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Speech is communication through oral sounds; it is spoken language. During speech, air passes through our mouths and sometimes our noses, generally as we exhale but occasionally as we inhale. While the air passes, we manipulate the shape of our mouths and throats, our nasal passages, and the position of our tongues, to change the sound that emerges. The sounds produced are called ‘phones’. By default, our vocal cords are vibrating while this air is passing; sounds made like this are called ‘voiced’. Those sounds made while our vocal cords are held open are called ‘voiceless’. Some sounds, called ‘stops’, are made by completely blocking the air. In most cases, the air is blocked for a moment and then released, creating distinctive sounds based on where the stoppage was made (back of tongue against roof of mouth, for instance); in some cases, called ‘nasal stops’, the air is stopped in our mouths but released through our noses. Another class of sounds involves making noise by constricting the air passage at a particular point; these are called ‘fricatives’.

A phone is the smallest utterable element of speech; this is contrasted with unutterable features like voicelessness and lip rounding. (Phones are generally enclosed in square brackets, and recorded in the International Phonetic Alphabet; see below.) Much of human speech is actually studied not through phones, though, but through phonemes. A phoneme is an idealized version of a phone, what the speaker thinks it is saying. (When clarity is needed, phonemes are enclosed in slashes.) One way of illustrating this is the difference between the ‘k’ in ‘ski’, versus the ‘k’ in ‘key’. ‘Ski’ is phonemically /ski/, ‘key’ is phonemically /ki/. Phonetically, though (that is, in terms of phones), ‘ski’ is [ski] and ‘key’ is [kʰi]. The aspiration [ʰ] is inserted automatically by English speakers after a voiceless stop (like [k]) when it begins a word, but not when it is preceded by a sound like [s]. Thus, the aspiration is not part of the underlying sounds, or phonemes.

While the phoneme is the basic unit of speech in traditional linguistic thinking, in reality, speakers frequently use units that consist of unutterable combinations of features (because one or more features are not specified), or even single features. In English, for example, the markers for plural and possession are both traditionally identified as /s/, which is pronounced as [z] in certain circumstances. There is, though, no way of knowing whether these two markers are inherently voiceless [s] or voiced [z], since they never appear in isolation. Instead, the marker should be seen as a generic dental fricative, neither voiceless nor voiced, but taking the voicedness of the preceding sound.

A vowel is a phoneme that carries syllabic length and emphasis; a consonant is a phoneme that does not carry syllabic length and emphasis. A number of phonemes can serve as vowels or consonants, depending on how long they are spoken; this includes traditional “vowels” like [i], [u], and [y], and traditional “consonants” like [l], [r], [ɹ], and [n]. The consonantal versions of traditional vowels are transcribed differently in IPA, though: [i]-[j], [u]-[w], [y]-[ɥ].

All speech is subject to the process of reduction and elision, where rapid, casual speech is pronounced in, essentially, an abbreviated way. ‘Did you get it?’, which in careful speech is rendered [dɪd ju ɡɛt ɪt], in rapid speech becomes [dʒəɡɛɾɨt]. Some of these changes are common and predictable: /dj/ palatalizes to [dʒ]; a /t/ between vowels becomes [ɾ]; unstressed vowel /u/ reduces to [ə], and unstressed /ɪ/ to [ɨ]. But the complete omission of the opening /dɪ/ (or rather, the complete reduction of the vowel and the reduction of /dd/ to [d]) is something only a native speaker would expect. And all the changes taken together make the whole very difficult for the non-native speaker to understand. Thus, despite the number of times someone supposedly sophisticated holds this practice up for ridicule, it does makes sense to speak more slowly and even more loudly to a non-native speaker. There is no need to shout, but it is important not to speak quickly or softly. The non-native needs to hear the original phonemes enunciated clearly.

The International Phonetic Alphabet characters used on this page are pronounced approximately thus:

[i] — ‘ee’ in ‘seen’
[ɪ] — ‘i’ in ‘sit’
[ɛ] — ‘e’ in ‘set’
[u] — ‘oo’ in ‘soon’
[y] — ‘ü’ in German ‘über'
[ə] — ‘u’ in ‘suppose’
[ɨ] — ‘e’ in ‘wasted’
[j] — ‘y’ in ‘you’
[w] — ‘w’ in ‘we’
[ɥ] — fast ‘ü’; ‘u’ in French ‘lui’
[ʰ] — aspiration; a puff of air
[d] — ‘d’ in ‘dad’
[t] — ‘t’ in ‘to’
[n] — ‘n’ in ‘no’; ‘on’ in ‘button’
[ɡ] — ‘g’ in ‘go’
[k] — ‘k’ in ‘kid’
[z] — ‘z’ in ‘zoo’
[s] — ‘s’ in ‘see’
[ʒ] — ‘z’ in ‘azure’
[ɹ] — ‘r’ in ‘run’; ‘er’ in ‘her’
[r] — rolled ‘r’; ‘rr’ in Spanish ‘perro’
[ɾ] — flapped ‘r’; ‘tt’ in ‘butter’
[l] — ‘l’ in ‘look’; ‘ull’ in ‘bull’


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