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Why Really Knowing Your Language Matters

by | Jan 27, 2010 | Archived Material, January 2010

You’ll hear many times on this site that there is only one language, the language of phonetics.  What does that mean, though?  If you break down the way every language under the sun is constructed, you’ll find that all of them are made of the same constituent parts…


According to the International Phonetic Alphabet, there are over 120 sounds the human mouth can make (though there are many who would differ).  Some languages make use of some and not others.  For instance, in the Kalahari, the bush people use clicks as an integral part of speech.  English speakers would never dream of clicking.  Likewise, there is no English equivalent to the “wide o” or “wide u” sounds found in Vietnamese.  The fact remains, we all have the same sounds and with training, we can almost all make all of them.

Vietnamese is a language I speak, so I’ll refer to it often on this site.  It’s a tonal language, and depending on the dialect, inflecting the same word six different ways gives you six separate meanings.  If you’re tone deaf, just don’t bother.  The other aspect of Vietnamese that strikes most westerners as odd is the fact that each syllable is a word, and each has a meaning and expresses a complete thought.

My question to westerners is, why is this so difficult to grasp?  English is exactly the same, but that sameness is masked by common usage and age.  An example is the great spelling bee word that the kids are given when they really know what they’re doing.


Break it down with me.  The root of the word is “establish,” which leaves a whole slew of prefixes and suffixes to deal with.  Slap the prefix “dis” on anything and it changes the meaning to something roughly opposite its original meaning.  Put “anti” in front of that and you are somewhere close to where you started with “establish.”  I’m sure you can see where this is going, so I won’t take you through the whole list of suffixes.  Remember, though, that this word can keep getting longer by adding more syllables which have either an effect on the root or one of the other affixes.

polypseudoantidisestablishmentarianistic (I am well aware of just how much this is not a word).

Looking at it, it gets mind-boggling to think of the possibilities.  The same principle can be used to break down the multi-syllable words we use in common speech, including “establish.” The word comes from both Old English and Old French as “establissen” and “establir,” respectively.  At the core, we can see words like “stable” and even “table.”  It isn’t a stretch to see how the word evolved from an original combination of smaller words which enhanced the meaning of the core syllable.

That’s phonetics, raw, pure,  language.  A click, followed by a low hum, followed by a glottal stop equals an auditory symbol for a thought…

This article and the ones following it will serve to help you figure out the tough stuff that is to come.  It’s important that you grasp the ultra basics before moving to the tough stuff like diction and the real meanings of the syllables, and why human beings are the only creatures on the planet who use symbols.


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