Pinning down the shifting phonetics of English

One of the things that make English difficult to learn is the curious spelling of words like ‘paradigm, viscount, thought’, etc. But where these words relate to proto-terms (i.e. words that hark back to a now-lost mother-language we once all spoke), Setswana is able to pin down their primordial phonetics.

This week, we address various phonemes idiosyncratic of English in particular, that can be unravelled by, and agreed to, Setswana. Phonemes are small sets of basic units of sounds, different for each language, by which utterances are represented. One example the dictionary gives us is ‘bit’ and ‘pit’ (viz. ‘banana’ and ‘panana’). This entails a b-to-p interchange we have already addressed in preceding articles, so the phonemes are b and p. Naturally, all this implies and posits that Setswana betrays vestiges of this primordial protolanguage, and that it is one of the closest surviving languages still very close to it. 

Compound letters to express phonemes can contrive to confuse the budding etymologist, and we will go through a few of these in this article. Last week, we compared the Setswana term fulaka (‘graze widely’) and ‘forage’. We noted therein that ful related well with ‘for’ due to  the well-known  l to r sound-shift, and that aka and ‘age’ entailed the Setswana tendency for g (as in ‘goat’) to be hardened to a k: for example, in Setswana, ‘Kalanga’ is simply ‘Kalaka’. But what I did not further explain, though it seemed evident, was that the age in English is pronounced eij rather than aga. So, we can discern straightaway that the English vowel ‘a’ changes from an ah (or eh) sound to an ei-sound due to the ending ‘e’. This something we all learnt at primary – if not pre-primary – school and so I will not go into any detail about that phonetic mutation which, in English, afflicts all the vowels. Rather, I will concentrate on the g that sound-shifts to j because it is a sound-shift that can blur the similarity between cognate proto-terms (that, is, proto-terms that appear to have a common origin). Such mutations, I must further note, are the chief reason and culprit why linguists in general are taught, and thus cling to, the false premise that any similarity in both sound and meaning between words in Indo-European languages and any other language family is merely ‘coincidental’ and should be disregarded.

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