Wednesday, April 01, 2009

WNW: Long-A has an E in It! Or: Diphthongs

When my third child had trouble reading, I was so proud.

Not because she struggled, but because of the reason: she was hearing diphthongs.

They confused the heck out of her, because teachers in the U.S. don't usually have a reason to address them. For that matter, a good number of teachers don't even know what a diphthong is.

They merrily go along, telling their students to sound out words: short A, long A, short I, long I. Remember, the silent E makes the short vowel long. All that stuff.

For most students, that method works just fine. After all, most English-speakers hear just one vowel sound in words like, cake, sky, and dozens of others.

But my kid didn't; she heard the diphthong. She recognized that a long-A isn't really an A. That a long-I isn't really an I. For that matter, that a lot of the "long" vowels and vowel pairs were not made up of a single vowel sound. She had the darnedest time trying to sound anything out.

A diphthong is two vowel sounds that glide together. For example, a long-A, such as in cake, is really made up of a short-E, followed by a long-E.

cake = K-eh-ee-k

We say the word so fast that we usually hear a simple long-A rather than two separate vowels. But we're still saying both vowels, because there is no simple long-A.

The same concept follows for the long-I, which can be broken down into a short-O (like AH) and a long-E (EE).

sky = sk-ah-ee

I learned all about diphthongs while going to public school in Finland. While Finnish is known for being a complicated language, the one thing it has going for it is that it's ridiculously easy to read once you know what sound each letter makes, because every word is spelled phonetically.

There would be no point in having a spelling bee in grade school over there, because no one would win or lose. If you know how to say a word, you know how to spell it.

And Finnish has diphthongs galore.

The Finnish word kaikki ("all") is pronounced with what Americans would think of as a long-I sound in the middle (k-eye-kk-ee), but it's spelled with an A and an I because technically it's: k-ah-ee-kk-ee. Both versions sound the same, of course.

Can you figure out what diphthong is made by the O and I in the middle of poika ("boy")? (Hint: the I makes a long-E sound.)

It's a long-O (just the plain O, without the typical long-U English speakers add to the end) and a long-E.

It's, O-EE, or what we'd think of as OY. the same sound at the end of the English words boy, toy, and joy.

If you can't hear diphthongs, don't feel bad; for an English-speaker, distinguishing them often takes learning another language that relies on diphthongs.

That is, unless you're my poor daughter when she was in first grade, pulling her hair out because, "Mom, there's a short-E in bake, but it has a silent E at the end! I don't get it!"

P.S. Now in fourth grade, she has no trouble reading at all and is halfway through Harry Potter #4.

Today's tour stop:
World According to Little Fish, where my writing is described using knitting terminology (something right up my alley!)


Anonymous said...

I learned so much more about our language from taking French than I EVER did in an English class. It's sad.

And with the knitting ... I couldn't resist!

Jordan McCollum said...

It's not a short 'e' in bake . . . unless you're from Utah. ;) The IPA 'ei' (/beik/) is a bit "higher" and "more forward" than the short e.

In my phonetics class, our professor (Fails, if you know him) had us transcribe out monophthongs: like the ee sound in machine: [ii] ('i' is the 'ee' sound in IPA, just like Finnish) because if you listen close/look at the spectrograph, there's a "tightening" at the end of the sound, so it changes. (There was also a diacritic in there that I can't get here.)

(You made me bust out the IPA up in here!)

Prompted by "kaikki": do you know a Finnish children's song about pigs? (My dad taught us kids the chorus as "sinä ja sinä" instead of "sinä ja minä." Forgive spellings; I've never actually seen the words, just learned them from Dad.)

Lara Neves said...

I was actually thinking that the long-A sound shouldn't have to be dipthongized, as it is a pure vowel in most languages. (IPA /e/.) However, you had me over here repeating words, and yes, I dipthongize in a big way. I suppose most Americans do it. Anyway, the word bake would come out more like beck if we didn't, I guess.

Interesting that your daughter could hear them so well and had such trouble.

Fun WNW!

Don said...

Hawaiian and other Polynesian languages work the same way as Finnish - every vowel has it's own sound, and everything is spelled phonetically.

So simple and elegant - I love it.

Cajoh said...

Being a singer I tend to know about how to pronounce diphthongs and tripthongs— but the word I like is Iowa…

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I love how you've passed your love of language on to your children. Fabulous!

Wonder Woman said...

When reading the Finnish words in At the Water's Edge, I would pronouce every vowel, like you demonstrated. Glad to know I got it right!

My only question: Do you pronouce diphthong "DIP-thong" or "DIFF-thong"? I always thought it was DIP, but seeing it spelled out makes me wonder....

Kristina P. said...

I always learn so much when I come to your blog!

LisAway said...

I love diphthongs! Actually I'd forgotten what they were until you reminded me, but I've thought about them a lot living in Poland (just didn't have a name for them) Polish is like Finnish (and Kaikki would be pronounced just the same if it were a Polish word). If there's a vowel, you only pronounce the vowel shown. "No" (which means "yeah") is pronounced "no" not "no-w" Because, really, what's up with that added "w"?

I really wanted to officially spell David's name phonetically in Polish so it would have been Dejwyd Ajzyk and any Pole would have been able to pronounce it correctly, but Greg said no. Plus, doesn't Dejwyd Ajzyk just look significantly more awesome than David Isaac? (It could also be Deiwyd Aizyk, but the J and I act the same here and the J looks better :)

But it would be really funny to see Americans try to get "David Isaac" out of that! :)

Anonymous said...

I love word sounds! Foreign languages lure me because of the differences in sound. (It's also why my family members are terrible hint droppers because we focus on inflection so much.) =]

Lyon Pride said...

Okay, this was over my head. Maybe I need to learn another language. I only know a little bit of Spanish and Italian.

Jo said...

You know that explains something I have wondered about for years. I had a friend in high school who was a Vietnamese refugee. She really struggled learning english, and this was the problem! I wasn't much help because I couldn't hear the dipthong. Thanks for the long awaited explanation.

Heatherlyn said...

Yes, I learned more about English grammar in German class than in English. Until I went to college. Wait, no, I think I still learned more in German class. :)

Heather of the EO said...

Holy cow, I learn a lot when I come here :)

wenderful said...

Never knew any of that. I'm sitting here pronouncing those words slowly and carefully on the couch trying to hear all the slight variations on the vowels while American Idol is attempting to entertain me.

Chas Hathaway said...

I've always been fascinated by those kinds of things.

Have you ever noticed the relationship between consonants?

For example:

B and P
D and T
V and F
G and K
J and Ch
Z and S

Essentially making their sounds use the exact same mouth position, but the first uses voice, and the second only uses air. Crazy, huh?

- Chas

Annette Lyon said...

Chas, Voiced and voiceless consonants fascinate me too. They were the topic of one of my very first WNW posts:

Sher said...

Dipthongs are a singer's worst nightmare. I'm learning so much from being in Lex's choir.

How faupaux it is to say All-LAY-lu-jah (dipthong way), instead of Al-LEH-lu-jah.
And the word Thou. I don't even know how to type out the difference. The wrong way has kind of an E sound before the o, and the right way is more like a short A sound. Thau, instead of Theou.

I'm learning how to bring out my inner British when I sing.


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