Do you speak like a rainbow?

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The rainbow is a sequence of seven colours, right? Well, sort of right.

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Compare the rainbow on the left with the rainbow on the right. What’s the difference?

The one on the left is a picture of a rainbow. The one on the right is a real rainbow. The picture certainly has seven colours. But how many does the real rainbow have?

Let’s explore this difference in a bit more detail, using more closely matching images

First, here’s a picture of a rainbow made by putting together a sequence of seven colours. Notice how each colour is discrete (separate) and invariant (the same throughout).

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Next, here’s a photo of a real rainbow (made with a crystal on a wall).

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Notice how in the real rainbow, each colour shades through several variants: dark red to bright red, lemon yellow to gold, and so on.

In fact, the whole rainbow is a continuous gradation of colour, with no distinct boundaries marking out seven individual colours.

So, while you and your friends might agree there are seven colours, when it comes to specifying exactly where the boundaries are, you might disagree. You might argue about whether a particular point in the rainbow should be described as orange or red, blue or green.

You might even feel that seven is a rather arbitrary number. In principle we could divide the rainbow into fewer colours, or more colours. Perhaps you know that people from different language backgrounds assign colour terms in ways very different to our own – as we discuss more in the Words module.

The point is, ‘seven colours’ is not how the rainbow really is, but how people think about the rainbow. The seven colour concepts exist in our minds, not in the rainbow. When we see a rainbow as a sequence of seven colours we are imposing discrete colour concepts from our minds onto the continuous reality.

Well, this is interesting, but what does it have to do with speech?

To see that, let’s look at a word the same way as we just looked at the rainbow.

The word ‘rainbow’ is a sequence of seven sounds, right? Well, sort of right. Compare the written word with the image below, a sound wave of the spoken word ‘rainbow’. (Luckily in this word, the letters match the phonemes reasonably well, which isn’t always the case with English spelling, as we know from examples like ‘rough’, with 5 letters but only 3 phonemes.)

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Do you see that while the written word is a sequence of 7 units, the sound wave is a continuous gradation of sound. The difference is quite similar to the rainbow example, where the picture is a sequence but the real rainbow is a continuous gradation of colour.

‘Seven sounds’ is not how the word really is, but how we think about or conceptualise the word.

To see that, you could recognise it is possible to argue about exactly how many sounds (not letters) there are in ‘rainbow’. What do you think? See if your friends all agree.

You might be interested to know that even phonetics experts can disagree on this question. For example, the part of the word represented by ‘ow’ in the spelling is thought by some to be a sequence of two sounds, a vowel and a gliding consonant /w/; while others consider it to be a single vowel with two parts (a diphthong). There’s no ‘right answer’, just different ways of thinking about it, with different arguments to back them up.

The point is, a sequence of sounds is how we think about speech, not how speech really is. Pretty much like the rainbow. When we think about speech, we impose concepts from our minds onto the continuous reality.

And just as people from different language backgrounds think about the colour spectrum differently, so they think about the ‘rainbow’ of speech differently. In fact, as we’ve hinted before, the biggest difficulty in pronouncing a foreign language is not producing unfamiliar sounds, but thinking about sound in unfamiliar ways. We’ll get into that in the speaking and listening module.

Interesting similarities, but even more interesting differences

Now this analogy is very useful in helping us see the similarities between speech and the rainbow.

It is even more useful in helping us see the differences in how we think about speech and the rainbow.

With the rainbow, everyone can easily see a rainbow in either of two ways:

  • as a continuous gradation of colour, and
  • as a sequence of discrete colours.

There’s nothing particularly surprising about seeing that the ‘7 colours’ of the rainbow are really a continuous gradation (though there are many demonstrations about colour that truly are amazing, as we see in our module on words).

It’s quite different for the word ‘rainbow’

With the word ‘rainbow’, it is easy to hear it as a sequence of sounds, but difficult to hear it as a continuous gradation of sound. That makes it surprising to discover that the word ‘rainbow’ is really a continuous stream of sound.

The crucial difference

Now here is a far more important difference, that unfortunately is more rarely noticed.

Image from Wikimedia commons

With the rainbow, no-one would ever think that a real rainbow is made by putting together seven discrete invariant colours, and then smudging the edges a bit. That would be a really crazy thing to believe.

But with speech, it seems completely normal to think that words are made by putting together sounds. So much so, that it is seems perverse to even consider it could be any other way.

That’s why the discovery that speech really is continuous is pretty surprising to most people.

But should it be the discovery that is surprising? Or the surprise itself? Why do we think about speech so wrongly in the first place?

Why does it matter?

Well – it shows that the fact we use a noun for the word phoneme doesn’t mean a phoneme is a discrete, concrete thing. And the fact that we say a phoneme is part of a word doesn’t mean a word is made by putting together phonemes.

As we see with the example of the rainbow, parts of something can be formed via conceptualisation. Is a colour part of a rainbow? Sure! Is a rainbow made by putting together discrete colours? Of course not, that’s a crazy suggestion!

It all gives us a lot more flexibility to choose the right way to think about the sounds of speech. We don’t have to leap to the conclusion: it’s a noun so it must be a thing; or it’s a part so it must be a component. We can check out what the reality of speech is like behind our words and our concepts.

And of course that is what we aim to do in Rethink Speech 101: Unlearning. Hope you will join us there soon if you haven’t already.