Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Story of 7R-Block

Setting: at an upscale restaurant taking a customer's order, we now get to the drinks.

Me: And what would you like to drink?

Customer: "7R-Block."

Thoughts ran through my head: What the heck is that? It sounds more like a tax firm than a drink.

Me: Hmm, I've never heard of that one. Is it a mixed drink?

Customer: I know you have it, I order it every time I come here.

Me: Okay, just hold on for a second, I'll be right back.

I went back to the kitchen and asked the other workers if they have heard of a drink that is called 7R Block. Perhaps it is a "secret code" used by the employees that I haven't been taught yet or maybe some kind of slang.

Me (to employees): We've got someone wanting a "7R-Block." Do we have anything by that name here?

The employees haven't heard of it either, and recommended that I give the customer a menu with our complete drink listings and have him point out what he is referring to.

Me: Here is our complete menu. You can point out exactly what you want.

What did the customer point at?
(highlight the black text by dragging your mouse over it to reveal it)

Sauvignon Blanc

Friday, March 28, 2008

More digraphs: TH and WH

The TH sound

Continuing on the topic of digraphs, "th" is a example of a digraph that is used very frequently in English. There are two kinds of th sounds in English. What follows will be the IPA symbol used to represent the sound and some example words.

This symbol (called theta) represents the soft "th" sound occurring in words like thin, thigh, with, and breath.

This symbol (called eth) represents the hard "th" sound in words such as then, thy, there, and breathe.

There is no set rule for determining if the soft or hard "th" is used, it must be memorized.

The main difference between these two sounds is that the former is voiceless and the latter is voiced, just like [s] is voiceless and [z] is voiced.

The "th" sound is not at all common in many languages, despite being used very frequently in English. For speakers of languages that do not have the "th" sound, it is often perceived as an [s] or [z].


Another common digraph in English is WH. You know many of them as interrogative pronouns, sometimes called the "5W" words (who, what, where, when, why).

WH and HW

Most people see WH-words as taking just a [w] sound and leaving the [h] to be silent. However, did you know that for some dialects of English, the WH digarph is pronounced as if it were spelled "HW"?

This phenomenon is known as the whine/wine merger, as the h in WH words used to always be pronounced as [hw]. It is named as such because those words are no longer homophones after WH was realized with just a [w] sound and not [hw].

Note: for the "5W" words (who, what, where, when, why): this does not apply to the word who since it takes an [h] sound all the time (with the W silent) and not a [w] sound like the other four words.

For those that are using the "HW" sound, the [h] is often hard to notice, you have to listen very carefully as there is an initial, brief burst of air. Speakers that ignore the H in WH words often cannot tell if the other person is pronouncing the H.
Most of the time it is not a true [h] sound (as in the word hill), so a special IPA symbol is used, an upside-down w [ʍ] to represent the [hw].

Thursday, February 21, 2008

2 letters, 1 sound: Digraphs

Two letters (in written form) can represent a single sound. These are known as digraphs. You probably know them as ch, sh, th, and the like.

English doesn't have a single letter to represent the initial sound ("ch") of the word child, so it must use two letters. Recognizing a digraph is one of the many difficulties in learning a language. For example, take the "ch" sound as mentioned above. One CANNOT simply read it as "a 'c' sound followed by an 'h' sound" - it is a completely different sound altogether.

Here's how the some of the digraphs are represented in phonetic transcription (e.g. using IPA):
Most of the time, only one symbol is used because it represents just a single sound, even though it takes two letters in the written form.

The "sh" sound (as in shell) is represented by [ʃ].
The "ch" sound (as in church) is represented by [tʃ]. Two symbols are used but it is still a single sound. It is actually a combination of the "t" and "sh" sounds. Try making a "t" sound and a "sh" sound simultaneously and the result will be a "ch" sound.

In some dictionaries and texts, [š] and [č], are used to denote the "sh" and "ch" sounds, respectively.

There are many more digraphs, and they also exist in languages other than English.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Vowels and musical languages

Even though we only write 5 vowels, English has as many as 15 vowel sounds! (this can vary depending on dialect)

What's useful about the consonants and vowels of a language?

