Observing speech: What just ain’t so

It’s hard to really observe speech in everyday life. We can’t see it, touch it, or smell it. Even hearing lasts only an instant.

Phonetic science allows us to capture speech, and study it in ways most people never experience.

Now here’s the thing

When we observe speech scientifically, we find it is nothing like we think it is like.

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Unknown language

Have you ever listened to people talking a language you don’t know a word of? It sounds like gobbledegook delivered at a rapid pace!

But if we pay attention, there is a lot we can learn from this experience

Here’s an example we can work with. Click the play arrow below to hear 15 seconds of speech in a language you are rather unlikely to know. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Scroll slowly through a speech wave

Most of the time, we can only listen to speech. After all, it’s invisible, so there’s not much to see!

But phonetic science gives us some ways to look at speech (or at least to look at a representation of speech). That gives a whole new perspective.

This demo let’s you watch as we zoom in on the speech wave of an English sentence, and scroll slowly through it. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Backwards speech makes us laugh: Should it make us think too?

You have probably had the experience of listening to speech turned backwards. Most people can’t resist laughing when they hear it: it sounds like a strange foreign language, possibly Martian. But like most speech fun, turning speech backwards does more than just give us a chuckle. It tells us something pretty fundamental about the nature of speech. Here’s an example. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Isn’t this all just sloppy, careless speech? Let’s ask the Queen

People sometimes think demonstrations like these work only for sloppy, unclear speech, and that they show that speakers should be more careful with their enunciation.

We can agree it is good to speak clearly – but speaking clearly does not involve enunciating each word and sound (phoneme) separately.

Let’s use a sample from the Queen of England to demonstrate this surprising fact. Read the rest now >>>

 

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Does c+a+t really make ‘cat’?

Here’s a different perspective on the idea that it is only sloppy, unclear speech that is continuous. This time instead of looking for phonemes (individual speech sounds) in already-created speech, let’s try making a word by putting the phonemes together ourselves. Surely if we start with nice clear phonemes, we’ll end up with a nice clear word, right? Read the rest now >>>

 

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Look mum, no phonemes

The demonstrations in this module – along with many other phonetic observations – show clearly that speech has no breaks or boundaries between words or phonemes.

In itself, speech is a continuous stream of sound.

That goes for all speech, clear or sloppy, in any language, in any dialect - and the simple explanation you might be thinking of doesn't work as well as you expect! Read the rest now >>>

 

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No other units either – just ask some babies!

dancing-babyIf you have studied phonetics before (especially in the context of language teaching), you might be asking:

Shouldn’t we be talking about suprasegmentals, not phonemes?

There is something very true about the insight that suprasegmentals (the rhythm and melody of speech) are more important than phonemes. But it is also rather easy to understand it wrongly - as we are about to learn from some cute dancing babies. Read the rest now >>>

 

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What you can do when you know

choirThose who were in (or aware of) Australia in 2008 will have a good memory of then prime minister Kevin Rudd’s famous apology to the indigenous people.

Rob Davidson took a one-second sample of Rudd’s words, ‘We apologise’ and made a remarkable musical interpretation. The short video (2:17) gives a good impression. Read the rest now >>>

 

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What happens to the phonemes? Good question but is there a better one?

OK, let’s say we accept that speech in itself is a continuous stream of sound, rather than a sequence of words, phonemes, syllables or other units. How should we respond? There are two general approaches – a good one and a better one. Here’s the good one.

How did the phonemes get all messed up and distorted like that?

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