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Getting excited about voiceless phonemes

Sometimes it takes a malfunction before you really understand how something works. I once lived in a flat where the electrics couldn’t handle too many things being on a once, so sometimes turning on the toaster would cause the kitchen light and all the appliances to turn off until you flicked a switch in the hall. However when this happened the main light in one of the bedrooms and in the corridor would still stay on. This malfunction illuminated (I do love a pun) that the electrics in the bedroom and corridor were on a different system than the rest. Well, I’ve just had a similar revelation about my voice.

You can categorise phonemes, the bits of sound that make up words, on their voicing. Voicing is basically if your vocal folds vibrate or not when a sound is produced.  So a voiced phoneme such as /z/ is produced when air passes though vibrating vocal folds, while /s/ – which is otherwise produced in exactly the same way as /z/ – is a voiceless phoneme because it is produced without vocal fold vibration.  You can feel this difference by placing your hand on the front of your throat while making ‘zzzzz’ and ‘sssss’ noises. While this is something I can understand perfectly in theory it just isn’t something I really thought about until now.

I now have laryngitis.

Laryngitis means my vocal folds have become inflamed and can’t vibrate as they should do. I’m trying not to talk to avoid damaging them further, but last night I attempted to talk to my mum and realised that I can make some sounds without difficulty, although I can’t produce coherent words. The sounds I can make are the voiceless ones that are produced without much vocal fold vibration. This makes complete sense when I actually think about it and while theory is all well and good actually having the different systems demonstrated to me (just like with the electrics in my flat) is really pretty cool!

Although I became more excited than I probably should have when I connected the theory to what was my voice was actually doing and I now know why I can hiss like a snake but not formulate words (all English vowels are voiced), this isn’t a particularly useful revelation. What I need to do now is learn Parseltongue. Hssss.

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Don’t use correct English

When I tell people my degree is in English Language I’m often met with the same responses: they think I study literature (I don’t, except for a brief period as a joint honours student); they make a joke about how I speak English so well; or they comment that I must have amazingly correct spelling and grammar and be a ‘Grammar Nazi’.

The last response, while understandable, irks me and not just because of the term ‘Grammar Nazi’. No, studying English does not make me any more likely to be able to write better than any other degree which is essay heavy. No, I don’t care if you confuse ‘their’ with ‘there’ unless it means I cannot understand what you were trying to say. No, really, I’m not going to pedantically correct your spilt infinitive.

And most importantly, there is no such thing as ‘correct’ grammar. Standard grammar, yes, but ‘correct’ grammar, no.

An exchange in The Guardian last week touched on the use of the term ‘correct’ grammar as it seems the Secretary of State for Education Michael Grove, along with his many other faults, still equates standard grammar with ‘correct’ grammar. While he should know better, lots of people do this and I guess this stems from having writing marked either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ at school.

So I have to say it: there is absolutely nothing inherently ‘correct’ about a certain spelling, grammar, pronunciation, or whatever-aspect-of-language-you-care-to-think-about.  It may be the standard language that’s in use at the moment, sure, but it doesn’t make it the ‘correct’ one. That really isn’t to say that I think being able to communicate in standard English isn’t important, it really is, it’s just that it shouldn’t be seen as the only ‘correct’ form. So much can be lost if the form of the utterance is focused on above the message it’s conveying, pupils can feel inhibited to express themselves in their own dialect is they are consistently told that it’s wrong, and if only the ‘correct’ forms were ever used language wouldn’t evolve as it does.

Throughout my degree we were told that we were there to describe how people use language not to prescribe how to use it. And while I can write and speak in standard English when it’s appropriate, I actually love studying language because of all the deviation and creativity you find in it.

There’s a part in the play (and film) The History Boys by Alan Bennett, where the English teacher, Hector, is explaining why his (impossibly verbose and knowledgeable) students are taught lines from Gracie Fields and Brief Encounter along with the required literature. He says it’s as an antidote so that they don’t grow up claiming to have ‘a deep love of literature’ and a ‘love of words’. While this is discussing literature I still adore the message of the importance of not putting some forms of language on a pedestal above others.