Chapter 2: Describing Language
How to Describe Speech Sounds
Sentences: A group of words that expresses a complete thought. They usually contain a subject
and a predicate.
Acoustics: the study of the physical properties of sounds.
- A sound spectrogram can depict information of sounds by plotting the frequency against
Formants: a concentration (peaks) of acoustic energy in a sound. All vowels and some
consonants have formants.
Phonetics: the acoustic detail of speech sounds (their physical properties) and how they are
Phonology: the study of sounds and how they relate to languages; phonology describes the
sound categories each language uses to divide up the space of possible sounds.
Aspirated: a sound that is produced with an audible breath. (“pin”)
Unaspirated: a sound that is produced without an audible breath. (“spin”)
Phoneme: a sound of the language; changing a phoneme changes the meaning of a word.
- two phones are said to be an instance of the same phoneme in a particular language if the
difference between them never makes a difference to the meaning of words.
Allophones: different phones that are understood as the same phoneme in a language. i.e. “p”
sounds are allophones in English.
- Square brackets are used to designate [phones], whereas slanting lines are used for
- Phonetics is the study of phones and phonology is the study of phonemes.
- There are three types of phonetics depending on what is emphasized: articulatory
(emphasizes how sounds are made), auditory or perceptual (emphasizes how sounds are
perceived), and acoustic (emphasizes the sound waveform and physical properties.
Minimal pairs: a pair of words that differ in meaning when only one sound is changed (e.g.,
“pear” and “bear”)
- Substituting one phoneme for another leads to a change in the meaning, whereas just
changing one phone for another (aspirated/unaspirated) need not necessarily lead to a
change in meaning.
- The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is the standard method of representing
- The position of the tongue modifies the range of harmonics produced by the larynx.
Vowels: a speech sound produced with very little constriction of the airstream.
- The nature of the vowel is determined by the way in which the shape of the tongue
- Two vowel sounds can be combined to form a diphthong. Ex) “my”, “boy”
- The pronunciation of vowels can differ greatly across dialects.
Consonants: a sound produced by closing or restricting some part of the vocal tract at the
beginning or end of a vowel.
- We classify consonants according to their place of articulation, whether or not they are
voiced, and their manner of articulation.
- One way to examine the relation between sounds is to look at their place of articulation
- the place where the vocal tract is closed or restricted. Chapter 2: Describing Language
- The contrasting features needed to describe sounds are known as distinctive features.
Voicing: consonants produced with vibration of vocal cords. /b/
Unvoiced: a sound that is produced without vibration of the vocal cords, such as /p/ and /t/.
Voice onset time (VOT): the time between the release of the constriction of the airstream when
we produce a consonant, and when the vocal cords start to vibrate.
Glottal stop: a sound produced by closing and opening the glottis (the opening between the
Manner of articulation: the way in which the airstream is constricted in speaking. E.g., stops
are formed when the airflow is completely interrupted for a short time.
Syllables: a rhythmic unit of speech; it can be analyzed in terms of onset (an initial consonant or
cluster) and rime (the end part of a word that produces a rhyme). When you sing a word, each
syllable will need a different note.
- Features of words and syllables that may span more than one phoneme, such as pitch,
stress, and the rate of speech, are called suprasegmental features.
- Pitch and stress determine the rhythm of the language. English is said to be a stressed-
timed language, whereas French is said to be a syllable-timed language.
- Languages that use pitch to contrast meanings are called tone languages.
Linguistic Approaches to Syntax
- Linguistics provides us with a language for describing syntax.
- Chomsky argued that language is a special feature that is innate, species-specific, and
biologically pre-programmed, and that is a faculty independent of other cognitive
- For Chomsky, the goal of the study of syntax is to describe the set of rules, or grammar,
that enable us to produce and understand language.
Grammar: the set of syntactic rules of a language.
Competence: our knowledge of our language. It’s tapped by our intuitions about which are
acceptable sentences of our language, and which are ungrammatical strings of words. (an aspect
Performance: our actual language ability, limited by our cognitive capacity.
- Chomsky distinguished between externalized language (E-language) and internalized
language (I-language). E-language is about describing the regularities of a language in
the form of a grammar (social phenomena). I-language is about what speakers know
about their language. (mental phenomena)
- For Chomsky, the primary aim of modern linguistics should be to specify I-language: it is
to produce grammar that describes our knowledge of the language, not the sentences we
actually produce. I-language is about mental phenomena, whereas E-language is about
Generative grammar: a finite set of rules that will produce or generate all the sentences of a
language (but no non-sentences).
- Central theme in Chomsky’s theory (minimalism) is that language is rule-based, and that
our knowledge of syntax can be captured in a finite number of syntactic rules.
- Chomsky proposed that phrase-structure rules are an essential component of our
grammar. Phrase-structure rules describe how words can be combined and provide a
method of describing the structure of a sentence. The central idea is that sentences are Chapter 2: Describing Language
built up hierarchically from smaller units using rewrite rules. The set of rewrite rules
constitute a phrase-structure grammar.
- Rules of grammar do not deal with particular words, but with categories of words that
share grammatical properties. Words fall into classes such as nouns, adjectives, verbs,
adverbs, determiners (a, the, some, etc.), prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, etc.
- We can distinguish two types of a word. Content words do most of the semantic work of
the language- large and changing (nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs), and function words
(determiners, prepositions, conjunctions) do most of the grammatical work- small and
- Whereas the number of content words (a.k.a. open-class words) is very large and
changing, the number of function words (a.k.a. closed-class items) is small and fixed.
- Words combine to make phrases, which is a group of words forming a grammatical unit
beneath the level of a phrase.
Clauses: a group of related words containing a subject and a verb.
Subject: the word or phrase that the