Phone Home

I get a ton of emails. I mean, a ton. I have several email accounts, and it’s a part-time job to keep up with them all. Of course, nowadays, I also access email on my phone. I know I am not alone in this. Needless to say, a lot of the emails I get are language questions. Here’s one I got this morning, and I decided to turn it into a LEX Q&A, so more people can benefit from the dialogue than just us two. (The email has been edited for formatting and asides).

[W]hat is the final phoneme in the word cat when it is at the end of a sentence?  “I saw a little cat.”  It’s not the same as at the beginning of tip, but is it just an allophone of /t/?   I was reading about the “flap” and it doesn’t seem like it would be a flap, because my tongue stops on the roof of the mouth rather than tapping there. But I’m not sure how the flap works either. I feel as though when I say little I go straight from /ɪ/ to /l/. But there’s a difference between the way I say little and Lil. If I try to say Lil as a two syllable word with just the /l/ in the second syllable that’s still not the same as little so something is happening with my tongue, but I can’t figure it out. It almost feels like I’m squishing air out of the sides of my mouth in between the /i/ and /l/ and pushing my tongue more forcefully up with the final /l/ in little.

Aaaaaaand, my response: What a great question! And an important one, too. One of the biggest problems with the decades-old emphasis on “phonemic awareness” is that most teachers don’t really understand what a phoneme is. They think it’s a “minimal unit of sound” or some such; it’s not. It is minimal, and it is a unit, and it does have to do with language as it is pronounced, but it’s not actually a sound. Moreover — and this is critical — it’s distinctive. What this means is that, while it carries no meaning itself (the /b/ in /bɪt/ doesn’t mean anything), it is distinctive for meaning — it differentiates meaning — from other phonemes (the /b/ in /bɪt/ and the /p/ in /pɪt/ distinguish the meanings of those two words. That all happens in your head.

Elsewhere, however, there are different physical realizations of pronounced words and utterances. Those physical realizations have structures that can be studied, like all physical things. The phoneme /t/ is conceptual, a psychological category, container, or class — choose your metaphor — with several different possible members. Those members — all the members of the phoneme /t/ — are its allophones. Some physical realizations of /t/are aspirated. That is, they have a little release of air when the tongue is released from the roof of the mouth. That’s like in the word top. Phonemically, we would represent this as /tɑp/, but phonetically, it’s [tʰɑp]. If we put a /s/ in front of the word, however, the aspiration isn’t there: [stɑp]. You can see and feel the difference if you pronounce those two words aloud while holding a kleenex in front of your face. But phones aren’t necessarily distinctive for meaning: if you were in my car and yelled [stʰɑp], I would totally slam on the brakes. The [] and the [t] are allophones of the same phoneme, /t/. Other allophones of /t/ in English include [t ̚ ], [ʔ], and [ɾ], also known as the “flap.”

So, to answer your question directly, the phoneme at the end of cat is the same as the phoneme at the beginning of tip, but they are different phones. They are phonologically the same, but phonetically different. Yes, that makes them allophones of the same phoneme, different members of the same class.
Another allophone is the flap [ɾ] in your pronunciation of little. A Brit would be likely to say [lɪtʰəl], while an American more likely to say [lɪɾḷ]. The difference between Lil and little is that flap — your tongue briefly taps the alveolar ridge, before releasing the [l] laterally. There’s a co-articulation from the [ɾ] to the [l]: both of them have an alveolar place of articulation. You don’t have to move your tongue to get from one to the other. They are also both voiced. The difference between them is in their manner of articulation: [ɾ] is a flap, and [l] is a lateral approximant. That lateral refers to the release of the air out the sides of your tongue, just as you articulated in your question. The “more forceful” push of your tongue to the alveolar ridge in little? That’s the flap.

Phones and phonemes are not for sissies, but a clear understanding of the difference is absolutely critical for scholars and teachers of the written word. Writing systems’ representations of pronunciation may target syllables, or it may target phonemes, or both. But spelling never, ever targets phones; there’s no such thing as a non-phonetic word, or rather, all written words are non-phonetic. When a child writes <chree> instead of <tree>, she’s not mishearing the word; she’s ascribing the physical phone she is saying or hearing to the wrong phoneme in her head. *That’s* phonemic awareness, but teachers may be at a loss to remedy it unless they have clarity about what’s going on phonetically in that word.

No pithy ending in this post, no clever turn of phrase. No LEXlover’s delight. What do you want from me? It was an email. If you’re still reading this far, good for you, and you’re welcome.

Check out the new LEXinars announced here! Syllables and strong verbs . . . plus more with Doug Harper from the Online Etymology Dictionary.

Doug and I had a great time in our inaugural Etymonline Online LEXinar and we’re looking forward to more.