Although French has nasalized vowels, making them difficult to pronounce for many English speakers, French is a very musical language. This is because words tend to flow from one word to the next with no pause in between them. In situations where there would be a pause, French requires that sounds be added or words changed. This is known as liaison.

Spanish has a lot of vowels and could be considered a musical language.

Even more so, Italian is considered the traditional musical language. This is due to the fact that most words end in a vowel. Not only does this make it a very suitable language for opera, it also means that once you are familiar with its rhythms, it is a comparatively easy language to pronounce. Unlike English, Italian has predictable pronunciation. Every letter has a specific sound, and there is not much difference between Italian spelling and pronunciation.

On the other hand, German does not really sound musical. Long word lengths, hard sounds for the consonants, plus many consonant clusters make the language difficult.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Consonants and Vowels

What's the difference between a consonant and a vowel?

In grade school, I'm pretty sure you've been taught that there are 5 vowels: AEIOU. The rest are consonants. However, this distinction fails to take into account the sounds of the letters. There are more sounds in English than there are letters (in the written form). The sounds and letters of a particular language do not always form a 1 to 1 correspondence, and this is why we must use 2 letters to represent a single sound (such as "sh").

How we produce speech sounds

The process in which we produce sound by using our vocal tract is much like that of a wind instrument. Each sound differs from another sound by a unique combination of features: the way you shape your mouth and tongue and move parts of the vocal apparatus when you make the sound. Air coming from the lungs passes through the vocal tract, which shapes it into different sounds. Then the air exits the vocal tract through the mouth and/or nose.

What differentiates a consonant and a vowel in terms of speech sounds?

Quite simply: Consonants are pronounced by obstructing the airflow through the vocal tract.

(Note: the details of how to pronounce every sound is beyond the scope of this site)

The [p] sound is made by obstructing air at the lips. When you say the word put, air is built up behind the lips and then released.

On the other hand, vowels are different from consonant sounds in that they are produced by passing air through different shapes of the mouth and different positions of the tongue and lips.

For the "ahhh" sound (the vowel in the word pot, IPA [ɑ]) the tongue's position is in the lower back of the mouth.
For the "eeeee" sound (the vowel in the word be, IPA [i]) the tongue's position is in the upper front of the mouth. (This is why we say cheese when we take pictures!)

Friday, December 21, 2007


(Ok, I lied, one more holiday themed post before I take a break :))

Why do we use the abbreviation Xmas for Christmas?

It originates from the Greek letter chi, which looks similar to an X. Since this letter (X) represented a "k" or "ks" sound in ancient Greek, it was used as an abbreviation for Christ. Though there may be some controversy over the usage of Xmas, it is not meant to be looked at as a way to "remove" Christ from Christmas.

The letter X can also represent "cross" or "trans" as in:

xfer, xlate = transfer, translate
X-out, X-over = cross out, crossover

How do you pronounce Xmas?

Should you try to pronounce the shortened form like "eks-mas" or just say "Christmas"?

Going slightly off topic:

Words that start with vowels usually take "an" as their indefinite article. Of course there are exceptions, like the word university. While it is spelled with a "u", it is actually a "y" sound. Thus, "a" is used and not "an".

We can use this information to find out more about the Xmas pronunciation:

What was mentioned above is a method in determining one's pronunciation of a word based on writing (barring typos). If one writes "an Xmas", they are pronouncing it "eks-mas", even though the written form starts with X, there's a vowel sound initially. Otherwise, for "a Xmas", we can assume "Christmas" is pronounced.

A quick google search reveals the following:
"a xmas" : 455,000 results
"an xmas" : 181,000 results

It seems that the traditional pronunciation for Xmas ("Christmas") is more common.

It would be interesting to know how you pronounce Xmas. Would you say "eks-mas" only in informal settings, or would you not bother with that pronunciation at all?

I'll get back to more topics on phonetics after the holidays :)
In the meantime, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Putting this on hold for now, apologies for no new posts.
I am quite busy at the moment and won't be able to make any more posts for a while. There will be more topics on phonetics soon to come.