Phonemic atomism

SOCRATES: Is a proposition resolvable into any part smaller than a name?
HERMOGENES: No; that is the smallest. 

(Cratylus, Plato)

In language there are levels of units. These are sentence, clause, phrase, word and phoneme. Here Socrates narrows down the meaningful unit to the word or name.

A phoneme in itself has no meaning as such. They are the building blocks of words. The three phonemes (and letters coincidentally in this case) which make up cat (C-A-T) have no meaning in themselves. Only when combined as a particular sequence have they been designated a particular meaning. It is not natural but agreed upon by convention.

In some ways, atoms are like phonemes. Atoms extant in the observed reality have “characteristics” unique to each element. Phonemes have characteristics given to them by language creators. Not all languages have identical number and range of sounds. Some have more. Others differentiate where another may make no such distinction. But one important thing is clear: before a unit is meaningful there are smaller units which have no meaning, but only a play of differences. Socrates (and Hermogenes) pointed this out as did Saussure two millennia later.

International Phonetic Alphabet symbols online keyboard

Did you know you can type phonetic symbols without needing to install fonts onto your computer’s operating system or word processor? Simply go to and enter the symbols you cannot get normally. Have fun. ;)

Va Va Black Sheep – difficult sounds for Japanese learners of English

The ‘v’ sound is perhaps one of the hardest sounds for my Japanese learners of English to master. It doesn’t exist in the Japanese language. And it is approximated with the ‘b’ phoneme.

Recent research has found that if the sound ‘va’ is matched with a video showing another sound made in the similar region like ‘ba’ the visual cues overrides auditory cue to register the “visual” sound. This is, according to the paper’s authors, a confirmation of the McGurk Effect which until now could not be explained.

So my students obviously haven’t been paying attention to my lips. It doesn’t help that I have forty students to teach which is why I use my iPhone camera and projector to show them how I am producing the ‘v’ and ‘b’ sounds. Now if only I can figure out how to show them the how I produce the ‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds which are produced in the back of my mouth!

Is there such a thing as a camera which fits into my mouth? Are they called MouthCams? On second thought, gross.

English Phonetic Chart


Here is an English phonetic chart I had created based on Adrian Underhill‘s Sound Foundations. I highly recommend this book as a workbook for teachers.


Praat is “a free scientific computer software program for the analysis of speech in phonetics”.