Meaningful sounds (Part 2)

Why do monolingual Japanese speakers have difficulty distinguishing “l” and “r” sounds? And why do monolingual English speakers have difficulty distinguishing “t” and “th” sounds? [2 of 2]

Haragayato, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday’s post talked about the sound “t,” and how it’s actually better to think of it as a small squadron of related sounds. Given the endless array of possible sounds coming out of the human mouth, how do we know which ones are meaningful?

Consider these two words: “bat” and “cat.” They differ in just one sound but they are clearly two different words. This is a minimal pair. It’s a pair of words that prove something about the English language: that the difference between “b” and “c” sounds is a meaningful one. Changing from one to the other changes the meaning of the word. There are thousands of such pairs in English:

  • “noon” and “moon”
  • “edge” and “etch”
  • “last” and “least”
  • “life” and “rife”

Time for some terminology. The “units of sound” in the minimal pairs, the ones that distinguish meanings, are phonemes. Phonemes in English include “t,” “b,” “sh,” “th,” and so on. Each of these phonemes is not in fact a single sound, but a cluster of related sounds. As we saw yesterday, the phoneme “t” has several different flavours: aspirated, unaspirated, unreleased, and nasalised. What happens if we try to make a minimal pair by switching between these flavours?

  • “top” (aspirated “t”) and “thop” (unaspirated “t”)

In English, switching between these sounds does not change the meaning of the word – there are no minimal pairs that prove them to be different. In linguistic terminology, therefore, these different sounds are all allophones of the phoneme “t.”

So far so good. But consider the following minimal pair, from the Thai language:

  • “tam” (with an unaspirated “t,” meaning “to pound”) and “tham” (with an aspirated “t,” meaning “to do”)

Here, switching between the aspirated and unaspirated “t” sounds changes the meaning of the word. In English, the aspirated and unaspirated “t” sounds are allophones, but in Thai, they are phonemes. In Thai, the difference is meaningful.

Now, if you’re an English speaker trying to learn Thai this difference is really really difficult to master. You’re used to switching between those sounds unconsciously based on where they appear in a word. Now you have to learn how to transform that into a conscious choice. It takes a lot of practice and time. And it’s not just difficult to make those sounds, it’s difficult to even hear them as different sounds – your brain just doesn’t notice the distinction as easily because it has never needed to before.

Korean has three “t” sounds that sound more or less identical to an untrained English speaker:

  • “tal” (=”moon”) and “t͈al” (=”daughter”) and “thal” (=”mask”)

An English speaker learning Korean might spend years mastering this distinction – and still slip up sometimes.

This explains why speakers of some languages, such as Japanese, have difficulty distinguishing between “l” and “r” sounds. In Japanese, these two sounds are allophones – they’re both part of the same cluster of sounds, both attached to a single phoneme. It’s as difficult for a monolingual Japanese speaker to master the distinction as it is for an English speaker to master the various Thai or Korean “t” sounds.

So, if you ever feel the need to mock someone for mixing up “l” and “r,” you better first teach yourself how to distinguish an aspirated, lax, and tense Korean “t.” Maybe then you’ll see just how much of a challenge it really is.

2 Replies to “Meaningful sounds (Part 2)”

  1. Thank you for this post. I have noticed a similar difficulty of distinction between English “l” & “r” sounds in a friend whose native language is Kinyarwanda. I can say only “thank you” in Kinyarwanda, so have no other knowledge than that, although the “r” sound in “murakose” is single trill(?), a sort of single flip of the tongue, as in my only slight auditory familiarity with the single “r” sound in Japanese or Latin American Spanish.

    1. Ah yes, apparently Kinyarwanda has no sound equivalent to the English “l” or “r” sounds. The “r” sound there is an alveolar tap – it sounds something similar to a very fast “d” sound. The tongue very quickly taps the roof of the mouth and then disengages. If you say “better” fast you get the same kind of sound, and the “r” sound in Māori is the same too.

      I didn’t mention the tap in the first part of this post, but depending on the dialect it’s yet another of the allophones of “t” in English – along with the glottal stop in “button.”

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