A man takes his first bite of chicken at a Chinese restaurant. He tries to chew, but he can’t. The meat feels like rubber in his mouth. He raises his hand and speaks to the waitress, “Excuse me, but this chicken is rubbery.” And the waitress says, “Thank you, sir!”
We call the basic sounds of language “phonemes,” and they make it possible for us to communicate. In the above joke, the man says, “rubbery.” But the waitress hears “lovely.” Perhaps in her dialect, she does not distinguish between the sounds “l” and “r” and between “b” and “v.” As we shall see, there are very clear causes for this misunderstanding, and by understanding the linguistic element of phonetics, we can see how our ability to produce, combine, and understand sound combinations enables us to communicate.
Phonetics and Phonology
With phonetics, linguists study the sounds of human speech. There are three general branches of phonetics. (1) With articulatory phonetics, we study how humans produce speech sounds with vocal organs. (2) With acoustic phonetics, we study the sound waves that we produce with our vocal organs. And (3) with auditory phonetics, we study how we perceive speech sounds with our ears, auditory nerves, and brains. In short, with phonetics, linguists study the characteristics of speech sounds and the physical ways humans produce and perceive speech sounds.
Phonology is related to phonetics. With phonology, we study the sound patterns in languages. Therefore, with phonology, linguists describe the “grammar of speech sounds” in a language and how these “speech sound grammars” are different in different languages. A phonologist asks, “What sounds are in this language?” What sounds can go together in this language? And how do these sounds change in different ways when preceded or followed by other sounds?” For example, with the word “kissed,” the final “d” is pronounced with a /t/ sound. The /t/ sound is produced by a phonological rule, basically that the sound before “ed” is not voiced, and the non-voicing is carried over to the last letter, so that the voicing is removed from the /d/. With this simple example, we can begin to see some basic aspects of articulatory phonetics, and this brings us to the topic of phonemes.
Phonemes and Minimal Pairs
Phonemes are the basic units of sound in a language. Specifically, phonemes are the smallest units of sounds that we perceive as different. These little phonemes can change the meaning of words, so that one little difference makes the words “pat” and “bat” mean different things. The words are almost the same, except that the /b/ is voiced, and the /p/ is not voiced. Phonemes are thus the building blocks of words and the foundation of the design feature of language that we call duality of patterning, which allows us to take meaningless sounds and combine them into meaningful words.
The words “pat” and “bat” are also minimal pairs, two words that only have one sound difference. We can see minimal pairs with vowel sounds, such as with the words “desk” and “disk” or “bat” and “but.” And we can see minimal pairs with consonant sounds, such as “berry” and “very” and “buy” and “pie.” Language teachers have focused on minimal pairs to teach students to hear the difference between sounds and to produce those sounds. For example, English teachers might do activities to help learners produce and hear the difference between words that use /l/ and /r/, such as “alive” and “arrive,” “collect” and “correct,” or “lovely” and “rubbery.” (These last two words actually differ in 4 places, so they are not minimal pairs.) Such drills may have their place, but ideally, learners should practice such sounds in meaningful contexts or while attempting to communicate meaningful messages, in other, words with a focus on real communication, not only on abstract decontextualized sounds.