Wow: Word Nerd Wednesday two weeks in a row. It's a record. :P
I mentioned this one before, so I thought I'd elaborate on it (because of course these things fascinate me; I guess that's the point of WNW).
When I lived in Finland for a few years of grade school, the students were already taking foreign language classes. They started in third grade and got to pick either Swedish (the second national language of the country) or English. When they'd reach the equivalent of junior high, they'd pick up the other language.
I was part of the English class, which actually helped me learn Finnish. If you get a quiz where you have to write down "ruoka" in English, you have to know what it means in Finnish first (it means food, in case you were wondering).
My friends often tried out their English on me. When I first arrived in the country, the boys in our class yelled English phrases they'd heard on TV and in movies. I got a lot of "Bond, James Bond!" and "Knight RRRRRider!" (with a long, rolled R) in my face. One boy even tried swearing at me repeatedly, but I just laughed, because he kept telling me to sit. (There is no [sh] sound in Finnish.)
But one of my most distinct memories was about the tongue twister my friend Katja just couldn't wrap her mouth around:
The big, pink pig.
It sounded like, "The big, big, big."
I couldn't figure out why she couldn't say it right. Each word sounded so different to me. Dad (Mr. Linguist) helped explain the difference between voiced and voiceless consonants.
A voiced consonant uses your vocal chords to make the sound.
A voiceless consonant does not.
I'd never noticed that the only difference in how you pronounce [b] and [p] is whether you're using your vocal chords.
Both sounds are bilabial plosives, so you're basically blowing air in a burst and using both lips to do it. But for [b] you also use your vocal chords (it's voiced), while with [p] you're just using air and your lips (so it's voiceless).
The same principle applies to [k] and [g], which are both velar (which describes what area you're using to make the sound—the back of the roof of your mouth), but [k] is voiceless and [g] is voiced.
Katja was voicing all the consonants in, "Big, pink pig," so it came out instead as, "Big, big, big."
"Twinkie," a woman we knew from church, often passed as American because her accent was so good. But she had one big shibboleth: [j] and [ch]. To her they sounded exactly the same.
Juice came out as ch-uice.
If I've explained today's concept well enough, you can probably figure out what her problem was.
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