Phun with Phonetics

Most linguistics students will at some point be faced with the daunting task of learning the phonetic alphabet. That long list of little symbols which is supposed to adequately represent any sound in any language and make possible the transcription of the spoken word. In reality it falls short on many levels but we need not go into that now.

The whole set looks something like this:


As you can see, some signs, especially many consonants, appear familiar, whilst others take some getting used to. The bane of most students is being briefly introduced to these in a lecture and then trying to learn them from a book without the advantage of sound.

That’s where some brilliant folk over in Ohio came in and built this little online game which gives you four possible symbols to choose from for every sound you hear. A little bit of phun with phonetics and you too will soon be aceing your transcription exams…



Ever had the experience of singing song lyrics for years and then, seeing them written down one day, realising that you’ve been saying something similar but not quite right all along? With foreign languages this kind of experience is pretty frequent, especially when it comes to colloquial expressions. You can be using them in the right context, pronouncing the correct sound, and then one day, out of the blue, it will hit you: the expression as it existed inside your mind was something quite different, quite other than the linguistic reality.

Cycling through town yesterday the name of a restaurant caught my eye – an Asian eatery called ‘Ras-le-bol’ – literally a bowl filled to the brim, with an accompanying image to that effect. It was a clever play on words as in French the expression means ‘to be fed up’. And so it dawned on me that the colloquial expression I had been happily using was a 3-word composite with a literal meaning close to ‘to have it up to here with something’.

I had never really questioned it, but it vaguely existed in my mind as a set word, something like ‘ralbolle’, or being pushed at best a conjugation of the verb ‘râler’ (to complain), so ‘râle bol’. Not that this made any sort of sense, but I wasn’t asking it to, like many colloquial expressions, I had assumed its origins obscure, perhaps a result of some sort of Verlan inversion.

Yet this discovery gives the expression a new definition, a new feeling in my mouth, even though I’ll continue using it just as before. Next time I’m fed up with French administration and exclaim ‘j’en ai ras-le-bol!’, in my mind, just for an instant, will appear that faint image of a bowl, brim-full of frustration.


Languages are many, but some expressions are universal, or so it seems. A recent study funded by no less than the European Research Council and the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science (money very usefully spent, as always), has established that no matter where you are in the world, you can probably interrupt someone with a well-placed ‘huh?’ and they’ll know what you mean. That’s based on a direct investigation into ten languages and data from about 30 in total.

The first part of their paper is spent determining that ‘huh?’ is universal, the second that it is a word. In support of this second claim, the researchers point out that ‘huh?’ is not an innate, non-lexical grunt-like noise, but rather a learned mechanism for quiclky and efficiently signalling a misunderstanding or hearing difficulty during a conversaiton. So here it is, ‘huh?’ in ten languages from across the globe (and a good way to get your round-the-world trip funded through a research grant).

The researchers also speculate that other “words” like ‘oh’, ‘um’ and ‘ah’ might also be quasi-universal, with little change in their use and pronunciation across cultures. Guess they’ll just have to apply for another grant from the European Research Coucil to investigate that hypothesis next summer.

The Great Language Game

There are perhaps six or seven thousand languages in the world. Even so-called hyperpolyglots, people who learn to speak six or more fluently, barely scratch the surface. So you may never be able to speak them all, but maybe you can get better at identifying your Polish from your Malaysian or your Punjab from your Maori.

Happily, someone somewhere took the time to help you do that and came up with an online tool called ‘The Great Language Game’ which challenges you to distinguish the world’s languages based on their sound alone. Since there’s nothing as motivating as a bit of competition, you can compare your results to the overall global achievements or just with your equally nerdy friends. And check out the cool rotating globe which shows you, in 3D, where in the world the game is being played. Mainly in San Francisco apparently.

So off you go, there are 78 language samples waiting for you, and if your own tongue isn’t in there you can politely suggest they add it. Someone out there bothered to make this thing, so the least you can do is play.

How to surprise an unfazed Frenchman

To the native English speakers among you who have ever attempted to learn French, you will remember the difficulty in differentiating between all those nasal vowels which make all the difference between the words ‘on’, ‘en’ and ‘un’ for example. There is also the difference between the acute ‘u’ sound and the more rounded ‘ou’ – confuse those two and you may end up saying ‘my ass’ when you meant to say ‘my neck’. I once spent about an hour with a very determined American desperate to correctly pronounce ‘tu’ and ‘tous’ although he could barely hear the difference between the two.

To the native French among you, all this will seem silly and obvious of course, for how could one ever fail to distinguish the difference between ‘ass’ and ‘neck’ or ‘you’ and ‘all’. My husband, a Frenchman, was rather struck when I pointed out to our mutual American friend, the one struggling between ‘tu’ and ‘tous’, that the difference between the two words did not just present itself in the vowel sounds. The ‘t’s in the two words are rather different. If you’re saying them correctly, then the positioning of your tongue will be different in preparation for the ‘tu’ (flatter) than for the ‘tous’ (more rounded upwards).

The Frenchman quickly and soundlessly tried this maneuver out in his mouth before looking at me in utter surprise. Clearly never before had he contemplated the possibility that in his native tongue, the letter ‘t’ could be sounded in different ways. This is the mistake people make when learning other languages – assuming that the same letter will in general represent the same sound. The English ‘t’ is not exactly the same as the French or the Italian ‘t’. Often the sound is similar but the tongue is positioned in ever so slightly a different way, and if that positioning is not observed, then whatever you do, you will always end up sounding a little foreign.

The more blatant example of this is the rolled or trilled ‘r’ (like in Italian) vs. the guttural ‘r’ (like in French) vs. the softer way Americans say ‘r’. Your best bet to avoid all these pronunciation difficulties is to learn as many languages as possible before age 12. If you are reading this a little too late, then there are a variety of techniques you can find online to guide your mouth through a series of contortions in a very deliberate attempt to pronounce these foreign sounds. Some will outright incite you to turn towards hard liquor to ‘loosen up your tongue’.  Anything with a video guide and a diagram of your mouth to show tongue positioning is best otherwise the instructions can be confusing as hell and liquor may indeed be needed – good luck!