Sunday, January 10, 2016

Thinking like a linguist

Classes started last week, and in my first Linguistic Anthropology class I did an exercise that I often do to begin making students aware of the difference between linguistics and the "language arts" they have mostly been exposed to.  I ask them to write down, quickly, without overthinking, their immediate answer to the question: "How may vowels are there in English?"

Without exception, the reported answers are either "five" as in a e i o u or "six" as in a e i o u and sometimes y.

I then answer them to think a moment, and tell me what question they actually answered.  Somebody usually figures out that the presumed question was "How many vowel letters does English have?"

Then I suggest to them that an important first step in learning to think like a linguist is to stop assuming that any question about language defaults to the writing system, rather than to the language itself.   The question that a linguist  would have assumed is "How many vowel sounds does English have?"

As a wrap-up, I offer to "show them my vowels."  I don't use phonetic symbols in this lesson, I just write words that illustrate the vowel sounds in my English repertoire.  However, for this post I'll include the phonetic symbol:

[i]  beat
[ɪ]  bit
[e]  bait
[ɛ]  bet
[æ]  bat
[ɑ]  cot*
[ɔ]  caught*
[o]  coat
[ʊ]  look
[u]  Luke
[ʌ]  but

I added that because I come from the southern Appalachians, I have probably the rarest vowel in the world:

[ɚ]  Bert

This gives me a total of 12 vowels (not including diphthongs), quite a lot more than the "language arts" answer of "five."  The awareness of this difference, and the awareness of what language questions mean to linguists, provides a first step in learning to think like a linguist.

* I am careful to point out that my difference between caught and cot is not universal among English speakers.  Some students volunteered that these words are homophones for them, as they are for many North American English speakers.


  1. I'm confused. Bert. Dirt. Curt. Sure. Myrtle the Turtle. Is ɚ rare in the US, or just rare among world languages?

    1. Rare among the world's languages, but fairly widespread in the US.


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