Introduction to Linguistics

In this video I introduce some terminology from linguistics for describing how languages use sounds to represent meaning. Phonemes refers to the individual sounds used in a language, while morphemes refer to units of meaning. Phonological rules dictate how sounds can be combined in a language (with variations resulting in accents), while syntactical rules relate to how words can be combined into meaningful phrases and sentences.

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Video Transcript:

Hi, I’m Michael Corayer and this is Psych Exam Review. In this video, we’re going to have a brief introduction to some ideas of linguistics; the study of language. Now if we’re studying language, one thing that we might do is break it down into pieces.

One way we could do this would be to break it down into the individual sounds that make up the language. So these would be called the phonemes. Phonemes are all of the sounds that are used within a language to make all of the words that exist in that language. In English, for instance, we have about 40 phonemes that we use. There’s about 40 different sounds that you can use to make all of the words in English. Other languages might have different numbers of phonemes. So there are languages that have just over a dozen phonemes there are languages that have almost twice as many phonemes as English.

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you might be aware of some of these different phonemes. For instance, if you were studying Spanish you might be aware of this double r; this rolled R sound, like in arriba or tierra, right? Now this is a sound you might struggle with initially because this is a phoneme that is used in Spanish but it’s not used in English. You don’t have much practice making this sound so it might be more difficult for you to use this when you first encounter it. Of course there’s other phonemes besides just this double r, you know, there’s nasal sounds in French that might be difficult for English speakers or if you’re learning a language like Xhosa that has clicking sounds, you’re going to find these difficult initially because you’re not used to producing these sounds and the same will be true for people who are learning English.

English has phonemes that their languages may not have and they might struggle with these. All right so we’ll come back to that in a minute when we talk about accents. Another way we could break a language down is that we could think about meaning. We could break it into meaningful pieces and so if we do that we’re looking at morphemes.

So phonemes refer just to the individual sounds in language whereas morphemes refer to meaningful units in the language. Ok, let’s say I look at a word like “bat”. Ok, there’s multiple phonemes in this word, you know, I have this B sound and this T sound at the end of the word. But in terms of morphemes this is a single unit. In other words I can’t break this down any further and still have meaningful pieces, right?

If I look at another word, however, like “batman” well, now I can say okay, this is one word but it’s possible to break it down and still have meaningful units left. I say all right this is actually two morphemes “bat” plus “man” so one word but two morphemes and actually even more phonemes, right? There’s still more sounds in there, we have an m sound an sound right? There’s a lot of different sounds but there’s only two meaningful pieces.

What about a word like “bats”? Well what we have here, actually we can break this down further, we can say this is really bat, that’s a morpheme, plus this s sound. Even though it’s a single letter and it’s a single sound, it has meaning in this case and that makes it a morpheme, right? Morphemes always have meaning and what’s the meaning here?

Well this s, the meaning is it makes it plural, it changes the meaning of that, when you add an S to it that means that s counts as a morpheme. This also applies to other things that we add to words to change the meaning. So prefixes and suffixes that change the meaning would still be considered morphemes. Things like “pre” you know, whatever or “post” or at the end of a word you might add “ism” and that makes it a noun and so that changes the meaning and therefore that “ism” would still be considered a morpheme.

Ok, when we think about combining things in a language we can combine sounds of course in order to make words from all these different phonemes that we have and there’s certain rules for how we combine those sounds and these are called the phonological rules. Just like phonemes can vary between languages, the rules for combining sounds can vary between languages and in fact the rules for combining sounds can vary within a language.

What I mean by that is that we can have regional variation in how we combine particular sounds. So regional accents would be examples of different phonological rules within the same language. Ok, what would be an example of this? Well if we think about a sort of stereotypical regional accent in English, we have the Boston accent.