Also, save the date: our third annual Etymology! live workshop, also known as WordStock III, will take place March 28-29, 2015 in greater Chicago. All are welcome — beginners and experienced word historians alike. Registration information will be available later this month, so stay tuned!

Hope you can join us.

My friend and colleague Pete Bowers will be delivering the keynote address at the annual conference of Everyone Reading Illinois, formerly the Illinois Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, in Schaumburg this October. I’ll be there too at the LEX table.

As a special treat, Pete will be returning to Central Illinois with me for a joint workshop, Word Scientists. Join us both on Saturday, October 25th, and stay for a half day Q&A session with me.

Register online, or email/mail/fax in the form below. Register early, space is limited.

141025 Word Scientists



141025 Word Scientists 2

LEX is pleased to announce a new LEXinar this fall featuring Douglas Harper of The Online Etymology Dictionary. Doug and I have enjoyed joint live seminars for the past two years (affectionately known as WordStock I and WordStock II), and now we’re taking our act online.

This Etymology LEXinar will be scheduled for five, 90-minute evening sessions this fall. Our plans look something like this:

Installment I: Etymology~a brief history
Installment 2: Cognates
Installment 3: Historical roots 1
Installment 4: Historical roots 2
Installment 5: A Holler Up The Well

Dates for the inaugural sessions will be finalized and posted shortly, and a registration link will be included on the LEXinar page and on the LEX Facebook page.

Join us and learn more about how to seek and use information in The Online Etymology Dictionary. Practice tracing the pathways of English words back in time, and learn how words are related within English and across languages. And a couple of times along the way, we might even make you laugh.

Today I had the pleasure of being interviewed about my work and about words on a radio show with the Dyslexia Training Institute. Have a listen!

Sometimes the light of language shines so bright as to blind a person.

This week I’ve had cause to encounter the sentence I am a sinner a few times, and it’s been twirling in my head for much of the day today. There are a handful of I am statements that have some meaningful resonance for me and for a lot of other people: Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), the heart of Cartesian rationalism; Ich bin ein berliner, John F. Kennedy’s much-maligned effort to form a Teutonic bond; I am woman, hear me roar, that estrogenic anthem of 2nd wave feminism.

But it wasn’t the I am part of this sentence that got caught in my thinker; it was the sinner part. That word — sin — causes all kinds of upset among all kinds of people no matter what they believe or don’t believe about it. So I decided to have a look.

It turns out that saying I am a sinner is, etymologically speaking, a bit pleonastic. The word sin derives ultimately from the same historical root as the words am, is, and are. German sein, sind, and ist, Spanish ser, soy, somos, eres, and es, and French être, suis, es, est, sommes, êtes, and sont are all cognate — all forms of the verb ‘to be.’ Other English relatives include essence, entity, interest, represent, and yes. The derivation of sin from its proto-forms involved the acknowledgment of guilt: I am (guilty) or It is (a true sin).

Look, my perspectives are not impeccable, and perhaps my suggestions herein are more than peccadillos. Certainly it’s not the case that every language’s word for ‘sin‘ is related to ‘being.’ Latinate languages, for example, have words for ‘sin‘ that are historically related to foot, pedal, podiatrist, fetter, impede, and impeach: etymologically, speaking, our feet are as likely to stumble as they are to walk; from the time we first stood upright, we began to fall.

Transgression is the human condition, or at least a big part of it. We make mistakes. We hurt each other. Sometimes deliberately, sometimes negligently. Mostly we apologize and try to make it right. We may not agree about what sin is, but we can all be confident that if any one of us does it, we all do it. I’m no theologian, but the etymology is pretty provocative: to be is to sin; to sin is to be. With all due respect to René Descartes, pecco, ergo sum.


“Worth the wait!”

“Endlessly fascinating.”

“Another excellent lesson!”

“What you are doing is great!”

“My brain is buzzing with ideas . . .”

“This evening’s seminar was spectacular!”

“I so appreciate learning more depth about our words.”

“So many years I have struggled with language and this is really helping!”

“The whole lesson was wonderfully designed it seemed to me from start to finish.”

Since their introduction in June 2014, the LEXinars have been a source of revelation and joy for participants, and LEX is pleased to announce a new page just for LEXinars. We’ve reorganized our site a bit with new tabs at the top in order to give the online language study a room of its own.

LEXinar dates will be listed and updated regularly. Click on the page’s links to learn more about existing LEXinars, to register online, or to suggest a topic of your own! In addition to the LEXinars on Old English for Orthographers, and The Spell of Spelling and the Glamour of Grammar, we’re ready to try our hand at a couple of new subjects.

Continuing Education Units are available from the Academic Language Therapy Association.

Now, back to our regular programming.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 410 other followers

%d bloggers like this: