Guide Understanding Language through Humor

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To see what this means, consider two equally good ways that you might use to get someone to cross the room and come over to where youre standing. You might use a familiar hand gesture involving a curved index finger,. The spoken message consists of two words come and here plus the implied you. That is, there are three bits of meaning in this message and they are to a degree independent of one another.

This is obvious from the fact that we can swap one of them out to change the meaning of the message. Replace come with stand, and we get stand here! We could then replace here with there to get another message, stand there! And we could even replace the implied you with an overt lets [i. In contrast, the hand gesture doesnt break apart into any meaningful compo- nents. The extended index finger doesnt have a meaning separate from the curled- back three fingers or the thumb.

The orientation of the hand facing upwards doesnt represent any separable piece of the message. One can, of course, swap the index finger for another of ill-repute to change the message entirely and perhaps start a fight in the process. But notice that, in this case, the entire message changes, not just one piece of it. It is the ability to piece together complex or simple messages through the use of many independent, meaningful bits that allows human communication i. Imagine how many things we could say if each message required its own separate and un-analyzable hand gesture.

A brief comparison of human language to animal communication is helpful here. The vocalizations of vervet monkeys have been extensively studied, and they have been found to utilize four distinct types of alarm calls in order to warn others of impending danger. Leopards are quite fond of vervets for lunch , and the troop responds to this call by climbing high up into trees that are outside of its range. Another call sort of a double cough is used to alert the troop to an aerial predator, such as an eagle.

The response to this warning is to run into low bushes, so as to be hidden from the air. The third call something that is called, and sounds like, a chutter is a response to snakes. This alarm causes the troop to look for the snake, and to mob it when they find it. There is, lastly, a call that they use for mammalian ground predators who dont unlike leopards have a special preference for vervets.

This alarm is a quiet but very high pitched call that causes the troop to become very vigilant and move toward trees. The leopard alarm might mean something like Watch out, a leopard! The eagle alarm might mean something like Watch out! An eagle! However one might characterize the message in these alarms, its clear that there is no part of the message that can be separated out to mean danger or run or climb or hide or leopard or eagle.

This being the case, we can assume that vervets unlike people cannot readily use their system of alarms to construct new ones. There is simply no way for a vervet to signal Watch out for that creature coming out of the lake! Guy with a gun! A creature that weve never seen before who looks hungry and is likely to eat one of us! In this regard, human communication, having the property of being decomposable into bits of meaning, can be counted upon to do a better job at communicating about novel dangers as well as many other things. When we survey various non- human communication systems we can see right away that the messages sent are all about here and now.

The dot matrix printers relays the messages Pause now and Continue now. There would be no point in having it tell the computer that it wanted it to pause a minute ago, or that it is ok to continue, provided someone else refills the paper tray. Birds mating and territorial songs, vervet monkeys alarm calls, and ants pheromone trail markings are all and only about current situations.

No bird can communicate I would have wanted to mate with you, were you a faster flyer. Vervet monkeys cant reminisce about alarm calls from last week. And ants wont lay down a trail that they anticipate will lead to food tomorrow. Human communication i. We regularly use language to transmit messages about what we did, what were about to do, and what we would or would not do if circumstances were different. Consider the famous nursery rhyme about the three wise men of Gotham:.

Three Wise Men of Gotham Went to sea in a bowl. If the bowl had been stronger My tale had been longer. The point of the poem is to let us know that the three were fools, and that they didnt stay afloat for long. In a world where its true that the bowl is strong, its also true that the poem is long. Ours is not that world. Messages like this, which describe the world as it might be but isnt and which suggest further how things would turn out in such a world, are called counterfactuals.

We use them all the time,. If I had more money, Lulu would probably go out with me. I could get an A on this test, if I only had five more hours to work on it. This coffee wouldnt taste so bad, if the white stuff in the sugar bowl hadnt turned out to be salt. Communicating about the world as it was, will be, or could be is a property unique to human language communication. One final property to discuss is the degree to which a communication system is open-ended or productive.

In the universe of animal communication, there is a fairly wide difference regarding the number of messages that different species have at their disposal. Some have only a few, while others have a few dozen. In experimental environments, some primate species and other mammals such as sea lions have been trained to recognize, respond to, and sometimes use, many dozens of signs. Sea lions were trained to distinguish signs for the adjectives large, small, black and white, for various objects [toy] car, ring, cube, ball, football, pipe, etc. They could accurately follow commands such as swim over the large black football in a pool loaded with an assortment of different floating objects.

The sea lions ability to respond to sequences of as many as seven signs resulted in their potentially having the ability to decode some 7, distinct messages. If you can only say or understand 7, sentence-like messages, you can certainly do quite a bit, but your abil- ity to communicate on a human level would be pretty mediocre. If or so messages are dedicated to getting what you want at eateries e. Supersize me!

No, Im not interested! So how many distinct messages is a speaker of a human language capable of? Well, if one considers that the vocabulary of the average college graduate might be somewhere around 65, to 75, words,13 and that these words may combine into multiword sentences of variable length, we can conclude the human language is a communication system capable of a practically infinite number of possible messages.

We are constantly hearing sentences weve never heard before and producing sentences that weve never spoken before, and this goes on for most of our lives. That isnt to say that we dont often repeat ourselves. But the fact is that we most often dont. Consider, for instance, the fact that most of the sentences in this book are, and will be, sentences that you the reader have never heard or read before. Repeat this for just about every book youve read, and will read, and you get the idea of the limitlessness of it all. Its not just because we have so many words either. Human language has the limitless capacity that it does at least in part because we are able to embed expressions inside other expressions which are embedded inside yet other expressions that are themselves embedded inside expressions.

While it may be hard to follow, it can certainly be very carefully unraveled and understood. A joke that is funnier than a joke which was funnier than the joke which I consider very funny could be called a very, very, very, very funny joke. There is no limit to the number of verys that I might add, and thus no limit to the number of such expressions I can produce using the word very. Animal communication lacks this embedding capacity, even when animals are taught to use symbols to communicate in relatively sophisticated ways. For example, in the s, Herbert Terrace conducted communication experiments with a chimpanzee he named Nim Chimpsky cf.

Noam Chomsky. But Nims expressions rarely went beyond two or three symbols chips and his longest utterance plastic chip-wise was, give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you. Clearly, length aside, there is absolutely no grammar here. It is grammar, which provides the capacity for embedding, which in turn allows a speaker of human language to produce an expression like,. Your mothers sisters cousin Matildas drunkard of a husband is passed out in the driveway.

Having looked in some detail at the nature of communication systems gen- erally, we can now compare animal and human communication, to get a sense of how human language is special and how it differs. One system that has been extensively studied is that of forager bees.

Forager bees like many other vari- eties have a specialized group of worker bees called scouts. These bees go out looking for food sources, and then report their location back to the hive. Since the main goal of the hive is to collect enough food i. The method of sending out scouts is quite efficient, but comes with one requirement. The scouts have to have some way of telling the rest of the hive what theyve found and where to go get it. Essentially, what needs to be communicated about the food source is 1 whether its any good, 2 where it is relative to the hive, and 3 how far away it is.

The first part is pretty straightforward. All the scout needs to do there is to bring back samples and pass them around. The second part requires some actual communication. The scout must tell everyone in what direction to go. They dont have GPS, or maps, or words for landmarks like trees and streams.

But they can orient themselves relative to something everyone can see, the sun of course, this wont work on rainy days, but who wants to go out in that sort of weather anyway? The way they do this is by doing a little dance see Figure 2. Now, one must understand that the dance floor inside the hive is vertical like a wall , and the scouts use down the direction of gravity as symbolic of away from the sun. So, if the wiggle is 30 degrees to the left of perpendicular, then the other worker bees know that they must leave the hive and fly in a direction 30 degrees to the left of the sun.

We can see pretty clearly here that this particular aspect of the communication system is what we called iconic earlier. Scouts have a different way of communicating distance. This bit is communi- cated through the rate of repetition. The faster the scout dances that is, the more times per minute she repeats the dance the closer the food source is.

Slower means farther away. This is also somewhat iconic, since:. Forager bee communication appears to be true communication, but how can one really know? That is, how do we know that the dances that the scout bees do express something that we would call meaning the location of food and are used for a purpose to let the others in the hive know about it. Maybe the scout bees are just nervous or excited. Maybe the other bees can just sniff out where the food is, and the dance doesnt really tell them anything.

Experiments with forager bee behavior have shown otherwise. Namely, that the scouts are communicating information and that the other bees receive this information and act accordingly. In one experiment, scouts were sent out of the hive and the rest of the bees were removed from the hive before they returned. Coming back to an empty house, one imagines that they were confused and lonely. But they didnt wander around the hive for a long time calling out the names of their friends presumably either because they dont have friends or because their friends dont have names.

They also didnt dance. Now, if the dance was just a reaction to finding food, then they would have done it anyway. But the fact that they didnt do it with no one else in the hive suggests that it is done for the purpose of communicating. In another experiment, scouts wings were taped to their backs and they were made to walk rather than fly back to the hive. One imagines that they were really pissed off about having to walk, after all the money they spent on a wing job. That being beside the point, when they did get back, they nevertheless danced to let everyone know where the food was, and the frequency of their dance directly communicated the amount of time that it took them to walk back and didnt match the flying distance to the food source, since they hadnt flown back.

So, though we know that they dont have little chronometers, it is pretty clear that they are measuring their travel time and directly communicating that to their hive mates. Other experiments have tested whether the other bees actually got the message. We know right off that they sampled the food brought back by the scout, so thats not at issue. And observers noted that the worker bees all flew off in the correct direction, indicating that the directional dance worked.

But what about distance? A couple of experiments tested this. In one, experimenters placed food-scent cards along the flight path, hoping to trick the worker bees into pulling over early to prove that they might just be sniffing their way along the path until they get to a food source. But, by and large, the worker bees overflew the cards, and went all the way to the actual food source, indicating that they had been paying attention to the scouts message.

Other observations confirmed this, as the worker bees generally ate just enough before going out to get them out to the food source and back. That is, they knew before leaving, how far they would need to fly and prepared accordingly. So, we know that the bees have a true communication system. It has a medium movement , and communicates information location of food for a purpose helping others to retrieve the food.

We also know that the major pieces of the system direction and distance are iconic, rather than arbitrary. Notice also that the communication system doesnt involve two-way i. Scouts report information to the other workers about what theyve found, but theres no communication of consequence going the other way. Work- ers have no way to ask specific questions related to the messages, such as:. What did you find out there? So how far is it? Which way do we turn when we leave the hive? Did you have a good flight?

We even know that it doesnt involve learning on the part of the scouts they are born with the ability to communicate their messages. We know this because of other experiments that have been done. It happens that there are two related varieties of forager bees, an Austrian variety living north of the Alps and an Italian variety living to the south of the mountains.

The two varieties can be told apart by their markings and no, the Austrian bees do not have lederhosen. In addition, their communication systems are slightly different. The Austrian bees dance more quickly than the Italian bees to communicate a particular distance. If you place an Austrian scout in an Italian hive and allow it to dance the distance of a food source in its own dialect, the Italian bees will be looking for food closer to the hive than the Austrian bee intended.

In experiments where the two varieties were cross-bred, it turned out that those offspring that sported Austrian markings danced an Austrian dialect and those offspring with Italian markings danced like Italians. Theres no way to separate as there would be in human language the direction part of the message from the distance part.


A scout bee has no way to say its 90 degrees to the right of the sun, but youre going to have to guess how far. Its further the case that, unlike human language, the scout bees messages are all and only about here and now. It cannot communicate anything about the location of a food source from yesterday. It cant even communicate about where it found food a couple of hours ago, since the sun moves in the sky and the message at 2 p.

It cant and wont communicate where it wishes there were food, or where would be a good place to find food. Of course, the productivity of bee communication is also limited and distinct from human language.

Theres no communication from scout bees about anything other than the quality, direction, and distance of a food source. That is, a scout cant communicate the direction and distance of anything else, such as a competing hive.

Understanding Language Through Humor by Stanley Dubinsky

She cant provide information about whether the food source is close to the ground, or high off it. She cant tell her hive mates how enjoyable the trip back was, or how nice the weathers been for flying. And as we noted above, she cant even tell everyone that her flight was canceled and that she had to walk back. Its clear from all this that the forager bees really do communicate in complex and sophisticated ways. Its also clear that their communication is only similar to that of humans in our overactive imaginations. Our propensity for overestimating what other creatures are capable of where communication is concerned is legend.

So much so, that we can often laugh at ourselves about it. Consider this bit of humor: Each evening bird lover Tom stood in his backyard, hooting like an owl and, one night, an owl finally called back to him. For a year, the man and his feathered friend hooted back and forth. He even kept a log of their conversations. Just as he thought he was on the verge of a breakthrough in interspecies communication, his wife had a chat with her next-door neighbor. My husband spends his nights calling out to owls, she said.

Thats odd, the neighbor replied. So does mine. Or this one: A man is at the zoo and asks the keeper, Have you got any talking parrots? No, says the keeper, but weve got a woodpecker that knows Morse code. We want to believe that animals communicate just like we do, and those beliefs help populate joke books, fables, fairy tales, movies, and all sorts of stories that get passed around from pet lover to pet lover. It isnt uncommon for pet owners, like Judy Brookes featured in a Scientific American article Fact or fiction: Dogs can talk , to believe that her dog Maya is actually trying to say I love you, when she says Ahh rooo uuu.

