Language is not made of letters

In learning linguistics, I find that many of my classmates have a hard time breaking out of the habit of thinking in terms of letters. Literate English speakers seem to have a hard time unlearning the idea that the words they produce are composed of strings of letters. This is what came to mind when I saw this on imgur:


tiauska wrote: “we managed to subtract all the spaces and three-fourths of the letters”, but that’s not actually what happened. According to The Visual Thesaurus’s article “Prime Time for ‘Imma'”, this contraction followed this path:

I am going to -> I’m going to -> I’m gonna -> I’ma

So, yes, there is definitely a “subtraction”, but it’s sounds that are subtracted, not letters. Function words (words that serve grammatical function, rather than refer to physical realities or concepts) are commonly reduced in language, even if the spelling remains the same. For example: you may still spell “the” the same way even if you barely pronounce the vowel. The words “and” and “to” are other examples of this.

Think of the English word “knight”. How many sounds does it have? Six? Five? Four? Three? The letters “k”, “g” and “h” are actually not pronounced, are they? (Well, you could argue that “igh” actually has its own pronunciation, huh?) This word has 4 sounds: /naɪt/.

But you know what? The the “k” and “gh” used to be pronounced in English! In Old English, silent K words like “know”, “knock”, and “knob” used to have the “k” sound at the start. What’s more, the “gh” of words like “sigh” and “night” used to be pronounced like the back-of-the-throat raspy sound of the name “Bach”, and the fricative (think friction) nature of this sound has remained in words like “enough” and “rough”.

So “knight” shows that reduction (“subtraction”) can happen to the sounds while the spelling (letters and spaces) remains as is.

While speech is natural and is the result of hearing and acquiring language as a child, reading and writing are artificial, and must be taught, which is why people (myself included) often have difficulty remembering how to spell words. Writing has letters (or characters, etc); speech has sounds.

A lot of people have a tendency to think that writing/spelling makes a word or a language what it is, but that is simply not true. The invention of writing does indeed have a profound impact on language, but language has been around for much longer than writing has. And most languages have no written form!

Anyway, rant over.

This entry was posted in English, Languages, Linguistics. Bookmark the permalink.

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