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Evolution of English Language: Phonetics and Alphabets Development

Most non-native English language users (especially Chinese) find it difficult to pronounce English words correctly. In fact, phonetics, which usually refers to speech sounds of a language, is much a complicated topic than everyone can image. Let us, China Sources Team, now go through with you a few important ideas that you must know about phonetics and related alphabets.

The first thing you should understand about phonetics is that there are indeed different ways to pronounce words, depending on different structure. Here are some facts (with brief explanations):

(1) Basic Facts About Phonetics

(1a) Sounds can basically be described in two ways, from viewpoint of phoneticians or from viewpoint of phonetically-untrained native speakers.

(1b) Sounds perceived by native speakers are called phonemes and also called a 'phonemic transcription' from an utterance.

(1c) Though most native speakers think that sounds in different position in words are the same, they are, however, often pronounced differently.

(1d) Native speakers perceive different sounds as the same phonemes because they have some common properties. In fact, a different sound, phonetically speaking, is being produced. For example, the 'l' in 'tell' is different from the 'l' in 'let'.

(1e) The term 'speech sound' refers to sounds identified by trained observers. They make 'phonemic transcription' from an utterance.

(1f) Phonologists, or phonology students, investigate essential properties of phonemes.

(1g) Phoneticians (those who study phonetics) are more interested in physical and physiological descriptions about how people produce speech sounds and often use specialized machinery in their works.

(1h) An allophone is a set of 'different sounds' which represents a phoneme.

(1i) Specialists have developed one set of written signs for phonemes and another for speech sounds.

(2) The Origin and Development of Alphabets

(2a) In this century, only one alphabet has come to be used widely – alphabet of International Phonetic Association (IPA), which was formed by a group of European scholars in late 19th century.

(2b) From time to time, IPA revises its alphabet as it goes.

(2c) The 26 small letters of Roman alphabet constitute essential basis of IPA alphabet. Hence /e/ is a phoneme sign, but [e] is a sound sign.

(2d) Speech sounds of a language can often substitute for one another, so result in new words. For example, 'meek' becomes 'freek'.

(2e) Most current letters we use to write English were used over 2000 years ago by Romans to write their language, Latin.

(2f) These letters were used by Romans to represent their speech of sounds from Latin.

(2g) Romans did not invent these letters themselves, they actually acquired them from their more civilized neighbors, Etruscans, at their early cultural development stages.

(2h) Etruscans had them from Greeks, but actual history of these letters did not begin with Greeks. Letters should be traced much further back in time to ancient peoples in Middle East. Now these letters are used by many indigenous peoples in Asia, America and Africa to write their own languages.

(2i) When these letters passed from one people to another across the globe, shapes of many letters were often changed.

(2j) A set of letters is called an alphabet, and each alphabet we have mentioned has a different number of letters.

(2k) Some sound signs contain more than one letter.

(2l) English is considered by many linguists to have more than 40 sounds, yet there are only 26 letters. The word 'E-ng-l-i-sh' has two such double letter signs 'ng' and 'sh'.

(2m) Languages change as time passes. Our grandparents do not speak exactly identical language as we do.

(2n) So if we could hear the original language of Shakespeare's English, we would be struck greatly with its difference from modern English.

(3) The History and Evolution of English Language

(3a) Natural evolution of language might be accelerated greatly after a country was conquered by people speaking another language.

(3b) Invasion of Norman French into England in year 1066 had a profound impact on English language development.

(3c) In the years following this Norman Conquest, French became established as the language used by colonial rulers. Around one thousand words from French origin entered the English language. These included many words associated with law and order, such as royalty, government, parliament and authority etc.

(3d) This French dominance was to last until early 15th century when English was re-emerging as a national and official language.

(3e) English borrowed a wide range of vocabularies from French in the 12th, 13th and 14th century. As another example, Cantonese in Hong Kong China has also borrowed many phrases and words from English in recent decades.

(3f) During the 16th and 17th centuries, English came into its own as a national language, partly through spreading numerous printed books.

(3g) Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, English started to become a worldwide language. It was transported to America, Australia, India and Africa etc as Britain established colonies throughout entire world.

(3h) Today, English is an international language and vast majority of its users are people who use English as a second language, for work, for study, or for international communication.

We wish you now have a much clearer idea about basic facts about phonetics, origin and development of alphabets, history and evolution of English Language etc. We, China Sources Team, will continue to go through with you some more important ideas that you must know about language in the future. Wish you continue to support this blog, thanks and appreciate much.


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