For the Love of Language

Fun with Phonemes

By Rémi Samson

When my nephew was learning to write in French, he couldn’t believe there was an “s” in “tsunami.” At the time, I couldn’t have made sense of this if I hadn’t been studying phonology – the science of speech sounds and sound changes in a language.

Phonology studies phonemes – the smallest units of speech that distinguish one word from another. For example, the “b” sound in the word “bat” is what separates “bat” from “pat,” “cat” and “fat.” Those sounds – “b,” “p,” “c” and “f,” point to four different phonemes in English.

Not all languages have the same phonemes. You’ll often hear Spanish speakers alternate between “b” and “v,” pointing to a single phoneme for different sounds. English has a “th” sound that is both voiced (“them”) and unvoiced (“theme”). Think also of the guttural sounds of Arabic and German, like in the expressions “Ahlan wa sahlan” (welcome) and “Gute nacht” (goodnight).

When learning to articulate the sounds of a foreign language, it’s natural to fall back on the habits of our native tongue. That’s why some French speakers say “ze” instead of “the,” and some English speakers pronounce “rue” (“street”) as “roo.” Articulation challenges also explain why young kids simplify words by saying “tee” and “say” instead of “tree” and “stay.” Those simplifications aren’t random, so parents learn to understand their kids’ gibberish.

Chances are, if you ask any French speaker from Quebec, they’ll deny that there’s an “s” between the “t” and “u” in the word “tuque,” or that there’s a “z” between the “d” and “i” in “paradis.” After all, the words aren’t written that way. Yet, if you listen carefully, you’ll inevitably hear those sounds. (Try it, it’s fun!) This background phonological process happens in Quebec French, but not in the French spoken in France. And phonetic transcriptions of foreign words, like the Japanese “tsunami,” are an exception. Hence my (Francophone from Quebec) nephew’s surprise. Mystery solved.

Rémi Samson worked as a lawyer with the Supreme Court of Canada for over two decades. He is passionate about the ways language, law and power intersect.

Excited, delighted and  thrilled!

Adverbs and the World Cup

By Michael Kofi Ngongi

Canada’s men’s soccer team recently qualified for the FIFA World Cup and did so convincingly, after an emphatic victory over Jamaica.

If you’re like me, you remember your primary school teacher instructing you that adverbs modify and describe verbs, and mostly end in “ly.” Where verbs inform us of the action in question, adverbs tell us how said action was, is or will be performed. A verb is sufficient to inform us that when Canada’s men’s soccer team has qualified for the World Cup. However, it takes an adverb to let us know they did so convincingly.

But adverbs don’t only tell us how an action’s performed; they also tell us when it’s performed. So, for example, Canada qualified recently, we’re celebrating now, and we will celebrate some more later. And that’s not all, because adverbs, as it turns out, are quite versatile. They also tell us where the action is performed: while the game was played outside at chilly BMO Field, we watched it sitting comfortably inside, in the TV room downstairs. Adverbs also help us describe the degree or extent of an action or feeling. Canada’s going to the World Cup, and we’re very happy.

A word of caution about the adverb very (and others like it). Very is very useful in helping us indicate that something is done or felt to a high degree. But it does so at times in a somewhat underwhelming manner, in a way that weakens the feeling we seek to convey. At such times, it is incumbent upon us to search for words that can convey the feeling with more oomph.

So, let’s try that again: Canada’s going to the World Cup, and we’re excited, delighted and thrilled!

Michael Kofi Ngongi is a new Canadian originally from Cameroon, another bilingual country. He has experience in international development and is a freelance writer interested in language.

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