Phonetics refers to the study of all sounds possible within human language that can be a part of a language (burps, coughs, and teeth grinding do not count, since no one uses them in language). A single unit of phonetics is called a phone, indicated by brackets.

In linguistics, there is a sharp distinction between phonetics and phonology. Phonology studies how units of sound fit into a particular language as units that carry meaning. A single unit of phonology is called a phoneme, indicated by slashes.

To illustrate the difference, take a look at the English sound 'p.' There are at least three sounds/phones that we perceive as the sound 'p.' There is the aspirated form, which occurs in 'pot,' the unaspirated form, which occurs in 'spot,' and the unreleased form, which occurs in 'top.'

Since all three of these sounds represent the same phoneme in English, they are called allophones, and as far as understanding is concerned, they are all one in the same in English. In other languages, they could be as distinct as 'p' and 't' is in English.

A language's phonology is constructed by taking all the sounds that occur in the language and deciding which ones are allophones by looking at the sounds in minimal pairs and in similar phonetic situations.

A complete phonology of English would only include /p/ as a voiceless bilabial stop, even though there are more than three p's in English. It also would not include the glottal stop, since although it occurs constantly, we do not recognize it as a sound that carries any meaning.

Phonetics was taught to me as a sub-topic of orals, which is a topic in English in secondary school. It is probably studied more intensively in university by English majors. It is supposed to teach correct pronunciation of words, and so ideally anyone who knows it ought to speak proper English. I suppose that means speaking like an English person.

There is a culture among African American teens of denigrating academic excellence. We do not have that culture here, although smart kids or nerds might be mocked or bullied. What we do have is a culture of mocking poor attempts at feigning an accent. The local term for speaking like an American or English person is phone (fəˈne - phonetics without the last syllable - tics, pronounced fuhneh). Whether speaking proper phonetics or not, speaking with an English or American accent is often seen as a mark of wealth or sophistication. People who were born in US or UK or who lived there long enough to speak like that naturally are either admired or envied or just treated normally. But those who just visit for a week or a month and upon returning try to speak that way generally cannot carry it off effectively and their original accent often forces its way into their speech, giving it a rather disjointed quality; if it was a marionette, it would be one operated by an amateur, moving jerkily. Their efforts to maintain the accent, to force the tongue away from its natural inclination are all too unattractively visible. The most pathetic ones are those who have never been outside the country but try to feign the accent.

I understand the motivation for wanting to sound like that. For the young, the often glamorous presentation of life in those countries is something to aspire to. Even if the presentation is not glamorous or the pretender is not young, the power and influence of the Anglosphere may lead to hope that association with them, no matter how tenuous, could be beneficial. Humans often imitate the rich and powerful, perhaps in a bid to live their life vicariously by copying some of what they do. This imitation is something I have seen repeatedly, Arabs, Malays, Chinese and Indians all consciously or not strive to claim an association with Western speech mannerisms.

When I was about 9, I started trying to speak that way, saying things like "I wanna" and "I gotta". A teacher harshly put me down and I was really embarrassed. From that time, I never attempted to sound like anything other than what I am. I speak good English and even though I have an accent, I speak clearly enough that I am never misunderstood. Any time I am with other nationalities, who often speak Americanese, I am commended for the clarity of my speech. Many have even said they found it attractive. And I am conceited enough to believe so, since even CNN published a ranking that had the Nigerian accent listed as one of the sexiest. However, given that Nigerian is not a language, and our different local languages give us different accents, I wonder how they arrived at their ranking.

Predictions of China's global economic dominance do not foretell English being replaced by Mandarin or (any other Chinese dialect) as the language of the world. If English, in whatever form, retains its primacy, will people start aping Chinese accented English in order to appear cool?

Iron Noder 2020, 26/30

Pho*net"ics (?), n.


The doctrine or science of sounds; especially those of the human voice; phonology.


The art of representing vocal sounds by signs and written characters.


© Webster 1913.

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