Friday, December 17, 2010

Hard to here sounds

For the last couple of days I've been adding new words to the dictionary from a list one of my consultants made for me. We've currently got about 1140 words, if you don't count affixes like the plural suffix, (which is -ya).

Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to share with you one of the reasons that I find working with Tam is difficult, and that is the different sounds that it uses.

Different languages have different sound systems, that's one of the reasons they sound so different. Sure, most languages might have a vowel that kind of sounds like 'a' but there's every chance it's a little bit different.

We lock into these sounds very early on in our language learning, some research shows that we begin to pick up on some of it by listening to our mothers voices before we're even born. And we get very good very quickly at making the sounds in our own language. It's how Arabic speaking children have no trouble with all those glottal sounds that always get me, or how English speakers can say 'th' with ease.

So we tune into the differences that are found in our own language which means we stop paying attention to distinctions that can be found in other languages. this is why I can't hear the difference in Polish between three different sounds that all sound like 'sh' to me, or how some English speakers can't roll their r.

When it comes to Tam, the worst sounds for me all sound like 'ta' or 'da'... while in English we only perceive two sounds there's a lot more happening in Tam.

Firstly, in English we only have 't' and 'd' - which is a voicing distinction. Try saying each with your hand on your throat and you'll notice that it vibrates more when you say 'da' than 'ta'. In Tam, there is the voiced 'd' sound and the unvoiced 't' sound, and also an aspirated 't' sound (which gets written with a h next to it) - this third sound is a 't' but with more air coming out with the sound. So we have three sounds 'd', 't' and 'th' where English only has two.

Secondly, Tam has retroflexes, which English doesn't. A retroflex sound is where you curl your tongue up so the bottom bit touches the roof of your mouth. It's quite a common sound for this corner of the world - Nepali has it and it gives Hindi some of the rhotic (r-sounding) quality associated with it. There's a retroflex for each of the above sounds, which I'll write them in capitals. so there's 'T', 'Th' and 'D'.

Thirdly, Tam has tone. Tone is a feature of many languages - if you've learned Chinese or Vietnamese you've come across it. Basically the vowel sounds higher or lower. Fortunately Tam only has two tones, high and low. And, thanks to some complex historical reasons that I shan't bore you with, aspirated sounds only have high tone, and voiced sounds only have low tone, but unvoiced and unaspirated sounds such as 't' or 'T' can take either. So there's another distinction that English speakers don't make.

Finally, there is a vowel length distinction that's very hard to hear. While there's 'a' there is also 'aa'. English has long and short vowels too, but there is also a quality different, the throat area tends to be more tense for short vowel and lax for long vowel. But in Tam it's only length and can be quite hard to hear. So that doubles the amount of options that there were.

So in English we have 'ta' and 'da' - which means that we can hear the different between 'tag' and 'dag'. In Tam, instead of just a two way difference, all those variables give us sixteen different sounds. That means that Tam speakers hear the difference between 'tag' (with low tone), 'tag' (with high tone), 'Tag' (with low tone), 'Tag' (with high tone), 'dag', 'Dag' 'thag', 'Thag', 'taag' (high tone), 'taag' (low tone), 'Taag' (high tone), 'Taag' (low tone), 'daag', 'Daag', 'thaag' and 'Thaag'.

While my ear has gotten better the longer I listen to Tam, there's still a lot of times that I can't hear the difference, which can make writing up the dictionary rather hard!

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