Did you know you have a theory of speech? We call it the c-a-t theory

You might think that learning phonetics involves learning some theory about speech. If you are a scholar, you might even think it involves learning several different theories of speech, comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of each. Indeed those ideas are true – there are a great many theories about speech that need to be learned and evaluated.

At Rethink Speech, we take a slightly different approach. Before teaching you any scientific theories of speech, we want to help you see you already have a theory of speech, long before you embark on any course in any branch of phonetics, or in any other science for that matter. We call it the c-a-t theory.

Why ‘c-a-t theory’?

Because it is built around the central, basic idea that ‘c’ + ‘a’ + ‘t’ = ‘cat’

This basic idea is often cited as the simplest possible fact about speech, learned by the youngest children in primary school. As soon as we’ve mastered ‘c-a-t’, we race on to ‘the cat sat on the mat’ and build up all the other knowledge and skills we need to move from ‘learning to read’ to ‘reading to learn’.

If we go on to study literature, foreign languages or other language-oriented topics, we might acquire more detailed knowledge about the structure of speech – but even if we don’t, we still develop an elaborate set of ideas about speech that constitute a kind of informal theory or ‘ideology’ founded on that primary school education.

No one really stops to question the first part: ‘c’ + ‘a’ + ‘t’ = ‘cat’

Well, if you have studied phonetics, you might have questioned the actual letters used. After all, the letters themselves are rather ambiguous. For example, ‘c’ can represent different sounds in different words (think ‘cent’, or ‘chin’, or ‘ache’, or … you get the idea).

You might have been shown a more systematic way of representing the word ‘cat’ as a sequence of three phonemes. For example, writing /kæt/ shows that the sound at the beginning of ‘cat’ is the same as the sound at the beginning of ‘keep’, /ki:p/, even though in spelling they are represented with different letters (‘c’ vs. ‘k’). (If this is giving you brain-ache, don’t worry, it won’t last beyond the next paragraph.)

You might even have learned some technical descriptions for the sounds: /k/ is a voiceless velar plosive, and so on. You might even, if you have gone quite far in phonetics, have been shown that at a closer level of analysis, the /k/ sound at the beginning of ‘cat’ is the not actually the same as the /k/ sound at the beginning of ‘keep’. Amazing but true (as we discuss a bit more in the next topic).

But you are rather unlikely to have questioned the general principle that the word ‘cat’ is a sequence of three sounds. Who could possibly argue with something so obviously true?! Who could possibly dispute the idea that speech is a sequence of words, each made up of a sequence of sounds?

If we’re not careful, the c-a-t theory can end us up in some strange and unexpected places

In fact, phonetic science has shown that this and many other ‘obvious facts’ about speech have at best a limited kind of truth. The limitations on their truthfulness don’t do much harm in everyday contexts – but they can cause havoc if accepted as a factually accurate basis for practical applications (as we discuss a bit more in the Intro).

That’s why one of the main aims of Rethink Speech is to help you recognise that you actually have a way of thinking about speech, a kind of Everyday Theory of Speech, or ETS that we can call the c-a-t theory for fun – and to unlearn the most basic false beliefs that create problems for our society’s thinking about speech.

Another main aim of Rethink Speech is to help you see that some of the most obvious of the ‘obvious facts’ of c-a-t theory are actually not true – and understand why some of the obvious ‘fixes’ don’t work as well as we might like them to. That’s a bit harder – you may need to experience a few modules to get the hang of it – but in case you are interested, we discuss it a little more in the advanced section of this module.

In case you haven’t already seen it, a great place to start is our open module Experiencing Speech.