter A for a minute. It makes different sounds in call and cat and came, but it would be a very odd day of autocorrect indeed before a native English speaker would use anything other than the letter A to spell these words. This certainly isn’t the only letter multitasking its little heart out.

Let’s not venture into the world of spelling and orthography just yet (Sabina will get to that in a couple weeks). Today, we’re just concerned with pronunciation. Sometimes, it would be really convenient to unambiguously write down how a word’s pronounced. For instance, what are dictionary makers supposed to do with all these letters that work too many jobs? Most dictionaries have established their own guidelines for how they’ll represent pronunciations, and the whole mess is a lot easier now when we can go online, push a button, and hear a sound clip. Things weren’t so easy back at the dawn of linguistics. There were no conventions and no sound recordings, so the 19th-century pioneers of phonology had to make up their own rules for documenting speech. And boy, did they ever. Often individually. Then, in the 1880s, some teachers got together to establish a standard international alphabet for teaching phonetics. (Teaching phonetics is what Henry Higgins does in My Fair Lady. Like other fields in linguistics, modern phonetics is much less concerned with telling people what to do and much more concerned with observing what they do already. This is sounding familiar. Have we harped on this before?) The International Phonetic Association and its masterwork, the International Phonetic Alphabet, were born.

Naturally, the IPA has been updated and improved over the years as scholarship has advanced, but the basic idea remains the same: a standard notation for the languages of the world wherein there is only one sound assigned to every symbol, and there is a symbol for every sound, and symbol-to-sound correspondences are universal and uniform no matter the language being transcribed. And, voila:

IPA Chart,, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 3.0 Unported License. Copyright © 2015 International Phonetic Association.

I know, right? I get goosebumps, too.

Some of you may be asking the obvious question: But why, though? Dictionaries get along just fine appropriating various symbols to show simple pronunciations, and why do you need a notation that can transcribe any language when most languages already have their own writing system? Shouldn’t they just write down pronunciations in their own way?

Well first, universal systems are incredibly useful and important for scholarship. Just like math or physics, the principles of linguistics are the same no matter where you are or what you’re analyzing. Can you imagine how slow and inconvenient it would be if you had to learn two different ways to write numbers for algebra and geometry? Like, in algebra you write “3,” but in geometry three is always written as “@.” That would be silly. With IPA, linguists have a consistent way to discuss the sound systems of every language. We can even look at languages we don’t speak. I might not know cyrillic, but I can still read scholarly articles about the pronunciation of Russian because I have IPA.

Second, the proprietary methods many dictionaries adopt for noting pronunciation lack precision. It’s all well and good to say we’re going to use E for e as in pen, but I can tell you right now, different dialects of English pronounce the vowel in that word very differently. Dictionary codes like this are useful, but in a limited way. Linguists have established unambiguous ways of defining which sounds they mean regardless of accent or language. You may have noticed the symbols on the IPA chart are organized into tables and diagrams. Each sound, and each corresponding symbol, is carefully defined by the position of the mouth and the actions of the vocal cords and lungs at the time of production, among other features.1 Even when studying sounds their own language doesn’t have or sounds they themselves have trouble producing, a linguist can know exactly what they’re dealing with.

Third, documentation alone isn’t enough, either written or recorded. Even with high quality sound recordings that allow us to preserve and revisit utterances and language varieties as much as our little hearts desire, IPA is still a useful, regularly used tool. It enables layers of analysis from the basic, underlying target pronunciation of a word to detailed transcriptions of exactly how a word was produced by a specific speaker a specific time they uttered it. Furthermore, a notation like IPA facilitates written scholarship. Imagine how cumbersome it would be if every article and book about phonetics had to include a CD or a collection of sound files because there was no convenient way for the author to write down their findings.

All this talk of anatomy and utterances and transcription is getting closer to what phonologists and phoneticians actually do. I’ll be back in a few weeks to start you on a crash course in Phonology 101. I promise all those made-up-looking words on the IPA chart actually serve a purpose.

All in all, IPA is pretty invaluable to linguists. Our jobs would be a lot harder and our field couldn’t have come so far without it. But we’re not selfish about it. Us linguists, we like to share. Many singers and choral directors find IPA useful, too. You can see the benefit to everyone in a large choir pronouncing the words they’re singing the same way—the music’s prettier that way! For the casual user, IPA can be a helpful thing to know when you’re learning how to pronounce another language. Yes, maybe I’m biased, but I just want to wrap the IPA up and hand it out to everyone I meet: linguists’ gift to the world. I mean, you’re welcome. No? Oh, okay.

Next week, Riccardo will be back to talk about types of languages.

Footnotes & Bibliography

1As a point of interest, the blank spots in the pulmonic consonants table are sounds that are unattested in the known languages of the world. The greyed out areas are sounds that are thought to be unproducible.

Official website of The International Phonetic Association