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The acoustic and phonological aspects of speech sounds

Any sound in nature is an acoustic phenomenon. It is a form of moving matter and energy. A sound is generated by a physical body which is set into vibration by some external force. When an external force is applied to a physical body the physical body begins to oscillate to move forward and back. These alternate movements of the physical body produce condensations and rarefactions of air which are known as sound waves.

A speech sound is also a physical phenomenon. As it has been said before it is a product of the complex work of the speech mechanisms which regulate the air stream, thus producing condensations and rarefactions of air.

A sound has a number of physical properties: frequency, intensity, duration.

Frequency is a number of vibrations per second. A mans ear may perceive the vibrations of the air when they occur at a rate of 16 to 20000 cycles per second. Frequency is measured in cycles per second.

Sound waves may rhythmical and non-rhythmical. When the vibrations are repeated at regular intervals of time we get rhythmical waves. They are perceived as vowels. When the vibrations are repeated as irregular intervals of time we get non-rhythmical waves. They are perceived as consonants.

Frequency of sounds depends upon the mass, length and tension of the vibrator. For example, the vocal cords which are greater in mass produce slow vibrations; they are perceived as low-pitched. If the vocal c-s are longer they produce slow vibrations too, which are also perceived as low-pitched. If the vocal c-s are less tense they produce slow vibrations which are perceived as low-pitched too, and vice versa.

That is why a mans voice is usually lower than that of a woman. A childs voice is usually the highest. Our perception of frequency is the pitch of the sound.

The second physical property of a sound is its intensity.

Intensity of a sound depends upon the force which is applied to a physical body. The greater the force, the larger the amplitude and vice versa. These sound waves have the same frequency, but the amplitude of vibration is different. The first has twice the amplitude of the second. It means that the sound of larger amplitude is louder, and the sound of smaller amplitude is less loud.

Changes in intensity are perceived as variations in the loudness of a sound. This is measured in decibels.

The third physical property of a sound is its duration. Sounds can only exist in time. The duration of a sound is measured in milliseconds - thousandths of a second. In speech there are no definite boundaries between different speech sounds: one speech sound gradually fades into another. Duration of a sound is perceived by man as its length.

All the physical properties of a sound exist simultaneously. They may be singled out and separated from one another only for purposes of acoustic analysis.

Phonology is a branch of phonetics which studies the functional aspect of speech sounds. Phonology is based on the phoneme theory, which came into being in Russia. As has been said before its founder was the Russian scientist prof. Ivan Alexandrovitch Baudouin de Courtenay (1845 - 1929).

Baudouin de Courtenay tried to analyze phonemes according to their functions. He did it through studying phoneme alternations and trying to explain this phenomenon. But his theory was known only to a few linguists (as Baudouin de Courtenay wrote only in Russian and Polish).

It was only after 1928 when the first International Linguistic Congress took place that this phoneme theory became widly known and spread. It has been thoroughly analysed and developed ever since.

Many followers continued the work of I. A. Baudouin de Courtenay, such as N. S. trubetskoy, some linguists of the Moscow school: R. I. Reformatsky, P. S. Kuznetsov and others. The most gifted pupil of Baudouin de Courtenay was prof. L. V. Shcherba (1880 - 1944).

Prof. Shcherba said that in actual speech we utter a much greater variety of sounds than we are aware of; in every language these sounds are united in a comparatively small number of sound types which are capable of distinguishing the meaning and the form of words; that is they serve the purpose of social intercourse. It is these sound types that we have in mind when discussing speech sounds. Such sound types are to be called phonemes. The various sounds that we actually utter and which are the individual representing the universal (the phonemes), are to be called phonemic variants.

There are several conceptions of the phoneme both in our country and abroad. But linguists have not yet arrived at a definition of the phoneme acceptable to all.

Prof. V. A. Vassilyev developed L. V. Shcherbas theory in his book English Phonetics. A theretical course. Here is his working definition of the phoneme to which we will stick: The segmental phoneme is the smallest language unti that exists in the speech of all the members of a given language community as such speech sounds which are capable of distinguishing one word form from another word of the same language or one grammatical form of a word from another grammatical form of the same word.

The number of phonemes in each language is much smaller than the its number of allophones. It means that each phoneme has several allophones. Classification of allophones is very important for practical teaching because in actual speech it is allophones that people pronounce and not phonemes.

Allophones are divided into two groups: typical and subsidiary. The most representative allophone is called typical. It is the one that is not influenced by neighboring speech sounds. Typical allophones are described in English textbooks. They are included in the classification of the phonemes of the language. For example, the typical allophone of the /t/ phoneme is characterized by the following features: occlusive plosive, forelingual alveolar, voiceless- fortis, oral.

Subsidiary allophones may be positional and combinatory. Positional allophones are used in certain positions traditionally. For example, the English /l/ phoneme is always dark in final position and before consonants as in tell, ball, cold, etc. the English /l/ phoneme is always light in initial position as in light, lesson, language, etc.

Combinatory allophones are those which are influenced by the neighboring speech sounds. They are the result of assimilation, adaptation, accommodation, and of the specific process of sound transitions (VC, CV, CC, VV).


