What does it mean to ‘think about’ speech?

Image from pixabay
Image from Pixabay

The first step in rethinking speech is to recognise what you currently think about speech. But what does it even mean to ‘think about’ speech?

Like many things to do with speech, it is easy to misunderstand

As usual, the first thing is to be clear on what this expression does not mean. Then we want to make a couple of distinctions to separate out several ways of ‘thinking about speech’.

If I ask you to think about the word ‘marmalade’, what pops into your head? Possibly a sticky orange substance that people spread on toast.

But that’s not thinking about the word ‘marmalade’. That’s thinking about the stuff referred to by the word ‘marmalade’.

Image from wikipedia
Image from Wikipedia

Oh yeah, so it is!

The distinction is kind of obvious when pointed out, but easy to ignore.

This demonstrates one of the most interesting things about speech: the way it bows itself out of the picture, inviting you to gaze beyond it to what it is pointing at, rather than look directly at it – a bit like a fine butler, invisibly smoothing your way.

butlerTo study phonetics, we have to politely refuse that deferential invitation and turn our gaze on the shade-seeking speech itself.

When we do that, a whole new world opens up – and it turns out there’s actually a number of different ways of ‘thinking about speech’.

The first way

One way is what you do if I ask you ‘How many syllables are there in the word marmalade?’. If you just tried to answer that question, you were thinking about speech in this first way (quite different from thinking about what speech refers to, which is what we usually do).

Now here’s something to notice. When you counted those syllables, you were almost certainly thinking about what you know about the word ‘marmalade’, in general, rather than counting actual syllables in an actual word (unless you whipped out a microphone and made a quick recording). So that’s one way of ‘thinking about speech’.

A more interesting way

Now let’s consider a second way of ‘thinking about speech’. Click the arrow to hear two ordinary English sentences (short). Try to observe what is happening in your mind as you listen to them. (You might need to listen a couple of times to hear it well.)

Did you find the speech hard to hear at first?
That’s because you came to it ‘cold’, with no context. A topic we explore a lot in the unlearning modules.

Grey day. Image from Pixabay

You might not have observed much happening in your mind as you were listening, but after you had heard both sentences, you might have observed that one contains the phrase ‘grey day’ and the other contains the phrase ‘Grade A’.

And after you observed that, you might have realised that ‘grey day’ and ‘Grade A’ have quite a lot in common? Had you ever noticed that before?

Interesting – but what does it mean?

There’s a lot to explore about this kind of thing, and we do that inside Rethink Speech. Here we’ll just introduce a key idea.

Grade A. Image from Pixabay

We actually played a little trick on you

Don’t worry – it’s a nice trick!

The trick is, the sentences you listened to were doctored. First, the two sentences were recorded, then the phrase ‘Grade A’ in one was copied and pasted on top of the phrase ‘grey day’ in the other.

So both phrases contain exactly the same ‘stretch of speech’. Which has to make us wonder: how come you heard the phrases differently (one as ‘Grade A’ and one as ‘grey day’)?

The only thing that made them different was the way you thought about the stretch of speech different in each sentence.

There is a difference between a stretch of speech, and a way of thinking about a stretch of speech.

Usually we assume that the speech simply is the particular sequence of words we think it is, but there is an important distinction between speech, on the one hand, and a way of thinking about speech, on the other.

Recognising that distinction is one of the biggest bits of ‘rethinking’ we want you to do at Rethink Speech

Not just learning it off as a fact, but really understanding the idea and thinking through its implications and applications.

But wait, there’s a third kind of ‘thinking about speech’!

Image from Pixabay

The very idea that ‘speech is a sequence of words’, or that ‘a word is a sequence of syllables’ or ‘a syllable is a sequence of sounds’, much as those ideas might seem like statements of obvious facts, are really ‘ways of thinking about speech’.

In fact, those ideas about words, syllables and sounds are part of a whole elaborate theory of speech held by most people in our society – without even knowing it is a theory.

We call it the Everyday Theory of Speech (ETS), or for short, the c-a-t theory, since it is based on the ‘obvious fact’ that c+a+t=cat. And as we’ve been hinting (or teasing outrageously!), many aspects of the c-a-t theory, though widely assumed to be true, are actually demonstrably false.

But that is enough for now. We step through these ideas (and many more) slowly and carefully in our module RTS101: Unlearning. But hopefully this brief discussion helps give you a clue as to what we mean by ‘thinking about speech’ — and whets your appetite for further exploration.


Before we leave this – were you wondering what the two sentences would have sounded like if we’d copied ‘grey day’ on top of ‘Grade A’ instead? Here’s your chance to find out (and by the way, at Rethink Speech we love that kind of curiosity!):