People have been deluded into thinking that animals are actually talking, or at least trying to talk, since at least the beginning of the last century. The fact is that animals such as Maya havent got a clue what theyre doing, only that whatever it is, it gets them treats. It should be clear from what weve seen in this chapter that human language is on a completely distinct communicative plain from the sort of messaging that other creatures are capable of.

Before closing out this discussion, there is one other issue that we need to address: some common misuses of the word language to describe things that humans do, which are not in fact really language at all. Among those things needing weeding are the language of flowers, the language of love, and the language of music.

Generally speaking, you can be assured that anything called the language of X where X is something other than human language is not really language. People commonly refer to the way we might communicate through any medium as the language of that medium. So, if your mom makes a mean lasagna and her making the lasagna communicates how much she loves and cares for you, somebody is going to write about this and call it the language of food.

Understanding Language through Humor: How jokes make concepts clear

Of course, theres simply no way that we can assign a semantic meaning of I love and care for you to the preparation and serving of lasagna. If we did so, then it should and would always have that meaning. But while your mom serving you lasagna might communicate this message from her to you, be assured that she doesnt want it to mean the same thing when she has to serve her alcoholic brother-in-law, Anthony.

No, in order for some system of communication to be a language of anything, or even a system of communication, its messages must have consistent and stable semantic meanings. For example, theres a fellow in North Carolina named Dr. Gary Chapman who writes books about marital communication. Chapmans books is titled The Five Love Languages. The five languages that he refers to are: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch.

Now, as important as these five elements might be in building marital communication, they are not languages. If anything they are means through which couples might convey messages and feelings to each other. They are mediums of communication rather than systems of communication or language. Take hugging for example. Hugging can and usually does communicate something.

But what it communicates will vary according to the participants. Hugging ones children and hugging ones spouse are supposed to communicate somewhat different messages. And I can assure you that a very different message is going out when Jimmy has to hug his Great Aunt Bella, who he cant stand. Speaking of what some refer to as the language of music is a bit more complicated. It has recently been shown unsurprisingly that music is capable of communicating emotions. In a recent study, Thomas Fritz and his research team found that there is a universal ability to recognize three basic emotions expressed through Western music happiness, sadness, and fear.

Now, the ability of a musical passage to elicit a nebulous emotional response is rather different from the ability to communicate a message. Music that communicates happiness cannot be said to have transmitted the message I the composer am happy or You the listener should be happy or Happiness is a good thing to feel. And even if one were to consider happiness, sadness, and fear to be on their own messages transmitted by particular musical passages, to go on from there and suggest that music is some sort of communicative system would be absurd and would lose sight of the fact that music is infinitely more than a system of transmitting messages.

Given that music does not even rise to the level of system of communication, calling it language is hyperbolic nonsense. Among all the language of X expressions out there, there is one, the language of flowers, which comes close to qualifying as a communication system although not as a language. As noted by Beverly Seaton, the language of flowers was in Victorian times a vocabulary list, matching flowers with meanings, [but] differing from book to book. The specific meaning conveyed by a particular flower might differ from book to book, and from country to country.

A white rose could signify silence or celibacy or virtue. A yellow rose variously translated as devotion or jealousy or infidelity. Of course, the red rose with its meaning of love and beauty has remained rather constant. So to the extent that different species of flowers could be assigned meanings that correspond to different feelings and to the extent that these were used to send messages in circumstances when open communication was not possible, the language of flowers is a viable, albeit restricted, communication system. Nevertheless, a language it is not.

As the reader proceeds through this book, it will be helpful to remember what constitutes true language, and the ways in which human language is a specially endowed form of communication that has no peer among the myriad types of communication that are possible. The sounds of language.

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This B. It is for this reason that we have placed this chapter ahead of all the remaining chapters of this book. Written language is secondary to spoken language and is derivative of it. It is the primacy of spoken language which enables and contributes to the vast store of sound-based jokes, puns, and other linguistic diversions that we have at our disposal. Certainly, were it not for the disparity between speech sounds and spelling which is particularly great in English , the joke about welcoming ones Aunt Teeter to an ant colony would not be so easily put.

In this chapter, we will first discuss the difference between language sounds and the letters i. We will then focus on language sounds themselves, and on the difference between phonetics the physical realization and properties of these sounds and phonology which concerns how these sounds are mentally represented in the mind of a speaker or hearer. Finally, we will go through a brief catalog of the kinds of linguistic diversions puns, spoonerisms that arise out of soundspelling discrepancies and out of the interaction between phonetics and phonology.

