BASIC LINGUISTICS OF ENGLISH


O.T. FORD, 1999

 

A phoneme is the basic unit of spoken language. It is a speech sound as it exists in the mind of the speaker ― what it thinks it is saying. The actual sound produced is a phone. (Phones are recorded in brackets, phonemes in slashes.) The word ‘keep’ is phonemically /kip/, but phonetically [k‛ip]. The /k/ is aspirated (followed by a burst of air), but this is a feature which native speakers in North America insert automatically in this context; thus, a phonemic representation does not include it, because it is a predictable realization, not an inherent feature in the mind of the native speaker. In contrast, the word ‘ski’ is phonemically /ski/ and phonetically [ski], without aspiration, because the /k/ is preceded by an /s/.

A grapheme is the basic unit of written language, corresponding in most cases to the letter. There are twenty-eight fundamental graphemes at the word level in English usage (the lowercase letters, the hyphen, and the apostrophe), plus another twenty-six (the capital letters) substituted based on context, and finally the syntactic or contextual graphemes (the punctuation marks). The simplest representation of spoken language for a native speaker is phonemic, where there is an exact relationship of one phoneme to one grapheme.

English orthography (spelling) was largely phonemic at one point in the past, but is now more traditional. There is no longer an exact correspondence between graphemes and phonemes. Rather, the written representation contains etymological (word-historical) information as well as some phonemic information. Similar spellings with different pronunciations may at one point have been pronounced the same; different spellings with similar pronunciations may at one point have been pronounced differently.

English orthography makes use of digraphs, which are two graphemes used as one (‘sh’, ‘th’, ‘ch’, ‘ea’, ‘ou’, and many others). Some digraphs are used for phonemes that have no other representation; some are used to mark syllables and thus vowels (by marking a syllable as “closed”, the included vowel becomes “short”). English spelling also includes many examples of “silent letters”, graphemes which do not correspond at all to modern phonemes, but have been retained (or in some cases reinserted) for historical (and even pseudohistorical) reasons. Some of these silent letters are useful in predicting the pronunciation of words; perhaps the best known example is the “silent e”, which typically marks a preceding vowel as “long” (see below).

A vowel is a phoneme that carries syllabic length and emphasis; a consonant is a phoneme that does not. Some sounds can be either: /u/, /i/, /r/, /l/, /n/. It is important to remember that “vowel” and “consonant” are phonetic/phonemic terms, not orthographic terms. Thus, the vowel /i/ in English can be represented as ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘y’, ‘ee’, ‘ea’, ‘ei’, ‘ie’, ‘ey’, ‘eo’, ‘ae’, and ‘oe’, while the consonant /i/ (also written /j/) is represented by ‘y’, ‘i’, and ‘e’. Conversely, the orthographic ‘e’ can represent four vowel phonemes, one consonant phoneme, and no phoneme at all, and appears frequently in digraphs.

A diphthong is a complex vowel formed of two phones functioning as a single phoneme; in English, the usual arrangement is that one is a vowel carrying syllabic length and emphasis, and the other is a consonant such as /u/ or /i/ which could otherwise function as a vowel. Again, this is not a function of written language, but of spoken language. A single letter can represent a diphthong (‘i’ = /ai/, ‘a’ = /ei/). A digraph can represent a diphthong; in that case, the two phones in the diphthong do not correspond to the two letters in the digraph, but must be considered as a unit (where ‘oa’ represents /ou/, the ‘a’ cannot be said to represent /u/).

A morpheme is the basic unit of meaning in language. Prefixes and suffixes, including grammatical suffixes (‘-s’, ‘-ed’, ‘-ing’) are morphemes. The root itself consists of one or more morphemes as well. (For example, ‘renegotiating’ is ‘re-’ + ‘negoti-’ + ‘-ate’ + ‘-ing’.) Many words show evidence of historical morphemes (‘-ther’ in ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘brother’) which are no longer productive. Where morphemes are recognizable in print as well as in speech, their identification can be a useful tool in the decoding of words ― by isolating the unfamiliar morphemes, the reader can limit the effort required. The production of a correspondence with the spoken form and the assignment of meaning can both be handled more efficiently.

There is no longer any inherent length in English vowels, nor is there any longer a phonetic connection between the “long” values and the “short” values; the connection is entirely historical. Still, it is largely true that the vowel letters have two phonemic values, which are predictable based on context. “Long” vowels are those phonetic values which evolved from the lengthened series of the five basic value sounds. “Short” vowels are those which evolved from the regular (or short) series of the five basic vowels. Those vowels were written ‘a’, ‘e’, ‘i’, ‘o’, and ‘u’. The occurrence of these original long and short vowel sounds was somewhat determined by their environments (the sounds surrounding them), and their evolution was also affected by their environment. Finally, the spelling reflected the division to some extent, and that division is still represented in the modern spelling. Taken together, there is substantial information available to correctly identify which of the two sounds a letter is meant to represent, though the two sounds are not related.

Most commonly, a vowel can be identified as “short” if it is followed by two consonants, or if the following consonant grapheme is doubled (bb, cc, ck (for c), tch (for ch), dd, ff, gg, dg (g before e, i), ck (for k), ll, mm, nn, pp, rr, ss, tt, zz).

Many vowels are reduced from their original phonemes, and this is not represented in writing. This is especially the case in rapid speech. Most noteworthy is the case of ‘u’. The ‘u’ of ‘use’ is the diphthong /iu/, which appears with decreasing frequency after consonants. The /u/ is subject to reduction, as in ‘turn’ and ‘pull’. But the /i/ is often retained, especially when it has merged with a preceding dental phoneme, /s/, /z/, /t/, or /d/. This results in ‘sugar’ and ‘sure’, ‘casual’ and ‘azure’, ‘statue’ and ‘mature’, and ‘educate’ and ‘credulous’.

Parts of speech:
noun ― a word or phrase which represents a thing or things
verb ― a word or phrase which represents action by means analogous to ‘do’
modifier ― a word or phrase which further specifies another word or phrase
adjective ― a modifier for nouns
adverb ― a modifier for parts of speech other than nouns
conjunction ― a word or phrase which establishes a relationship between two parallel elements (parts of speech or clauses)
preposition ― a word or phrase placed before a noun to create a modifier phrase
interjection ― a word or phrase outside the grammatical structure of a sentence

 

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