Thursday, December 3, 2015

We Can't Say "Cat" Backwards.

Record yourself saying the word "Cat".

Even with the most state of the art sound engineering equipment manned by the most expert sound engineer, if you cut the word into its individual sounds "K" "A" "T" (its phonemes for the linguistically anal), place those sounds in reverse like so, "T" "A" "K", and play the sound clip, you will not hear the word "tack" (1Pinker, 1994).

So what?  How does this piece of information amount to anything more than a novel, Is that so? 

To understand we must first leave our adult, highly categorized brains.

Imagine you are an infant, between 0-5 months of age, who is still confined to a sophisticated lexicon of cries, giggles, and whines for all of your communicative needs (2Pinker, 1994).  Despite your inability to understand the language commonly used around you, everyone still uses it.  In fact, some of these people even speak it to you, fully knowing that you have no idea what they are saying.  The gall they have!!!!  It is a good thing that they do, however, otherwise you would never be able to speak anything but your cries, giggles, and whines.  Now, I don't doubt that even as an infant you develop attachments to some things, but towards your cries, giggles, and whines?!?  Impossible.  You know, as well as Mom, that nothing is more annoying than to feel your tummy rumble, knowing that yucky stuff is about to come out, crying out for mom to come save you, only to see her running around the house as she always does when this happens and come at you with that darn bottle of white stuff again.  If only you didn't make that silly grin after the fact, she might take the time to understand that you have specific cries for every one of your needs and your bottle of white stuff cry is clearly distinct from your my tummy feels weird cry.  Alas, you give up on trying to teach Mom the particulars of your unique mastery of crying, giggling, and whining; anyways these sounds she keeps making towards you, and Dad, and everyone else you constantly see seem to be much more efficient at getting your emotions understood.  I mean, even the dog knows what the hell they are saying.  If these sounds work for the dog, they gotta work for you.  It is time to start figuring this out.

In the same way that it is impossible to produce the sound "tack" by playing the sound "cat" backwards, it is impossible to produce the sound "race car" by playing the sound "race car" backwards.  The impossibility continues regardless to how long the string of words is we make.  These example illustrates that something errs between the shape of the spoken word and the written word.

Do not let the convenient vesicles of the written word, in which we house the sounds of the spoken word, fool you.  The written word does not equal the spoken word - otherwise we would be able to reproduce the spoken sound "race car" by reversing the same spoken sound, in much the same way we can reproduce the written word "race car" by reversing the same written word.  It is best to treat the written word as a mere package that houses the sounds we put in them, and not to treat them as the sounds themselves.  And, unlike the chicken and egg dilemma, we know exactly which came first between the package and its contents.  Through the process of evolution, our brain first developed to acquire the spoken word because, like ourselves as babies; grunts, roars, and giggles just didn't cut it anymore for our ancestors.  And then afterwards (much much much afterwards) when social conditions demanded, we developed a packaging systems to transport these spoken words to people who were not within roaring distance - the written word.  Similar to a postal system, we use these packages to send to other people the sounds we want them to hear by writing a book, email, or note, etc.; and they do a wonderful job of keeping the shape of these sounds very close to how we originally intended, however, unlike the postal system, there is no fragile, handle with care sticker for our written words.

Why the deliberation of this point?  The most important reason to keep in mind that the shape of the spoken and written word are not the same is so that we can properly understand how we learn the spoken word; as only through this correct understanding may we be able to then properly teach the spoken word to others.  But, fear not for the babes among us - we are all born with equipment necessary to speak any of the languages of this world (then ones that surround our birth) (Chomsky, 1986).  It is when we want to teach or be taught another language after we are all grown up that this distinction between the spoken and written word must be recognized and respected.  With this I ask you to return to your childhood.

You are now in an arms race with the family dog to learn these sounds your Mom and Dad keep making at you so that you can keep their favor.  You only ever see the one and same dog, yet there are many people other than you, Mom, and Dad, who you see all the time.  Some of them are much bigger than you and also make similar noise as Mom and Dad, while some of them only seem a little bigger and still occasionally cry, giggle, and whine like you - just not as much.  These numbers clearly mean you are much easier to replace than the dog.  You must do something and you must do it now.  How do you even start making sense of these strange noises everyone makes to you and each other?  That dog looks like he understands, with that grin he always puts on his face when they talk to him, yet he always has that stupid grin, even when he sniffs his place where that yucky stuff comes out.  I think he is faking it.  Can I fake it?  I think I can.  I will just give a grin like the dog every time Mom and Dad come at me with those weird noises.

What starts out as a simple grin to every weird sound you are met with turns into this strange desire to replicate these sounds for yourself.  Unbeknownst to you, there are the strange workings happening below your conscious existence, in and around your neck - you just hit the 5-7 month mark since you came into this wonderful world and your speech equipment is starting to form (2Pinker, 1994).  For the next 5-7 months, until around the time you hit your first birthday, you will be obsessed with one solitary act.  Much later you will find out the technical name for this act is "babbling", although your parents just call it, "the cutest sounds they ever heard!!!".  The reason for this obsession?  Again, much later you will find out that you were frobbing with this new sound equipment your body just got so that you can pronounce the most basic forms of this weird language your parents keep using - so basic they even precede the sounds of a typical phonics course of any ESL curriculum.  Sounds that are common not only to your parents language, but every language around the world (2Pinker, 1994).  You, of course, could care less about this stuff that only gives professors wet dreams, the reason you are obsessed with all this sound-play is due to one simple reason - that dog must not succeed.  If only you understood, my little one, he never stood a chance from the start.  


Chomsky, N. (1986).  Knowledge of Language: Its Nature, Origins, and Use.  P. 146.  Greenwood Publishing Group.

1Pinker, S. (1994)  The Language Instinct.  Chapter 6.  HarperCollins

2Pinker, S. (1994)  The Language Instinct.  Chapter 9.  HarperCollins

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