She dutifully recites k-o-k-o-n-u-t, to which her teacher answers, That is incorrect! Hurricane Hattie responds quite reasonably, asking, Well, if k-o-k-o-n-u-t doesnt spell coconut, what does it spell? As the Sansom comic strip makes so very clear, there is a disconnect between our pronunciation of sounds and the letters or symbols we use to represent them. In the particular case above, we have a letter c which is sometimes used in English to represent the same sound as k and sometimes used to represent the same sound as s.

So, as far as pronunciation is concerned, k-o-k-o-n-u-t and c-o-c-o-n-u-t do indeed spell out the same sequence of sounds for a speaker of English.

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All, the same kokonut is not an accepted written word in the English language. There are many other idiosyncrasies that make English spelling appear rather arbitrary and illogical even though a good number of them make some sense from an historical perspective. Take, for instance, the way that the first vowel sound in strip is affected by the addition of an e at the end of the word stripe. The letter i winds up representing the sound [i] as in din when the e is absent, and [ai] when the e is added, as in dine.

A corollary of this pattern is the fact that one p in the word striper has the preceding vowel pronounced [ai], while the imposition of pp gives the [i] in stripper. A panel of Dan Piraros Bizarro cartoon takes advantage of this spelling oddity. In it, the plate glass window of a store front prominently displays Eds Dinner.

Inside the store is a guy in his undershirt sitting alone at a table, looking up from his supper at two men standing in the doorway. One of the men says to the other, See? I told you its not just a misspelling! And its not just the case that odd combinations of letters yield unexpected sounds in English.

It is also a fact that the same letters and combinations of letters yield quite different sounds when used in different words. This fact is particularly vexing to any non-native speaker of English who has ever tried to learn the language. Try explaining to a learner of English why the vowel sounds in the words pull and wool are the same but are spelled with u and oo, respectively. And why it is that the oo in fool represents a different sound from the oo in wool, but the same sound as the u in rule. Im taught p-l-o-u-g-h Sall be pronounce plow. Zats easy wen you know, I say, Mon Anglais, Ill get through!

My teacher say zat in zat case, O-u-g-h is oo. And zen I laugh and say to him, Zees Anglais make me cough. He say Not coo but in zat word, O-u-g-h is off. Oh, Sacre bleu! Such varied sounds Of words make me hiccough! He say, Again mon frien ees wrong; O-u-g-h is up In hiccough. Zen I cry, No more, You make my troat feel rough.

Non, non! I say, I try to spik your words, I cannot spik zem though. In time youll learn, but now youre wrong! O-u-g-h is owe. Ill try no more, I sall go mad, Ill drown me in ze lough! But ere you drown yourself, said he, O-u-g-h is ock. He taught no more, I held him fast And killed him wiz a rough.

In explaining how English spelling differs so radically from English pronun- ciation, it is important to note that spelling conventions are extremely resistant to change, much more so than pronunciations. One can demonstrate this by looking at English words that end in ight such as night, light, and bright. The spelling of these words is faithful to their pronunciations in Old English, an historical ancestor of Modern English not much heard for some years. In Old English, the letter i was pronounced [ee] and the gh represented the sound [h], such that night would have been pronounced something like [neeht] up until the fifteenth century, and its spelling would thus have very closely mirrored its pronunciation.

This Old English [strong h] sound represented by gh is very close to, and historically related to, the German [strong h] sound in nacht night. The spelling of these words thus trails the changes in their pronunciation by a good five hundred years. Alongside the standard ight spellings, we find that some of these words also show up with new and modern spellings, often used to pitch products, such as nite and lite in Nite Lite a brand of rechargeable hunting lights and lite in Bud Lite and Miller Lite beer.

In this lite, it is sobering to realize that the nouveau spelling of lite actually represents a spelling convention held over from Middle English that is, fourteenth-century English where the i was still pronounced as [ee] and the final e was optionally pronounced, as in [leeteh] or [leet]. So, avant garde in spelling terms means something like only years out of date. If we were to adopt a truly avant-garde or at least au courant spelling for these words, we would want to spell them as layt, nayt, and brayt.

So why dont we? The best explanation for the resistance to change shown by spelling conventions is that literacy and the preservation of written records depend upon it. Spelling reform of any significance would likely render incomprehensible much of what has been written in English over the past few centuries. A short but convincing essay on this topic was penned by Mark Twain or some say, by one M.

Shields in a letter to the Economist : A Plan for the Improvement of English Spelling For example, in Year 1 that useless letter c would be dropped to be replased either by k or s, and likewise x would no longer be part of the alphabet. The only kase in which c would be retained would be the ch formation, which will be dealt with later. Jenerally, then, the improvement would kontinue iear bai iear with Iear 5 doing awai with useless double konsonants, and Iears or so modifaiing vowlz and the rimeining voist and unvoist konsonants.

