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Effects of complexity

There are nowhere near as many actual words as there are possible words. There is a crucial idea from some 1958 work by Jean Berko Gleason which showed that children normally start operating on the basis of possible words between four and seven. But one of the things which emerged from my PhD research in 2002 was that there is a huge difference in the awareness of the relations between real worlds and possible words in children with speech problems. This is a significant co-morbidity.

English speech sounds are distributed quite unevenly. Despite the large number of possible syllables in English, many either occur only in one syllable words, or are rare and unlikely to be encountered by children other than in stressed syllables or syllables immediately following the stressed syllable. Various problems occur between stressed and unstressed syllables. Soldier has a structure in the middle which seems to be unique in English. Many normally developing children say it like shoulder, moving a property from the right edge of what sounds like a J to the initial S, leaving the D without its right edge. Some children with speech disorders stumble over finger, saying it as TIN-NER, with none of the consonants correct, and with the N, not pronounced as an N by a correct pronunciation, doubled in the middle. Here the tongue tip property of N is pulled left and right, overwhelming the G and pronounced as a tongue tip T in the leftmost consonant.

Most unstressed syllables are simple. So spaghetti may be the only word likely to be heard and known by children with a syllable beginning with SP before the stressed syllable. This uneven distribution is easily misconstrued by children. They may, for instance, assume that if a particular sort of structure sounds wrong, it is wrong, when actually it isn’t wrong at all, but just unusual. Some errors in child speech may be the result of this sort of misanalysis.

Many children spaghetti as BASKETI. But a few say it as PSKETI. They may be assuming either that English allows a PSK cluster at the beginning of the word or that this is a complex phoneme. Of course, such mistaken assumptions are not conscious, but strictly unconscious. Either of them, unfortunately, leads to a mispronunciation, in the case of PSKETI, not a possible word in English.

On all of these points, there is the possibility of the child learner either misconstruing or misanalysing the evidence of what he or she hears, or deciding that the evidence is not clear enough for a firm decision. The particular combination of complexities in English metricality, syllable structure, and the phonemic inventory, is especially problematic for some children. Some of these complexities are beyond the scope of any plausible instructions at the time children are normally working on them in their minds. The speech won’t come out right unless the analysis on all of these points is correct.

With this complexity in the phonemic, syllabic, and stress systems, there is also significant variation in how these things interact from one variety of English to another and probably in the speech of individuals. At the risk of possibly idealising slightly, consider an apparently simple word like little. When it is said as one of the first words, say between 18 months and 2 years, very few children say it in a way that seems correct in any of the varieties they are likely to hear around them.

For the same of simplicity I will idealise one variety of ‘Received Pronunciation’ RP, as in the speech of many BBC announcers and presenters. The two tokens of L are entirely different from one another. The first is what is often described as ‘clear’, articulated with a brief contact with the tip of the tongue just behind the upper front teeth, letting the airflow pass smoothly past each side. The I is relatively unproblematic, articulated with the tongue high and forward in the ‘vowel space’, but not at the extremity of the space, and very briefly. The T in the middle of the word is appropriately written with two letter Ts, because it has separate roles in two syllables, ending one and beginning another. In its role as role as an onset it is not released as a stop. The fact that it is voiceless in contrast to D is marked by a brief pause in the voicing from the larynx. The second L implements what may be a plain lateral segment in the underlying lexical representation of the rime. The opening to the airstream by the two sides of the tongue marks the release of the T. Without any features defining it as a vowel, it is not allowed to carry any stress in English. It is pronounced very ‘darkly’, in a way more like a schwa than a consonant, but a schwa only very approximately like a token from the inventory.

In other varieties of English, the T is replaced by a complete closure of the vocal chords, known as a ‘glottal stop’, sharpening the contrast with P and K in one respect, and with D in another, but also taking a step towards the complete loss of the segment in a long term process known as ‘lenition’ which can take hundreds of years or more.

In other varieties, the T is articulated with at least some of the audible release which it deserves.

Children can hear different varieties of English from their parents, releasing the T and vocalising the L to different degrees. Characteristically, but not invariably, they increase the vocalisation of the L, losing all trace of any underlying representation with the tongue tip, and at the same time replacing the tongue tip articulation of T by a back of the tongue articulation, givoing something like LIKU.

Puddle is another of the words affected here. Neil Smith, who in 1973 launched the formal analysis of this aspect of child speech now wittily calls it the ‘puddle puzzle’ because it has turned out to be so intractible.

In another area of the system, one that small children are not likely to hear, in the words huntsman, appointment and ointment, in what may be all varieties of the language, the T between the N and the M is glottal stopped, and voicing is mostly or completely lost in the final sequence of nasals.