5 Syllabic stricture of the English language


The English phonetic structure is systemic in character. It is made of the following components:

1) the system of English phonemes:

2) the syllabic structure of English words;

3) the accentual structure of words;

4) the intonational structure of English sentences.

The phonemic component includes not only the system of English phonemes but also the combination of their allophones, which occur in words. The character of this component means that phonemes and their allophones may occur only in definite positions in words.

Phonemes are seldom pronounced in isolation, they usually occur in sequences. Any speech flow consists of series of peaks and valleys of prominence with the more sonorous phonemes at the peaks and the less sonorous phonemes in the valleys. Thus, sound sequences are acoustically broken up into smaller units known as syllables, which are the minimal units of sounding speech.

A syllable may consist of one or a number of phonemes, i.e. it may be formed by any vowel or by a word-final sonorant (l, m, n, ŋ) preceded by a consonant, as in I, are, we, garden etc.

A speech sound which is capable of forming a syllable is called syllabic. It is the most sonorous sound in the syllable and makes up the peak of prominence.

Speech sounds which are not capable of forming a syllable are called non-syllabic. They are the less sonorous sounds of the syllable and make up the valleys of prominence. Prof. Vassiliev defines the syllable as one or more speech sounds forming a single uninterrupted unit of utterance, which may be a whole word, e.g. man or a commonly recognized and separable subdivision of a word e.g. En-glish, la-ter.

The syllabic structure of words may be graphically represented by the letter V standing for a vowel sound, and the letter C standing for a consonant sound. The syllabic sonorant is represented by Ş.

Every syllable has a definite structure. It belongs to one of the following 4 main types of syllables: V, VC, CV. CVC. They are classified as covered, uncovered, open and closed. A syllable which begins in a vowel is called uncovered, a syllable which begins in a consonant is called covered. A syllable which ends in a vowel is called open, a syllable which ends in a consonant is called closed.

So, the main types of syllables may be defined in the following way:

V uncovered, open: e.g. /o:/ (or)

VC uncovered, closed: e.g. /it/ (it)

CV covered, open: e.g. /si:/ (see)

CVC covered, closed: e.g. (catch).

There are a great number of variants in the syllabic structure which are formed by increasing the number of consonants in the initial and final position, as in:

VCC e.g. and, act, oaks etc.

VCCC e.g. ends, acts

CCV e.g. blue, clay etc.

The similar syllabic structures exist in Russian too.

Though the same structures are used in both languages their frequency of occurrence is different. Some of them are extremely rare in Russian, while in English they are in common use.

The most common syllables that sonorants form are of Ş, CŞ and CŞC type. For instance,

Ş type: /'æp-l/ (apple);

CŞ type: /'tei-bl/ (table);

CŞC type: /'nei-ʃnz/ (nations).

In Russian and Kazakh sonorants are non-syllabic.

There are several theories which try to explain the mechanism of syllable formation and syllable division.

The oldest of them is the so-called expiratory theory(also breath-puff, pressure. or. chest-pulse theory). According to this theory each syllable corresponds to one expiration. A word consists of as many syllables as there are such expirations made when the word is uttered. Each syllable begins with a fresh expiration. For instance, the word "forty" has two syllables. According to the expiratory theory there must be two expirations. The point where a new expiration starts indicates the syllabic boundary of the word.

The expiratory theory is strongly criticized here and abroad (by B.I.Zh1nkin,.G.P.Torsuyev, A.C.Gimson and others). According to the last experimental data more than ten syllables can easily be pronounced during one expiration.

Next appeared the so-called sonority theory of the syllable. It was propounded ( ) by Otto Jesperson. This theory is nowadays widespread among foreign linguists. The term "sonority" in taken by O.Jesperson as "the degree of perceptibility".

All speech sounds have different inherent sonority. The most sonorous are open back vowels, the least sonorous are the voiceless stops. O.Jesperson classified all speech sounds according to 7 levels of sonority:

1) vowels;
2) semi-vowels / j, w/;
3) sonorants /1, m, n, ŋ. r/;
4) voiced fricatives /v, ð, z, /;
5) voiced stops /b, d. g/;
6) voiceless fricatives /f, θ, s/;
7) voiceless stops / p, t, k /.

Each syllable contains one peak of sonority. For instance let us analyse the words "popular"' and "articulation".

    voiced fricatives          
    voiced stops          
    voiceless fricatives          
    voiceless stops          


The word "popular" consists of three peaks that is why it has three syllables.

The sonority theory is also criticized because it cannot explain the mechanism of syllable formation and syllable division. Besides this theory is helpless in determining the number of syllables in such words as "going", "highest". "speak", "ski", etc.

According to Pro.L.V.Shcherba all consonants may be of three types:

1) initially strong (and finally weak), as in: it, on, us;

2) finally strong (and 1nitially weak). as in: may, tea;

3) double consonants which are strong at both ends and have a weakening in the middle as in: good day.