Bai Iear 15 or sou, it wud fainali bi posibl tu meik ius ov thi ridandant letez c, y and x bai now jast a memori in the maindz ov ould doderez tu riplais ch, sh, and th rispektivli. Fainali, xen, aafte sam 20 iers ov orxogrefkl riform, wi wud hev a lojikl, kohirnt speling in ius xrewawt xe Ingliy-spiking werld.

Consider the last sentence in this piece, and the likely result of xe orxogrefkl riform ov Ingliy. Such a radical change, if accomplished in twenty years or even forty, would make it all but impossible for anyone schooled in the nu orxogrefi to read anything printed in the last century. So, we are stuck with the spelling system that we have and will, for the foreseeable future, run the risk of having the French students in our English classes want to kill us wiz a rough. Having noted the difficulties of the English spelling system and the discrep- ancies between letters and sounds, we can see more clearly why one cannot really use the standard orthographical system of letters to speak about or describe sounds.

We find that some letters such as x represent two sounds: [ks]. Con- versely, there are plenty of two-letter combinations, such as sh and ch, that each represent a single sound. It is further the case, as we have seen, that some letters and letter combinations are unstable. Figure 3. Phonetics and phonemics The letter a has a different sound in each of the following words: cap, car, and caper. Conversely, the sound [oo] has a variety of spellings: oo in fool, u in ruler, ough in through, and ew in threw.

And the sound [ee] can be represented by all of ee in sleep, ea in treat, ie in retriever, ei in receiver, y in folly, and i in Traci. It is for this reason that, in representing language sounds, we must adopt a standard and predictable system. The International Phonetic Alphabet IPA is one such system, and passes the basic requirements in place for any such system: i each symbol represents one sound and each sound is represented by one symbol, and ii each symbol always represents the same sound and each sound is always represented by the same symbol. In representing sounds, though, we will not necessarily adopt the symbols and descriptions from the table, as they are rather technical and would take the reader far beyond the scope of this little book.

And to the extent that we do so, we will make certain that they are accompanied by some plain-language description. Phonetics actual sounds and phonemics the idea of those sounds. It is pretty easy to distinguish between sounds that are not language sounds e. There is the English word meow, which consists of language sounds, [m]-[i]-[ae]-[w], and the actual sound that a cat makes, which doesnt.

However, when we talk about the sounds involved in human language, there are a number of ways that they can be described and categorized. We can, for instance, talk about the movements made by our lips, tongue, jaw, etc. For example, the first sound in the word meow is [m] and is produced by closing ones lips together in contrast with the [n] in now.

The two-lip bilabial effort to produce an [m] sound is also used in making the [b] sound in bow-wow and the [p] sound in pow. Try saying each of these three words without allowing your lips to touch each other. You cant! We can also talk about the nature of the sounds themselves i. For example, the first sound [s] in see and the first sound []4 in the word she are similar in that they both sound like white noise or the sound of steam escaping from a pipe.

They are also different in that the sound made by [s] is at a higher pitch than that made by []if you pronounce them in alternation, you will notice that the [s] sound corresponds to a smaller leak in the pipe than does the [] sound. This is articulatory or acoustic phonetics. There is yet another way to talk about language sounds. We can deal with them in terms of how they are perceived. For instance, we perceive some language sounds as belonging to the language that we speak e. English in this case.

And while we identify other sounds as true human language sounds, we also know that they are not part of the sound system of our own language. Take the German word nacht night that we mentioned earlier. The first sound of this word is [n] and the same as the English word night. The second sound [] is the same vowel sound that occurs in the English word hot, and of course the last sound is the familiar [t]. What about the sound spelled with ch? Its not the ch sound of chair or church. Rather it is a sound that we represent with [x] first table, third row of the IPA chart and which we described earlier as a strong h sound.

If you cant produce it or imagine it, ask a German speaker or someone who has studied German to produce it for you. One thing is certainit is not a sound that belongs to the English language that is, it is not part of the English phonemic system. Besides knowing what sounds belong to the phonemic system of the language we speak, we are also acutely aware of how they may be arranged. For example, the sounds [p] as in pear, [] as in hall, [l] as in full, and [t] as in hot could be arranged in that order [p]-[]-[l]-[t] to form the nonsense word palt.

Now, we assure you that palt is not by itself an English word. Palt itself is the name of a traditional Swedish dish meat-filled dumplings , and we understand that its quite good when served with butter and lingonberry preserves. However, palt is not an English word. Yet, it could be. That is, now that you know what palt means for a Swede, you would have no problem borrowing the word into English and using it. It sounds like a reasonable English word.

