Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Phonemic Expansion

Originally posted on December 18, 2010

A phoneme is a unit of spoken language, such as vowels and consonants. But there are consonants in English that don’t exist in other languages, such as the mixed sound of th as in “think”—which tends to be difficult for some folks in other countries. It tends to be pronounced as a soft d, “t’ink.” Dat’s why in gangster movies dey talk like dat—it’s an urban accent from the Northeast, where many people were immigrants from Europe. Interestingly, there are two phonemes associated with the sound “th”— the is really a dh sound, a “hard” th as in the or they rather than the “soft” th as in think or with. In words such as the or this, the tongue pushes against the palato-dental ridge in making a brief d-like sound; the “soft” th as in with is merely a tongue between the teeth letting the air pass by, a type of “fricative.”    (Actually, the two consonants had their own signs in the middle ages that became obliterated with the complexities of printing. The soft th was ɵ (theta) or Þ (“thorn”), while the hard th as in the might be represented by a ð.  As to this last, amplifying the upper crossed slanty line and minimizing the circle below and it looks like a kind of Y which was then misinterpreted as “Ye” as in Ye Olde Tavern in old English. But the sound for Ye was really ð — a hard dth.) 

Anyway, I think this might be imagined as a bit of a game, playing with your mouth in ways that are not official. We all did this as kids as a form of play, learning to make fart-like sounds and other squeeky and odd mouth sounds. What if it were a unit in Language Arts (also known as English in the olden days) in middle school? Kids could learn to pronounce the Kh gutteral sound as in the German, “Ach” (meaning “oh!” Or “Hey!” or in Achtung: Attention), or the Scots “Loch” for lake, or, dare we invite people finally learn to pronounce the Hebrew Kh sound as in Khanukah?  Many pronounce it Hanukah, with the h very soft, just the slightly pressured breathy h sound. But tighten the back of your throat as if you had to cough-spit up a tiny bone from a fish that got stuck there—kh-kh-kh– that’s the kh sound! It’s in Arabic and many other languages, too—it’s called a guttural H.

Then there’s the side problem of orthography, how something is spelled, and the tendency for that K sound sometimes in English to be written as a C, and similarly the Ch sound, as in Christmas, also to be written as a ch. But Ch also carries the sound of tsh, a compound t and a sh sound, as in chop—or, phonemically, tshop. Which is different from simple shop. Anyway, there are people I meet who see Hanukah also spelled Chanukah and pronounce it tchanukah. Sigh.

So, let’s promote phonemic expansion into the gutteral phoneme, kh. They say, “Let’s get the Christ back into Christmas”—alluding to the religious theme not becoming subsumed by the crass commercialism, but what’s also funny is that the Ch sound was originally the same guttural Kh, from the ancient Greek letter written as an X — Khristos was not a sharp k, which is a consonant produced by the tongue against the back of the palate, but further back, the aforementioned gutteral kh. Khristmas, Khanukah, it’s the same game of phonemic expansion.

Not that this is the only phonemic expansion in the game—there are phonemes from many languages, and as our country becomes more multi-cultural, it could be a fun game to more explicitly learn to pronounce things that those raised in strict ordinary English don’t learn as kids!

(There’s also the importation of words and phrases from other languages and cultures, but that will be addressed later!)

One Response to “Phonemic Expansion”

  • John Swardstrom says:

    It is interesting what you come up with. I am amazed.

    It would be nice to have words spelled the way they are pronounced. A big problem for me.

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