Phonotactics

I was home sick for several days (but I’m better, so don’t worry), and had quite a lot of time on my hands, since not only is it cold outside, but it’s even cold in every room except the one with the stove. This heated room is a kind of interesting all-purpose area: in the summer it’s a dining room with a couch, TV, and china cabinets; in the winter they move in a stove, with a pipe sticking through a hole in the wall (which I never noticed when I got here; I’m guessing there was a picture over it), and however many beds are needed — currently three (my host-brother, host-sister, and myself; I finally gave in and moved when I realized that cold is not so good for sore throats, and mine was very sore). I’ve been spending a lot of time in here as a result, venturing out to open stuff up in my web browser, which is left open and moved back near the stove. This tactic lends itself much better to watching videos or reading articles than to facebooking (has facebook made verb status in Georgian yet? If it has, is it able to do all the interesting, magical sorts of stuff real Georgian verbs can do? Can it say, in one massive word, something like “they didn’t use to be facebooking us”?), so I watched Forest Gump, and downloaded lectures from a U of A intro to linguistics course onto iTunes, of which I’ve watched about half. So far she’s covered phonemes, articulation, phonotactics, syllables, and started on morphemes.

A brief overview of phonotactics: any given language will allow certain combinations of sounds in certain syllabic positions, and won’t allow others. There is at least one combination that is allowed is all languages, and a large number or possibilities that are not allowed in any language (and are thus ill formed), but most possibilities are found (“allowed”) in some languages and not in others, which can be predicted according to a set of rules governing the phonotactics of a given language. To describe these rules, it’s helpful to break a syllable up into three possible parts: the onset, an initial consonant (C) or consonant cluster (CC), a nucleus, which is a vowel or vowel-like (V; in some dialects of English, for instance the er in squirrel is apparently thought of as a sonorant consonant by linguists, because we treat it like a single syllable word. Who knew? Georgians don’t like that American er; perhaps that’s why — it doesn’t seem like it has a proper vowel to them, but it does to us, and we treat it like it does?), and a coda (C, CC, CCC, etc).

All languages allow CV syllable patterns; Hawaiian apparently uses only that pattern. A lot of languages, though not all, allow V only syllables, like “eye” in English. Some languages, though not all, consider diphthongs like that to be a single vowel sound, and therefore a single syllable — both English and Georgian allow V only syllables, but while English considers diphthongs to be single vowel sounds, Georgian does not; აი (ai) is considered a two syllable word. By the way, is the long English A, as in “wade” a diphthong, or not? After writing it out a number of times as ეი (ei) in class I was convinced that it was, but the linguistics teacher said that it wasn’t; 13% of her class thought it was, but the rest thought it wasn’t. A lot of languages, but not all, allow VC and CVC patterns as well.

English allows fairly complex syllables, like the peculiar squirrels and strengths (CCCVCCCC, which is about as complex as an English syllable can ever be. If an EFL student were trying to say this words it would probably be a bit of a pain, because in addition to it’s overall complexity, it’s got th in it, which is not a favorite. (The linguistics professor mentioned that many languages also make no l/r distinction comparable to English, so something like girl, with the “not a proper vowel” ir, and the rl ending. That is kind of icky for most Georgians to say, English teachers included. We could, if we wanted, also say a word like angsts, which was the only possible word the linguistics students could think of with a five consonant cluster; I’m not quite sure that it isn’t four, though, since ts is a single sound in some languages, including Georgian. Spanish, on the other hand, only ever has two-consonant clusters, wherein the onset cluster has a plosive (I forgot which these were.. I think things like p, b, d, and k, but not like m, n, g, or w) or f, followed by a liquid (l), and the coda cluster has s for it’s second consonant. Thus, for instance, Spanish would not have a word like spanish in it, because sp is not a well formed cluster, but would have a word like Espanol, because then the syllables are es.pa.nol, which is perfectly fine.

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