Sounds and Meaning

In this section, I am going to introduce how sounds relate to meaning. A key concept is that there are the sounds themselves, which are made in approximately the same way by all speakers of a language, and the sounds we hear and we believe we are making.

The first three things to learn about are phones, phonemes, and morphemes.

Phones are the sounds that you make, phonemes are the sounds that you hear, and morphemes are larger units of meaning. Syllables, which you have almost certainly heard of, do not convey maning, but separate the vowels into separate units. They are important for the rhythm of the language, and how they are stressed can change the meaning.

When you hear your language, you hear a discrete set of sounds that belong to your language. I list those sounds for English, give examples, and the IPA symbols to represent them in.  The sounds are, roughly, divides into vowels and consonants. It is not always straightforward.  We will find that some consonants can serve as vowels in some circumstances.  I will cover that in detail later.  

What is most important to understand is that the sounds that you hear are not necessarily the sounds someone that speaks another language will hear. The sounds we think we hear are called phonemes, and the sounds we are making are called phones.   When we make different sounds that all seem like the same sound to our ears, the same phoneme, the phones are called, allophones of each other.

This point is so important that, before digging into the sounds, I am going to give some examples of how this works and how it affects your accent and understanding of English (or any language).

This is a good time to start introducing some other notational conventions.  Throughout this book, I use single quotes to set off the English letter or letters that represent a sound. These will not be exact, because there are far more English sounds than there are letters to represent them, as I mentioned, above. When I am referring to the sound we make, the phone, I will use square brackets [] to set off the symbol.  When I am referring to the sound we hear, the phoneme, I will use slashes //.  Finally, when I am referring to a word or a portion of a word, I will use double-quotes.