Skip to main content


A language is a large set of sounds that are coded. Example: bitch, beach, batch, are coded, but butch and botch are not. If you utter the first three to English speakers they will react, hear your meaning and reply... by another set of coded sounds like: fake or fuck, but fick or feek or fack are not coded and therefore not used to exchange ideas in a conversation.

1. A language is a large set of sounds that are coded.

These coded sounds are to be really accurate to be recognised to have their code deciphered so to speak. Yes, SO to speak! The coded sound is similar to a note made on a violin. If it is not just quite accurate it sounds awful and misses its purpose of making sense to the listener. Example: if I say I have put a new shit on the bed, instead of a sheet... you are sure to get a loud laugh instead of a normal reaction.

2. The coded sounds are to be really accurate to be recognised.

In order to utter these coded sounds we all have the same instruments. I mean we the humans are equipped at birth with the exact same instruments.

3. All humans have and use the same instruments to hear and utter these coded sounds.

Like a walky-talky we produce sounds and we receive sounds.

To produce sounds we have vocal cords that vibrate with air expelled from our lungs. We use all the various things in our mouth such as: the back and the tip of the tongue, the palate, the upper and lower lips, the teeth, the nasal conducts.

To receive sounds we have two ears, one on each side of the head. Each ear is equipped with a drum with a very sensitive skin stretched across it.

4. We produce sounds and we receive sounds. We are a living walky-talky.

Usually after this intro students are bewildered. They had never noticed!

When you are a baby you get to hear the same sounds over and over. By a trial and error process you guess and get to associate a given sound with a meaning. It takes some years for a child to understand all the coded sounds spoken around and it takes even more years to be able to utter and speak them out correctly. The process uses miming, aping, and memorising.

Coded sounds in one given languagage get to hit your ear drums always at the same spot. They become familiar sounds. Your brain classifies those sounds at the speed of light, well..., and unfamiliar sounds get ejected. Or classified in the same spot as a familiar sound. Example: the English sound written 'th' is not heard for what it is by French speakers but identified and classified as a 'z' or 's', e.g. ze English sink zat ze French are crazy.

When you try to learn another langue, i.e. another set of coded sounds unfamiliar to you, you have to try and stop this automatic filing of new sounds into familiar old slots. You have to LISTEN first. Like a violin artist musician you have to tune your ear to a brand new sound when it hits your ear drum. Once you actually hear that sound for what it is you have to find out a way to produce it. Usually when asking a native speaker of any given language you do not get help as they don't have a clue. If you are lucky you might just come across someone who knows.

For example, when I was trying to learn the Fulah language in the 1970s I simply could not figure out how to utter the 'ddh' as in 'biddho' meaning 'child'...until one day when I met a tall Fulah student in Paris who explained that it was a glottal stop, stopping the air from coming out at the back of your throat between the two syllables.

In a way it is easier to learn a language that has not been written. You have to concentrate on the sounds alone. Reading a foreign language with your own idea of its pronunciation is very treacherous. And very wrong. Yet it is the usual way we are taught foreign languages at school.

                                                      === === === === === ===

With the egg and the chicken we often wonder and ponder what came first in the order of creation, the egg or the chicken. In the case of spoken or written language there is no pondering to do. The answer is straight forward: THE SPOKEN LANGUAGE CAME FIRST and by far, by millions of years. Mankind produced and exchanged sounds long before some original dude thought of writing them down.

Some decided to scribble signs representing sounds, that is our alphabet. Others decided to scribble signs representing the actual idea of what they were saying, that is the Chinese way of ideograms.

In the case of signs representing sounds, no one agreed on a standard of course! Between the Dutch, the French, the English and the Germans, a same and identical sound has 4 different ways of spelling. Example: the sound 'oo' as in fool in English is spelt 'oe' in Dutch, 'ou' in French and 'u' in German.

So good luck with your language study!

See this museum of languages in Paris if you pass by!

This post was kindly prompted by reading The Chaos of Correct Pronunciation from the blog Bouquet of Sharpened Pencils that you can find here on the list of my blogger friends in the right hand margin. 
1 comment

Popular posts from this blog


When I say that I studied social ethnology, most people don't know what I'm talking about. So to illustrate what a post-graduate student did at the University of Michigan in this science within the department of Anthropology, here is the copy of my essay written in November 1980 for my professor of course 501 of that year.


The study was based on ethnographic data published by Meyer Fortes who was an ethnologist in the 1940s in Ghana. The exercise was to use his data from his observation in the field to analyse what it meant in terms of "power game". It was to show us that a good ethnographer's job consisted of taking down every detail of his observations, even if it did not make sense to him at the time. The ethnologist can then trust the ethnographer's findings in order to analyse them and make sense with them. The ethnographer and the ethnologist are most of the time the one and same person. …

237. Wisdom

A whole year now since I posted anything on this blog!

I am currently reading The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence in an attempt to view the background of the current hatred between East and West following the attacks on Paris lately. I borrowed the French version of the book written by Lawrence at the end of the First World War. It may sound odd but I am indeed finding the roots of the problem there.

In any case I greatly enjoy reading this French translation by Eric Chedaille, éditions Phébus 2009. It is fluid and elegant. I am sure that Lawrence would have liked it too!  The English original edition for the translation was as follows:

T. E. Lawrence. 
Seven Pillars of Wisdom The complete 1922 "Oxford" text First published for general circulation by J. and N. Wilson Fordingbridge, Hampshire, 2004 Project-managed by Book Production Consultants PLC, Cambridge

I find Lawrence full of philosophy and humor.  It also brings me back to my own time in the Middle East when I was 19 …

249. A car, a bicycle and a dog

The year 2014 is a landmark in my very ordinary life. 
I had a car, a Ford Mondeo Ghia, running on diesel. I had driven it very happily to Germany, to Scotland and to various places in France. It had reached past 200 K km mileage and needed some fixing. I forgot what it was, nothing too bad, it could still pass the mandatory regular registration. My mechanic told me he would not do it. In any case I didn't have the money to have it done. So, I left it parked on the village square for a long time hoping to find the money and another mechanic for it. After a year I was asked to move it out as there was going to be a village fair on the square. Fair enough. Some friendly neighbor helped me start it and I drove it 5 km away to the other village where I have my garden and a barn. My idea was to store it inside the barn pending better days when I would get it fixed. I judged that the engine, if not the rusty body, could still be useful for something. However, as I couldn't open the b…