The Apparent and the Real in Language
I am now taking the course Understanding Linguistics from the Teaching Company. I had read a book by Professor John McWhorter, and I wanted to know more, so I got the video class: 36 lectures, for only $99.
Lecture Four is entitled: In the Head versus On the Lips. It is about the phonemic versus the phonetic - or in linguistic shorthand, the difference between the emic and the etic. This is something linguists have studied for over 100 years, so it is nothing new.
Every culture decides what the basic sounds of its language are. But it also decides how these basics get translated into its spoken language – two different things entirely.
For example, in English plurals are indicated in writing by the suffix s. But this is usually pronounced as a z – as in things – try it yourself. The brain applies its rules, which usually indicate a z sound – but sometimes an s sound – as in shoots.
Linguists use a simple technique here: they listen to what is actually said – and then figure out what the rules are behind that usage – which can be amazingly complicated. As small children we learn these rules automatically.
This also has philosophical implications: there are many ways where what is apparent differs from what is real.