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Deducing Rules

10 Deducing Rules

As we learned in Lesson 3.8, phonology investigates the organization of speech sounds in a particular language. In this lesson, we'll try our hand at deducing rules for pronunciation with plurals, vowel length, and aspiration.

Plural Forms

You already know that nearly all English nouns have a plural form: cat/catsdog/dogsfox/foxes. But have you ever paid attention to how plural forms are pronounced? Listen to how you pronounce the plurals of the following nouns (click the words to hear Ms. Hurley pronounce them if you're not a native English speaker):

A

B

C

D

Singular

Plural

Singular

Plural

Singular

Plural

Singular

Plural

cab   cabscap  capsbus busseschild  children
cad cadscat catsbush  bushesox oxen
bag bagsbackbacksbuzz buzzesmouse mice
love  lovescuffcuffsgaragegaragescriterion criteria
lathe  lathesfaith faithsmatch matchessheep sheep
  • Column A: The final sound of the plural nouns in Column A is the voiced "z" sound [z] - a voiced alveolar fricative - even though the plural is written as "s" and not "z."
  • Column B: For column B the plural ending is the voiceless "s" [s] - a voiceless alveolar fricative. 
  • Column C: For Column C the plural ending is written as "es" and pronounced [^z]. 
  • Column D: Column D has irregular words that are a hodge-podge of special cases that are memorized when you learned English. There is no way to predict the plural forms of these words.
The [s] and [z] sounds in plurals are allophones. That is, they are variations of the phoneme [s] in plurals. 
But how do you know when to pronounce the voiceless [s] as in caps and the voiced [z] as in cabs? Look carefully again at the words from the table above:

A

Singular

Plural

cab  cabs
cad cads
bag bags
love  loves
lathe  lathes
Do you notice the pattern? Do you see that these words end in voiced sounds? And that to make these words plural, we logically add another voiced sound, the voiced [z]? We can deduce this rule to explain how to pronounce plural forms in English:
> If a word in the singular ends in a voiced sound, the plural form of that word is the voiced [z]. 
Let's test this rule. Here are more words that end in a voiced sound. Pronounce each word in its singular and then plural forms. Do they follow the rule we just wrote? 

Singular

Plural

carcars
ganggangs
jobjobs
roomrooms
zoozoos
Yes, these words follow the rule: that if a word in the singular ends in a voiced sound, then the plural is the voiced [z].
It follows, then, that :
> If a word ends in a voiceless sound, the plural "s" is the voiceless [s]. 
Let's test this rule. Pronounce these words that end in voiceless sounds. Are the plurals also voiceless?

Singular

Plural

bookbooks
cliffcliffs
tiptips
Yes, these words follow our second rule: that if a word in the singular ends in a voiceless sound, then the plural is thevoiceless [s]. 
You've always known these rules as a native speaker of English when you first started speaking as a child. Phonology is the science that tries to explain how native speakers pronounce certain words, like in the singular and plural we just did. You can see how being able to deduce a rule like pronouncing plurals can help those of you who are learning to speak English as well as those of you who plan to become language teachers, coaches, and therapists.

Vowel Length

Let's look now at vowel length. Vowels are often lengthened in words. Notice that the vowel sounds in column A are short whereas the vowel sounds in column B are pronounced for a slightly longer duration.
AB
[bi:t]   beat[bi:d]   bead
[ha:k]   hawk[ha:g]   hog
[k@p]   cap[k@b]   cab

From these data, we can see that vowel length is non-contrastive in English. That means the length of the vowel in a word doesn't change meaning. 
What if we pronounced "beat" with a lengthened vowel: beat? It would still be the word "beat" only with an usual or unexpected pronunciation.
Therefore, based on these data, we can deduce that lengthening a vowel in an English word doesn't make it a brand new word. Therefore, vowel length in English is allophonic. That means that vowel length is simply a variation in pronunciation because new words aren't created.
What about vowel length in Hawaiian language?
The macron, a dash above the lengthened vowels, is called the kahakō in Hawaiian and indicates vowel length in these examples.
Hawaiian:kau "to place"
kāu "to belong to you"
lolo "brain"
lōlō "slang - hardheaded
kala "to forgive"
kāla "money"
ka lā "the sun"
pa'u "soot"
pa'ū "skirt"
From these data, we can deduce that vowel length IS contrastive in Hawaiian language. Vowel length in Hawaiian isphonemic. That means if we change the length of a vowel, we create a new word, not simply a different pronunciation. 
And what about vowel length in Korean? 
The macron indicates vowel length in these examples. 
Korean:seda  "to count"
sēda  "strong"
kul "oyster"
kūl "tunnel"
mal   "horse"
māl   "speech"
nwun   "eye"
nwūn   "snow"
pam   "night"
pām   "chestnut"
From these data, we can deduce that vowel length is phonemic in Korean, as it is in Hawaiian. The length of the vowel makes a difference in meaning. If you lengthen the vowel, you create a whole new word, not just a variation of pronunciation.
Once again we can see that being able to deduce rules for features like vowel lengthening can help those of us learning to speak Hawaiian and Korean as well as those students who plan to become language teachers, coaches, and therapists.

Aspiration

Aspiration is the puff of air that you often hear at the beginnings of some words. If you've ever heard someone speak into a microphone, you've probably heard the explosion of air in words like "pat", "please"  and other words that begin with [p]. In English, words that begin with stops are usually aspirated. 
Because aspiration naturally occurs in English, you can still hear the puffs of air these audio recordings, even though Ms. Hurley took care to move the microphone farther away from my mouth. Listen to the stops that make up the first sounds in these words (a superscript [h] indicates aspiration):
[ph]  pit [phpop [phpat [phpup [thtab [thto 
So from these data, we can deduce that in English words, stops are aspirated when they begin words.
Are stops aspirated at the ends of words? Let's find out. 
Listen to the words, but this time, focus on the LAST stops: 
From these data, then, we can deduce that aspiration does NOT usually occur in stops at the ends of words, unless they are pronounced on purpose. Listen to these words with aspirated final stops:
standard pronunciation:aspirated final stop:
bitbit  [th]
pitpit   [th]
tabtab [bh]
Although pronouncing these words with aspirated final stops sounds weird, their meaning hasn't changed.
Aspiration is phonetically distinct yet we tend to overlook it in words. Why? Because the meanings of words are not changed. Bit means bit whether it's pronounced normally, bit or with final aspiration bit.

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