All right, so what’s going on in the Boston accent? What’s happening is there’s some slightly different phonological rules that are being applied compared to say standard you know “newscaster” English. So what’s one of these rules? What makes this Boston accent noticeable? One of these is, how do you combine certain sounds that have “R”s in them? So what do you do when you have a word like park? When you have this r here, you have this r followed by a consonant. Well the standard pronunciation would be to say park but the Boston variation is to kind of ignore that R. You don’t need to really bother to pronounce it very much so you end up saying something like “pahk”.

So this is why you have this stereotypical phrase for making fun of the Boston accent which is “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” so what you’re doing is you’re taking all those r’s and you’re sort of dropping them out. You’re changing the rules, the phonological rules, for how you combine those sounds and as a result you have this regional accent. Now you also have accents across languages, so you can have variation by region or you can carry over the phonological rules.

This happens when somebody learns a new language but they start applying the phonological rules of their native language. They carry them over to the new language and as a result they sound kind of funny right? This would happen, for instance, if people are learning English right? I mentioned there’s different phonemes that are used like the “th” sound that’s used in English is not common in a lot of other languages. Like we use in “the” right? This sound at the beginning of the word is not used in a lot of other languages. As a result, people have difficulty with it, they carry over some other rule that’s close enough from their language. So they say something like “ze” instead of “the”. That accent is also a result of this different phonological rules between their native language and the language that they are trying to speak.

Another example of this would be if you’ve seen the show “An Idiot Abroad” with Karl Pilkington. There’s an episode where he goes to China and they’re going to write his name Karl in Chinese characters but there’s a problem here that in Mandarin they don’t have this phoneme where a sound ends in an L or a word, sorry a word ends in an L sound. So his name Karl, they don’t have a way to end it with that L sound in Chinese characters when they write it and even when they’re speaking. So an L sound in Mandarin is always followed by a vowel so you can have la, li, le, lu, right? You can have these different sounds but you can’t have L by itself. So when they try to write Karl with Chinese characters they end up always writing Karla and it always comes out as Karl LA because there’s no way for them to represent this L sound using Chinese characters because that’s not a phoneme that exists in Mandarin.

All right so that’s sort of an explanation of why this happens. Obviously it’s a lot funnier on the show then how I’m describing it but we can now understand a little bit about why that happens. Ok the last type of rules I want to look at are what are called syntactical rules and the syntactical rules are rules for how we combine words. Phonological rules are how we combine phonemes in order to get words then syntactical rules are how we combine words to get phrases and sentences. There’s rules about how we do this and violating those rules is going to change the meaning. What would be an example of this?

Well in English we have a syntactical rule that says if you want to describe a noun you want to have an adjective that describes a noun, almost always it’s going to be the case that the adjective comes before the noun. You say the adjective and then you save the noun, right? Now other languages don’t necessarily follow this rule. Spanish has just the opposite rule where you would put the adjective after the noun but in English we generally say it’s going to be adjective followed by noun.

So if I take two words and I say okay “yellow banana” right? In English this means I’m talking about a banana and yellow is describing it. It’s a yellow banana. What happens if I flip these? Well using these same words the syntactic rules are now going to say that actually what I’m doing here is I’m talking about the color yellow and I’m describing it as being “banana yellow” right? I’m using banana as an adjective here to describe the color rather than in this case where I’m using yellow to describe the banana. So just by changing the order of those two words, the syntactical rules are going to change the meaning.

Now it’s fairly amazing how easily we learn this when we’re kids. When we first start speaking, when we’re two years old we first start stringing words together, we start following these syntactical rules this shows that we’re learning grammar from a very very young age. We’re picking it out, picking it up without explicit instruction. We don’t need you know an English teacher to sit down with us and say you know you have to put adjectives before nouns when you’re two years old you don’t even know what adjectives means but you’re able to start applying these rules and this tells us something about how language acquisition occurs and we’ll go into that in a future video. Ok, I hope you found this helpful, if so, please like the video and subscribe to the channel for more.

Thanks for watching!