Voices and Breaths

Sometimes I wonder at the things we never learn in elementary school. For example, we all are taught to recognise the vowels in our alphabet as opposed to the consonants – we knew they were different, almost like the bones around which the fleshy consonants wrapped themselves to result in a full-bodied Word. Words needed vowels to bridge the consonants; words needed consonants to, well, keep us from sounding ridiculous (imagine a conversation composed of “aaieeouoau,” the amount of potential drooling alone).

But I have no remembrance of my very worthy teachers explaining to my class the actual sound difference involved which separated these two sets of characters. They are created apart. Vowels sounds are produced by the flow of air without hindrance, while the consonants are occluded air flow, diverted or stopped through use of tongue, teeth, etc. In short, vowels are shaped sounds; consonants are cut ones. Some of these consonants are, in fact, nearly the same movement of mouth muscles, the only difference between them found in voicing or not (for example, “f” and “v” are essentially the same use of the upper teeth and lower lip, but the “v” is voiced while the “f” is only breathed – you can hear the difference best when you stop your ears and make each sound).

Now, you might ask, is it really important that a first-grader know such things? Given that we first learn speech, which has more to do with sound than orthography (or how the sound is written), and then learn spelling, some more care in the making of sounds might be beneficial, no? In the learning of language, we are imitators and inventors all. But to study the sounds with more depth and clarity, even perhaps in upper grades, would surely enhance the grasp of our language – especially the English language, where spelling often bears little resemblance to phonetics.

I will add that this understanding of sound and speech also opens students’ eyes to the reality that these 5 (or 6) elements we call “vowels” in fact comprise an even greater number of vowel sounds. One hopes this might build a greater respect for the language in such light…