But what if you took those same English sounds and rearranged them in a different order [t]-[l]-[]-[p] to make the word tlap? Not only would you not have an English word, you wouldnt even have a possible English word. While the sound sequence [t]-[l] does occur in some English words, such as bottle, no English word can begin with these two sounds. That fact is part of what we know about our language, and is part of our phonemic knowledge. Another critical part of our phonemic knowledge has to do with the knowledge that groups of mostly similar but slightly distinct sounds go together in our language.

Take for instance the sound [t] in the word stop. You may not have ever noticed before, but it differs ever so slightly from the first sound of the word top. The latter is accompanied by a small burst of air, while the former doesnt have this. You can discover this for yourself by pronouncing both words, stoptop, in alternation, while holding your fingers about one inch from your lips. You should feel the burst of air on your fingers with top but not with stop. The sound at the beginning of top is a t-like sound that is represented in the IPA chart bottom table, third row with a t accompanied by a small h: [th ].

Lets consider one more example. Take the words leaf and pull. If you pro- nounce them in alternation, very carefully, you may notice that the first sound in leaf and the last sound in pull do not sound exactly the same and that you dont produce them in exactly the same way. For the first sound in the word leaf, the tip of your tongue is pressed up against the gum ridge right behind your front teeth.

For the last sound in the word pull, your tongue still touches the gum ridge, but the back or body of your tongue is also raised into the back of your mouth. The l-sound in leaf is called light l and is represented in the IPA chart with the letter [l] top chart, eighth row. That is, despite the differences in how they sound and how they are made, if you ask a speaker of English whether leaf begins with the same sound that pull ends with, the answer you will get will be yes. Even though they may count as the same sound, English speakers are quite sensitive to where they are used.

You now sound like a Russian speaker trying to say leaf. If you turn this around and use the [l] from leaf at the end of pull, you will likely sound a bit like an Indian or Pakistani speaker of English. A Calvin and Hobbes strip by Bill Watterson presents a very straightfor- ward application of phonemic knowledge in the rendering of dialogue.

The strip has Calvin coming into the house with his dad, holding his nose and wincing in pain. His mom asks, Goodness, what happened?! You were only out there a minute! Calvins dad says, A grounder bounced up and hit Calvin in the nose. As Calvins mom is trying to tend to him, saying Hold your head back, honey. Heres some more tissues, Calvin screams: Ib bleedig! By ode dad id tryig to gill me! Ib nod playig badeball eddy more!

Nebber again! I hade it! The strip continues with his cynical dad saying, I guess we can forget having a millionaire baseball player support us in our old age. Laying the dads wry cynicism aside, the linguistically interesting part of this cartoon consists of how Watterson delivers the effect of a bloody nose on Calvins speech. While Wattersons spelling special effects are not precise from a phonetic point of view, he does capture some bits accurately.

Calvin says Ib in place of Im; bleedig instead of bleeding; by instead of my; tryig instead of trying; playig instead of playing; and eddy instead of any. As anyone who has had a seriously stuffed up nose can tell, we need to have air passing through our nose in order to produce nasal sounds like [m] and [n]. It is our knowledge of the English sound system our phonemic knowledge which allows Watterson to depict what Calvin should sound like with a bloody nose, and which allows us to decipher his rendition of that. All of the above constitutes phonemic knowledge.

That is, knowing which sounds belong to the language you speak and which dont , knowing the possible orderings of these sounds, knowing which groups of similar sounds count as the same sound in your language, and knowing where each variant of a sound group can be properly inserted. We use this knowledge to speak our own language, understand the rapid and sometimes poorly articulated speech of others, figure out who speaks our dialect and who is not a native speaker of our language, and also to make jokes, puns, and play sound-based games with our own language.

It is often the gap between the phonetic and the phonemic which is utilized to leverage all these. It is simply a fact that what we actually hear, sound-wise, is not what we consider ourselves to have heard. It is more often than not referred to simply by its initials, OSU. Carefully pronounced, we would render this as [ow]-[s]-[yu]. Notice, however, what happens when you say OSU very rapidly and very casually. Unless you are really being careful, you will likely replace the [s] sound with the [] sh sound, as in [owyu].

Now, if you say it this way, no one who knows the name of the school will think that you said Oh Esh You. And if you quiz them about it, they will swear that they heard you say OSU even though you in fact did pronounce it as Oh Esh You. So, what has happened? From the perspective of phonetic articulation, it is easier to pronounce a [] sound before [y] the tongue being in a similar position for both, than it is to pronounce [s] followed by [y]. So, [owyu] is easier to produce than [owsyu]. There are a host of such changes that are done in the production of speech and then undone in its comprehension.