The most energetic part of a consonant is attached to a vowel. For instance in the word ten" there are two consonants: /t/ and /n/. The consonant /t/ is finally strong (and initially weak), because the vowel is attached to the end of the consonant. The consonant /n/ is initially strong (and finally weak) because the vowel is attached to the beginning of /n/. It may be represented graphically in the following way.

At the beginning the /t/ is weak, at the end it gets stronger. The muscular tension increases still until it reaches its climax produced by the vowel /e/. Then the muscular tension begins to diminish. The /n/ is still strong at the beginning but gets quite weak at the end.

The syllabic boundary lies at a point where the consonant is the weakest. Initially weak consonants constitute the beginning of a syllable. Finally weak consonants constitute the end of a syllable. Double-peaked consonants may only occur at the juncture of two syllables, as in /'gud-'dei/ (good day), /mis-spel/ (misspell), etc.

Prof.L.V.Shcherba's theory was further developed by his followers and now it is known among Soviet linguists as "muscular tension theory".

Prof.N.I.Zhinkin's investigation of the mechanism of syllable formation and syllable division in the pronunciation of the Russian language may serve as a basis for a general theory of syllables. By using different complicated techniques Prof. B.I.Zhinkin found out which speech organ causes a syllable to be formed. This organ is the pharyngeal cavity. When the walls of

the pharynx are contracted the passage through the pharyngeal cavity gets narrower. This process increases the actual loudness of the sound and the latter produces an "arc of loudness". Prof.N.I.Zhinkin's theory is often referred to as "loudness theory

Prof.N.I.Zhinkin has proved that the "arc of loudness" is due to the complex work of the speech mechanism as a whole (including the work of the power, vibrator, resonator and obstructor mechanisms).

That is why Prof.V.A.Vassilyev suggests that it would be more precise to call a syllable an arc of articulatory effort" but not an "arc of loudness".

A syllable begins at a point where a new articulatory effort starts and ends at a point where the articulatory effort ends.

Each language has its own peculiarities in its syllabic structure. One of the peculiarities of syllable division in Russian and Kazakh. for instance, is that the sequence of CVCV makes for two open syllables: ca-. -pe, қ-, ә-. They are strong-end consonants in Russian and Kazakh.

There are a number of factorsdetermining the rules for syllable division in English, as well. Syllable division in English is closely connected with the checked or free character of the vowel in a stressed position. The sequence of CVCV may have different types of syllable depending on the character of the vowel sound. In this case the syllable division is governed by the following rules:

1) The sequence of /CVCV/ may include two open syllables if the stressed vowel is a long monophthong or a diphthong, e.g.,

/si:-liŋ/ (ceiling),

/tai-tl/ (title), etc.

The syllable division of Russian and Kazakh fully coincides with this pattern in English. In the three languages the consonants are strong-end consonants.

2) The sequence of /CVCV/ has a closed syllable and an open one /'CVC-V/ if the stressed vowel is a short monophthong,

'pit-i/ (pity), /'mer-i/ (merry) etc.

Syllables of this type present a great difficulty to Russian and Kazakh students because in similar Russian and Kazakh words there are two open syllables. In English the intervocalic consonants of this type are initially strong while in Russian and Kazakh they are finally strong,

3) Short and long monophthongs' and diphthongs make for an open type syllable it they are unstressed and are separated from the adjacent vowels by only one consonant, e.g.

/ri: ækt/ (react),

/bigin/ (begin)

Phonetic and orthographic syllables should not be confused. They sometimes coincide and sometimes do not. For instance, phonetically disy1labic words like "apple". "higher", "eaten". "flower", "battle". "fire", "drizzle", etc. are treated in writing as monosyllabic words. Whereas orthographically disyllabic words like "type", "come", "wrote", "theme", "change". have only one phonetic syllable.

Here are some examples:

/a:-tis-tik/ art-ist-ic the syllabic boundary does not coincide.

/ə:-li/ ear-ly the syllabic boundary coincides.

The phonetic syllable division is governed by the three rules which have been stated above. The orthographic syllable division is governed by the morphemic principle, as in: star-less, writ-er etc.

The syllabic structure of English performs three main functions: constitutive, distinctive and recognitive.

The syllabic structure fulfills constitutive function because syllables constitute the material forms of all the words, phrases and sentences. Te latter can not exist without syllables.

The distinctive function of the syllabic structure includes differences in both syllable formation and syllable division. Presence or absence of a syllable in one and the same position, as well as different syllabic boundaries may differentiate one word (or phrase, or sentence) from another word (or phrase, or sentence).

Here are some phonological oppositions of presence vs. absence of a syllable in the same position in a minimal pair:

/bet/ - /betə/ bet - better

/beit - / əbate/ bate abate

There are a number of combinations of words distinguished from each other by different syllabic boundaries:

a name an aim

I scream ice-cream etc.

The recognitive function of the syllabic structure manifests itself in the fact that the right syllabic boundary makes it easier to recognize words, phrase, and sentence.

The violation of the recognitive function of the syllabic structure results in the following:

1) wrong syllable division produces a strong foreign accent;

2) it produces a comic impression upon an Englishman;

3) it hampers the process of communication.



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