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A brief introduction to linguistics

Updated: May 19

1. Front or back of the mouth?

Thought experiment: if the hippo and the cat were making human sounds, what would those sounds be, judging by the shape of their mouths?

Making the assumption that if you are interested in languages, you might also be interested in language, I wanted to share a few very basic insights into the nuts and bolts of how language is formed.

There are some universal concepts, common to all human language, and knowledge of these can help with the minutiae of, for example, correct pronunciation. This might sound like it is best suited to the highly advanced learners of a given language, but actually, if you get into good habits from the off, you will give yourself the best chance of ending up with good, or even excellent pronunciation. Isn’t one of the ultimate goals of learning a language to sound like a native speaker?

Almost all the students that come through the door, or appear on the Zoom-screen of a SameSky language class say that they prefer to both hear and see how new words are written in order best to learn them. This is completely understandable, but it is worth remembering that the students who tend to have the best pronunciation are those who are prepared to dedicate the finite amount of time they have for extra study on listening activities at least as much as reading/grammar practice.

The anatomy of the mouth

Alveolar ridge, hard palate, soft palate, uvular… it could become a ten-pager on the minute detail of how sounds are formed, but let’s keep it really simple for now:

There are back vowels and front vowels, and back consonants and front consonants. That is to say, some sounds are formed with the lips in the pucker-up position, while others come from the deep, dark back of the throat. Try gargling with your tongue between your teeth and you’ll see what I mean.

All very well, but how does this help in real life?

A student of German recently asked how to pronounce the ‘ch’ sound. A straightforward question, but it has two answers:

The ich-laut

In words such as ich (I) and Brötchen (bread roll) the 'ch' sound is pronounced softly; almost impossible to liken it to a sound in standard English, but you will get it if you say “shhhh” but then keep making the same sound as you part your teeth. Try it now!

FYI, this sound is written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) as /ç/. Yes, I know it looks like the ‘s’ sound in French words such as “Français” but the IPA is very efficient and designates one sound per symbol, and vice versa.

FY-further-I, linguists would refer to this sound as a voiceless palatal fricative; Germans call it the ich-laut.

The ach-laut

And then there is the ach-laut, which is the guttural, back-of-the-throat sound, familiar to anyone who has ever cleared their throat in order to spit, or, much more pleasantly, has spent time in earshot of Scousers or Scots. I fondly recall my late father’s Glaswegian accent as he exclaimed “Och”, or gently corrected us if we mispronounced Loch Ness as “Lock”.

Getting technical again, the ach-laut is written in IPA as /x/ and is officially known as a voiceless velar fricative.

Now that we are all experts in the anatomy of the mouth, it is more instructive for us to think of these as front- or back-of-the-mouth sounds.

The following are all front vowels, i.e. they go most naturally with front consonants:

ä, e, i, ö, ü, so whenever –ch follows one of these it is pronounced “soft”.

That leaves a, o, u which are the back vowels. So in words such as nach (after), Loch (hole) and Buch (book), that’s when you can practise your throat clearing sound.

And yes, well spotted: the ‘laut’' we have been referring to is the same as in ‘Umlaut’, familiar to most people, not just students of German, as the double-dot above certain vowels. In these examples it simply means ‘sound’, and in the case of Umlaut it refers to a change of sound. Sometimes the difference is important:

Ich mochte = I liked / I used to like (the o is pronounced as in the English hot)

Ich möchte = I would like (the ö is pronounced something like the English turn)

There will be more to come on other aspects of basic linguistics, which I hope will help

you to gain insight into some particular areas of pronunciation of the language that you are learning.

Andrew Wenger is not a professor of linguistics, but is a passionate student of all things to do with language and languages and does his best to impart his wider knowledge as he teaches German, French and Spanish to anyone who would like to learn. He is assisted by a team of native-speaker teachers, (in addition to the above-mentioned languages we also offer Italian, Japanese and Mandarin) in case students want extra-advanced level tuition.

We have places in our group classes in all these languages from beginner to advanced.

At present we would especially like to expand our German classes, so if you have ever wondered about taking up, or rekindling your knowledge of this beautiful (not 'harsh') language, please get in touch: Contact | SameSky Languages

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