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[Re: [IE conlangs]]

From:Edward Heil <edwardheil@...>
Date:Friday, April 9, 1999, 2:40
Gary Shannon <reboot@...> wrote:
> As a non-linguist, and especially a non-phonologist, I wonder at all th=
> infinitesimal distinctions that are made concerning vowel sounds. Engli=
sh as
> spoken in London, New Jersey, Bombay, and by people with any one of a n=
> of different "foreign" accents are all radically different in terms of =
> exact nature of the vowel sounds. Yet each of these variations can be > easily understood by most English speakers. Such subtle nuances of > pronunciation seem, therefore, to have exactly zero information content=
> (Other than to identify the nationality of the speaker.)
Well, by definition, a non-phonemic distinction carries no information. But one thing you have to remember is that there is tremendous redundancy= in language as it is pronounced. When you hear a word b-n, where - represen= ts a vowel that you couldn't quite make out, you have the following possibilit= ies: bin, been, bane, ban, bone, bon (as in bonbon), bun, boon. You don't hav= e the options of "boon" (like "book" but with an n), "boin," or "bown" (rhyming= with "down"), even though those are phonetically possible, because they don't happen to exist as words in the English language. English does not come = close to fully exploiting its phonological inventory, which means that some of = the information conveyed phonetically is redundant and dispensable without lo= ss of understanding. When you take context into account, the redundancy grows much greater. I= f the sentence you heard was "Put the paper in the recycle b-n", then the vowe= l is completely redundant with the context -- you don't need to hear the vowel= at all to know that "bin" is the word intended. In fact, it would be fairly= difficult to come up with a context that did *not* render the information= conveyed by the vowel in "b-n" = So between incompletely exploited phonological inventory and the redundan= cy provided by context, just about any phonological component can be seen as= dispensable. And that gives enough leeway that if somebody else realizes= a certain group of phonemes differently than you do, you can guess what he = meant via the built-in redundancy of language, and then learn his mapping of phonemes to phones and how it's different than yours very quickly. Espec= ially since the differences between dialects tend to be very systematic! So I don't think this is anything special about vowels -- it's a matter o= f the general flexibility we have in language interpretation.
> English, at least, would appear to be very tolerant of variety in vowel=
> sounds. Are other languages this tolerant, or are there languages in w=
> slight mispronunciations would confuse the meaning of a sentence?
I imagine things are trickier in languages with much smaller phonetic inventories, like Chinese, which are forced to almost completely exploit = their phonetic inventories. You'd still have redundancy due to context in such= languages, but much less built in phonetic redundancy. But I'm no expert= in Chinese!
> My own pet theory is that vowels sounds are important, but only just ba=
rely. This will vary from language to language, I'm sure -- considering that th= ere are languages with as few as one vowel and languages with many more than English (and English has quite a few, despite having only five vowel symb= ols!)
> (My own conlang, Tazhi, is set in a parallel world where it is a global=
> language > with many local variations in pronunciation which are all ultimately > unimportant.) > > Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is that it seems to me that any > candidate for a global language must be a some language which is extrem=
> tolerant of various types of "mispronunciation". How do languages othe=
> than English stack up in this regard?
Heheheheheh... See the early archives of the Conlang list, which are ful= l of arguments between auxlangers about the Perfect Internatural Auxiliary Language, for lots on this topic. :) Ed --------------------------------------------------------- Edward Heil .......................... --------------------------------------------------------- ____________________________________________________________________ Get free e-mail and a permanent address at 1