Phonetic Relativism.

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Phonetic Relativism.

#1  Postby Wiðercora » Oct 13, 2010 2:51 pm

I'm not sure how else to call it. Anyway, my girlfriend is mexican, and she says she cannot hear the difference between /ch/ and /sh/ in English.

Is there a thing where some sounds sound the same to non-native speakers of that language or something?
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Re: Phonetic Relativism.

#2  Postby ughaibu » Oct 13, 2010 2:54 pm

Try offering your friend a dlass of wine. Generally, speakers of english cant distinguish an initial dl from an initial gl.
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Re: Phonetic Relativism.

#3  Postby Zwaarddijk » Oct 14, 2010 10:26 am

This isn't called 'relativism' in linguistics. It's called phonemes. And even differs between dialects of the same language.

Basically, there's way many 'phones' that the human speech apparatus can produce - and no language distinguishes every one of those. (In fact, they're pretty much impossible to count.) The dimensions which they vary by are many - main point of articulation (that is, where the air stream gets the most closure), secondary points of articulation, degree of closure, length of closure, type of release of closure, lip rounding, additional nasal air stream, vibration of the vocal chords, vibration of the faux vocal chords, ...

And any of those dimensions can vary indefinitely much.

For a number of reasons, it's not very practical distinguishing every possible sound we can make. So, people converge on some set of roughly common sounds. The converged-on sort of arbitrary selection of sounds is not final - changes occur!
The sounds converged on by different groups at different places and times will not be the same - there's nothing universally appealing about the way you pronounce the t-sound, for instance. In fact, you pronounce it in several ways, and there's no reason why some other group of people would pick the same set of ways. (And, e.g. the difference between the p-sounds in appeal and peal is distinctive in Chinese, Hindi (iirc), so two words that you perceive as the same could well be distinct in those languages.)
(The labial stops (p, b and similar) are in one way sort of naturally appealing since they are at an end of our mouth, and they're pretty much one of the few sort of absolute points of articulation we have. Another absolute point is the glottis, (i.e. where some Brits pronounce the letter < t > in some positions).)

So yes, some sounds sound the same to speakers of every language. Some others sound the same to speakers of some other language. No one distinguishes the majority of sounds, most of us will subconsciously assing them to about 30 or so categories called 'phonemes'. It's possible to learn new distinctions - but the old distinctions will prevail when speaking the first language, unless one actively tries hearing the new ones. (Really, the "relativism" can occur within one speaker's mind!) Learning new distinctions can be difficult for some, and it's definitely not the easiest of learning tasks for a grownup.

English speakers can distinguish initial /dl/ from initial /gl/, pretty certainly. It's just that since initial /dl/ doesn't occur much in English, we subconsciously guess that the other speaker made a mistake. A situation where it's more likely to presume that an initial vowel or even syllable has been lost in transit (e.g. there's background noise, or the speaker's production was interrupted by a cough of whatever), it's more likely to be correctly parsed - eg. if you hear the sequence /dlai) stI:v@nson/ (sorry for the X-Sampa transcription there, and I'm not entirely sure that's the correct phonemic transcription for any dialect of English) you are pretty likely not to parse it as < glai stevenson >.(Note: in linguistic texts, slashes are used to mark that some text marks the phonemes - a mental unit of sound that correspond to how we hear or parse the sounds in a string of sounds. Square brackets are used to mark the actual sounds in so-called narrow transcription. In some contexts, furthermore, < and > are used to mark graphemic transcription - that is, <car> is how you write it, /ka:/ is the phonemes, [k_ha:] with a ton of diacritics and whatnot is the phones)
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Re: Phonetic Relativism.

#4  Postby believeinhim » Oct 24, 2010 7:59 am

I think they are called allophones - for instance, some languages make no distinction between /l/ and /r/.
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