One instance of this is the tendency to delete sounds that are difficult to pronounce or that are unstressed. Accordingly, we tend to pronounce the three-syllable name Barbara with the middle unstressed syllable left out: [br-br]. In producing a word with altogether too many consonants in a row, such as sixths, we tend to leave at least one out. In it, a farmer enters his bedroom grinning lasciviously. His wife is in the bed, with four chickens sitting on top of her, and she says to him: This is it, Maurice!

Ive warned you to keep your hens off me! It is the frequent deletion of the [d] sound in the rapid-speech production of the word hands that powers this joke. Just as deletion of sounds plays a role in the pronunciation of words, so does insertion. There are certain instances when it is difficult to produce a word without adding an extra sound. For example, take the words prints and prince. They both are usually pronounced as though they have the sound [t] right before the final [s].

From this, we obtain the joke that wont die said or sung while standing around the One Hour Photo counter : Someday my prints will come. The July 4, edition of Johnny Harts B.

Learn English with 5 Jokes

Clumsy Carp responds, asking: Jim Jeffords has a day? The insertion of another consonant between the nasal sounds [n] and [m] and a following [s] is quite common. Where [t] is inserted between [n] and [s], [p] gets introduced between [m] and [s]. Compare the words dumpster and hamster. The insertion of [p] between [m] and [s] is so natural that many people frequently misspell the word as hampster. To get a sense of how frequent this is, we note that while a Google search for the correctly spelled word hamster yields over 17 million results, searching for the incorrectly spelled hampster yields a not-shabby , hits.

What is happening in each of these cases is that the transition from pronouncing a nasal consonant like [m] or [n] to pronouncing a following [s] is a difficult one. The inserted [p] or [t] makes the word easier to produce. Of course, the reason that [p] is inserted after [m] and [t] after [n] is that the inserted consonant is produced, in each case, in the same way as the one that precedes it. Take [m] and [p], for instance. Both are produced by closing both lips bi-labial. So, if you are looking for a consonant to insert after [m], [p] would be the easiest one to use. In the same way, [n] and [t] are similar.

Try saying nest and test, paying close attention to where your tongue is at the beginning of each word. So, [p] is a natural candidate for insertion after [m] and [t] is a natural candidate following [n]. Insertions of the sort that were talking about here are frequent and natural enough to change the words in our language and how we perceive and spell them. It was [t] insertion, for example, that changed the Middle English exhortation For peace sake!

Sorry to disappoint, but there never was a Pete. The intrusion of [p] after [m] has also gradually changed the original spelling of many names:. Simson became Simpson. There are 70 Hamtons and 53, Hamptons in the US 6. Word boundaries are another place where a speakers phonetic pro- nunciations can collide with their phonemic intentions. Try saying some ice and some mice quickly, without pausing between the words. You may find that it is hard to keep the [m] sound at the end of some from also becoming the first sound in the second word: [m]. Or vice versa. There are ways in which you can make these two expressions sound different, without pausing between the words.

This would involve moving quickly and lightly through the [m] sound for some ice, and pressing the lips together harder and more deliberately on the [m] sound in some mice. That said, it is very clear that the boundaries between words are places where ambiguity thrives. Mike Peters, creator of Mother Goose and Grimm, excels at this sort of word- boundary humor.

In a strip, Attila the cat asks Grimmy the dog :. The strip capitalizes on the fact that it is often difficult to figure out whether nasal consonants like [m] or [n] belong at the end of one word or at the beginning of the next. So, same old and same mold are liable to sound nearly identical, unless a speaker makes a special effort to distinguish them. Words together, words apart Again, this tendency has yielded some interesting changes in our language.

The familiar word orange was borrowed into English through French orange and Italian arancio from Arabic naranj. The [n] sound at the beginning of the Arabic word was likely lost through confusion with the [n] of the indefinite article an or in French une. So, the French une norange or something like it becomes une orange. This change can travel in the opposite direction as well. Consider the unlikely pair of words used to distinguish male and female goats, billy and nannie. The male is signified by a male name, Billy. And the other?

It is likely the result of peeling the [n] sound off of the word an before the female name, Annie. So, a billy goat and an annie goat becomes a billy goat and a nannie goat. The goats cant tell the difference either. Another place where word boundaries tend to get confounded is between words that end or begin with the sound [s]. Tom Roeper. Randall McCutcheon. Quassim Cassam. For the Love of Language. Kate Burridge. Introducing English Linguistics. Charles F. Making the Invisible Visible. Michael Adams.

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