A dog with big ears. Phonotactics is what governs which sounds sound 'right' together in a language. Image from freeimages.com

Phonotactics Physio : When Sounds Sound Wrong

If there’s one thing I’ve learned on my ongoing linguistics adventure, it’s that there’s a fancy word for everything in science, and linguistics is no exception. Welcome, phototactics (from Greek, roughly sound arranging).

The phonotactics of a language govern how different sounds fit together within it: which can occur next to each other, which can start a word, which can end one, and so on. It’s thanks to the phonotactics of English, for example, that we don’t have words like ngrasn.

Unsurprisingly, then, it’s always fun and games when the phonotactics of your native language square up against those of your target language.

Phonotactic Fallout

Mismatched phonotactics result in the distinctive features of often stereotyped non-native accents. For instance, Spanish-speaking learners of English will often first add an e- before words beginning with sp- and st-. The reason? The phonotactics of Spanish don’t allow those combinations word-initially, so they’re anathema to Spanish ears. By contrast, cognates of English sp- and st- words in Spanish already have that e- built in: especial, especie, and even España itself.

Similarly, English learners of Modern Greek might have issues with particular clusters of sounds. The word mortal, for example, is θνητός (thnitós). When was the last time you heard an English word containing thn, at the start, middle or even end? Less alien is perhaps Greek ξ (ks), as there are plenty of English examples containing it: box, exit, exaggerate. In Greek, however, it very commonly occurs at the start of a word; ξέρω (ksero, I know), ξέχασα (ksehasa, I forgot), ξυπνώ (ksipno, I wake up). Early learners of Greek are often tempted to add a quick little schwa vowel between the sounds, like kǝsero for ‘ksero. The initial ks is so strange to English ears that we pronounce Greek borrowing ξυλόφωνο (ksylophone) as ‘zylophone’ to pander to our own phonotactics.

Phonotactics Physio

So how to cope with wildly different phonotactics in your target language?

Getting used to creating sounds unusual in your native language involves training muscle memory. Physio for phonotactics, if you will. That means practising individual words, as well as undertaking more involved speech tasks like shadowing.

It also helps to identify cases where your native language does come pretty close to the target language sound, noting that it might happen between words rather than within them. Take a couple of Polish words thrust into the topical limelight recently: szczepionka (vaccine) and szczepić (to vaccinate). That initial szcz, or /ʂt͡ʂ/ as Wiktionary so accurately puts it, simply doesn’t occur within any single word in English. The closest English gets is with broadly similar sounds across word boundaries, like wash cherries. But say that out loud a few times, concentrating on the sh_ch, and you get an idea of Polish szcz that you can transfer to your Polish pronunciation.

Tackle such words repeatedly, enlisting the help of your iTalki tutor or similar in topical chat related to them. Gradually, you will start building up a target language phonotactics  that doesn’t depend on your own native language judgements.