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The Components of Language

16 February, 2016 - 09:24

A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound that makes a meaningful differencein a language. The word “bit” has three phonemes, /b/, /i/, and /t/ (in transcription, phonemes are placed between slashes), and the word “pit” also has three: /p/, /i/, and /t/. In spoken languages, phonemes are produced by the positions and movements of the vocal tract, including our lips, teeth, tongue, vocal cords, and throat, whereas in sign languages phonemes are defined by the shapes and movement of the hands.

There are hundreds of unique phonemes that can be made by human speakers, but most languages only use a small subset of the possibilities. English contains about 45 phonemes, whereas other languages have a s few as 15 and others more than 60. The Hawaiian language contains only about a dozen phonemes, including 5 vowels (a, e, i, o, and u) a nd 7 consonants (h, k, l, m, n, p, and w).

In addition to using a different set of phonemes, because the phoneme is actually a category of sounds that are treated alike within the language, speakers of different languages are able to hear the difference only between some phonemes but not others. This is known as the categorical perception of speech sounds. English speakers can differentiate the /r/ phoneme from the /l/ phoneme, and thus “rake” a nd “lake” are heard as different words. In Japanese, however, /r/ and /l/ are the same phoneme, and thus speakers of that language cannot tell the difference between the word “rake” and the word “lake.” Try saying the words “cool” and “keep” out loud. Can you hear the difference between the two /k/ sounds? To English speakers they both sound the same, but to speakers of Arabic these represent two different phonemes.

Infants are born able to understand all phonemes, but they lose their ability to do so as they get older; by 10 months of age a child’s ability to recognize phonemes becomes very similar to that of the adult speakers of the native language. Phonemes that were initially differentiated come to be treated as equivalent (Werker & Tees, 2002). 1

Figure 9.6  
When adults hear speech sounds that gradually change from one phoneme to another, they do not hear the continuous change; rather, they hear one sound until they suddenly begin hearing the other. In this case, the change is from /ba/ to /pa/. 

Whereas phonemes are the smallest units of sound in language, a morphemeis a string of oneor morephonemes that makes up thesmallest units of meaning in a language. Some morphemes, such as one-letter words like “I” and “a,” are also phonemes, but most morphemes are made up of combinations of phonemes. Some morphemes are prefixes and suffixes used to modify other words. For example, the syllable “re-” a s in “rewrite” or “repay” means “to do again,” and the suffix “-est” a s in “happiest” or “coolest” means “to the maximum.”

Syntax is theset of rules of a languagebywhich we construct sentences. Each language has a different syntax. The syntax of the English language requires that each sentence have a noun and a verb, each of which may be modified by adjectives and adverbs. Some syntaxes make use of the order in which words appear, while others do not. In English, “The man bites the dog” is different from “The dog bites the man.” In German, however, only the article endings before the noun matter. “Der Hund beisst den Mann” means “The dog bites the man” but so does “Den Mann beisst der Hund.”

Words do not possess fixed meanings but change their interpretation as a function of the context in which they are spoken. We usecontextual information—theinformationsurrounding language—to help us interpret it. Examples of contextual information include the knowledge that we have and that we know that other people have, and nonverbal expressions such as facial expressions, postures, gestures, and tone of voice. Misunderstandings can easily arise if people aren’t attentive to contextual information or if some of it is missing, such as it may be in newspaper headlines or in text messages.

Examples in Which Syntax Is Correct but the Interpretation Can Be Ambiguous

  • Grandmother of Eight Makes Hole in One
  • Milk Drinkers Turn to Powder
  • Farmer Bill Dies in House
  • Old School Pillars Are Replaced by Alumni
  • Two Convicts Evade Noose, Jury Hung
  • Include Your Children When Baking Cookies