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 another way of ‘thinking about speech’. Click the arrow to hear two ordinary English sentences (short). Try to notice 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.

So in the first sentence, you probably didn’t notice yourself thinking of a particular part of the sentence as being the word ‘grey’ followed by the word ‘day’. And in the second sentence, it was probably a bit after you thought of a particular section of the sentence as the word ‘Grade’ followed by the word ‘A’ that you noticed any connection with the words in the first sentence.

Interesting – but what does it mean?

There’s quite a lot to say about this, but we’ll stick to two introductory points here.

Grade A. Image from Pixabay

The first point is that 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 our 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.

So our other point is a brief glance at one of those implications

Grey day. Image from Pixabay

Let’s say we wanted to ask you about the sound at the beginning of the word ‘day’ as it is actually spoken in this actual stretch of speech (not as it appears in your head when you think about it in the abstract, like you did for marmalade) – it would be important to give your the right sentence, wouldn’t it?

But did you notice the trick we played on you?

Don’t worry – it’s a nice trick!

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

So both sentences contain exactly the same ‘stretch of speech’. It was the way you thought about that stretch of speech that made it into two different sentences, each with a different sequence of words.

in particular, it was the way you thought about the sentences that made one of them contain the word ‘day’ while the other didn’t. So in order to answer our question about the sound at the beginning of the ‘day’, it really matters a lot exactly how you think about the stretch of speech you are investigating.

In order to investigate the actual sound of words, we have to do a bit of mental work to divide up a stretch of speech into an appropriate sequence of words.

The unnoticed role of ‘prethinking’

Interestingly we don’t notice this mental work at all. But we must be doing it (not convinced? Heaps of examples in our modules!).

Even more interestingly, and importantly, the mental work has to happen before we can start investigating things like how many syllables make up those words, or what sounds the syllables consist of.

That’s why at Rethink Speech, we call the unnoticed mental work prethinking. It’s the thinking we do before we are consciously aware of thinking. And the exact way we do the prethinking has a big effect on our investigation of speech, as we see from this example.

What is prethinking? How does it work? Why call it prethinking and not mental processing? Yes, you’re right! Those are big questions that need to be addressed. And we certainly do get into them in Rethink Speech. But to answer them well needs a bit more background, so we’ll go into them in proper sequence.

Going deeper, and one more kind of ‘thinking’

Image from Pixabay

So our second way of ‘thinking about speech’ is this kind of prethinking. But wait, there’s another way!

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 this sense, ‘thinking’ refers more to assumptions, or background knowledge and beliefs, that shape the way we think about speech in the other senses.

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. And we step through these ideas (and many more) slowly and carefully in our module RTS101: Unlearning. If you want more intro before diving in to the unlearning modules, you might enjoy Experiencing Speech (from the top menu). 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 of How to rethink speech, which is our next topic.


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!):