kitchen table math, the sequel: what is a plosive, Mommy?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

what is a plosive, Mommy?

Master Green, commenting on What is a consonant, Mommy?:

I can only speak from personal experience, but most of the high school students I teach in Latin had (before they came to me) no idea at all what the differences are between consonants and vowels, never mind the distinctions between the types of consonants. When I explain the shift of 'n' to 'm' before plosives, and then explain what plosives are and why we call them that, it invariably prompts immediate "ooh"s and "aah"s before triggering a digression into all the English words they know that now "make sense" to them. There's also usually at least one student in the class for whom this revelation explains how the English prefix "im-" is the same as "in-" but they never knew it.

I'd give this all up and go teach basic English to small kids if I didn't know that I'd be drummed out in a week. But we do what we can, with a smile and a quiet sigh.

Tell us, too!



Doug Sundseth said...

Strictly, I think it's only bilabial plosives ("p" and "b" -- voiceless and voiced) that cause prior "n" and "m" to be confused. "Inter" and "*imter" (for example) are generally pretty distinguishable.

Jean said...

OK, I'm 35 and fairly well-educated, but I know nothing about these things. Can someone explain? I'll tell my kids!

MagisterGreen said...

Be that as it may, they don't need to know about bilabial plosives, voiced or voiceless, any more than they need to know about alveolars, palatals, or velars. Just knowing that there are rules to consonants, how they sound and how they interact with other letters in English, is a revelation to them and it needn't be.

Jumping off of the "in-/im-" morphology: I rarely encounter a student who understands that a prefixed word which displays reduplication of a consonant (e.g. illiterate, affect, eccentric, etc...) denotes a 2-letter prefix that changed to accommodate itself to the new word. Hence, just as students don't realize "in-" becomes "im-", they don't understand that it also becomes "il-". The "ex-" prefix is a biggie with me and my students, and one that opens up a whole world for them. Once they realize that the beginning of 'eccentric' is not "ecc-" but really "ex-", they immediately see the elements of the word and can deduce the meaning: ex-cent(e)r - outside of the center - i.e. odd, strange, not normal.

One of my best days came earlier this year when I overheard one of my Latin students saying to another, non-Latin student that he didn't have to study for his English vocabulary quiz - all the words were from Latin!

Whole-language instruction robs them of the ability to decode and that in turn renders them much more likely to end up functionally illiterate.

MagisterGreen said...

Jean -

Without going into too much mind-numbing detail: the reason this "n" and "m" change happens has to do with how we voice the sounds of the consonants, especially when they're next to other consonants.

Tell your kids to say the "n" sound. Have them focus on where their lips and tongue end up (it helps to have them exaggerate wildly). Their mouths should be slightly open, lips pulled back from the teeth, tongue perhaps touching the top front of their mouths, just behind the teeth. Now have them do an "m". Lips are pulled back in, mouth is closed, tongue more relaxed.

Next have them try a "b" and a "p". In both cases they begin making the sounds by pulling their lips back into their mouths and then exPLODing air out. Hence - plosives. The "b" and "p" are further classed as "bilabials" from the Latin: bi = 2 and labia = lip. You need both lips to make the sound, hence bilabial.

Since we begin these plosives by sucking our lips into our mouths, making the sound of a "b" or a "p" when coming from an "n" is rather hard. In fact, if your kids try to do it they might notice that they have to lengthen the "n" sound, which ends up sounding suspiciously like an "m". Since we spell phonetically in English, as Latin does, it resolves itself in the shift from "in-" to "im-" and "con-" to "com-". Interestingly, I believe the "un-" prefix does not undergo such a shift, hence "unbelievable" and the like. Thus the humor in the episode of the Simpsons where Ralph Wiggum was heard to exclaim: "Me fail English! That's unpossible!"

le radical galoisien said...

I plan to teach IPA to my future children, kind of to take advantage of the linguistic genius that gets displayed during infancy and then later gets lost...