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The learnability space

For the child naturally learning his or her first language, there is what Marlene Macken (1995) calls a ‘learnability space’, defining the properties which have to be learnt.

In the grammar of putting words together – involving both syntax and morphology:

  • Relatively fixed word order with prepositions before the word they govern as in On Monday and with verbs betore their complements as in Seeing stars, but swith the opposite order in A man eating tiger;
  • An auxiliary system with have, can, do, may, and the past tense forms had, could, did, might, ought (from owed) with complesly varying meanings involving permission, possibility, time and relevance to the present;
  •  The words who, what, which, when, why, how, all pronounced on the left edge of the sentence in simple questions, but with a quite different meaning otherwise, as in “Who did you see?” and “You saw who?”

And in the sound system:

  • Stops, ‘voiced’ in B, D, G with the lips, tongue tip, and back of the tongue, and ‘voiceless’ in P, T, K.
  • Vowels – short in him, hem, ham, hum, hod, hood, the long vowels in he, hark, hawk, who, ‘diphthongs’ with with the tongue moving in the ‘vowel space’ in hay, high, hoy, hoe, how, the vowel known as ‘schwa’ at the beginning and end of agenda, a long equivalent in her, and the combinations of a long vowel or diphthong with schwa in our, ire, coir, truer, all significantly written with an R.
  • Syllable structure or ‘phonotactics’ – with up to three segments before the vowel or nucleus, as in spring and string, up to two vocalic elements in the vowel or ‘nucleus’ in my, tense or long in me, up to three segments after the vowel – in glimpse, next and length (in many pronunciations, at least).
  • One complex consonant by the slow release of a stop in an ‘affricate’, in chew, jew., itch, edge, church and judge.
  • Some unstressed syllabic nuclei with just a consonant in the underlying forms in little and middle;
  • Word stress with one primary stress on the left branch of the ‘foot’ in ladder, in the left branch of the rightmost foot in belladonna, and discounting one rime with a short nucleus on the right edge, as in hippopotamus.
  • R between vowels (in Southern varieties) in withdrawal as WITHDRAW R AL and where sentences are connected in sense, as in “I went to Australia R and I fed a kangaroo”, but not otherwise as in “I went to Australia. And you still owe me that money.”

Although, by comparison with other languages, English has a very complex vowel system and an only averagely complex consonant system, there are far more developmental problems with respect to the latter than with respect to the former. It is worth asking why this might be so. By the proposal here, even an average consonant system is intrinsically more complex than a complex vowel system. And this would seem to go back to the original formation of speech sounds both in evolution and in acquisition.