Alvin M. Liberman
Speech is such an easy and convenient thing that most people are misled into thinking it must also be very simple. If it were really very simple, of course, there would not be very much to say about it. In fact, however, speech is one of the most complicated and intricate skills that we ever acquire, and there is a great deal that can be said about it. We can talk about the sentences we speak, or about the meanings they have, or about the purposes they serve. But even if we ignore all those complicated aspects of speech, there is still much left to say that is interesting about the way we speak and the way we hear speech.
How do we make the vowels and consonants of our language? This question is far more complex than it seems. Speech is very special. It bears a special relation to language. It uses a special set of sounds. It is processed by a special part of the nervous system. It is perceived in a special mode.
Now most people do not realize that speech is so special. The common assumption is that the sounds of speech are like the letters of an alphabet. As I hope to show, that assumption is entirely wrong. I would like, nevertheless, to discuss this erroneous view, because it is important to see just where the mistake lies.
Let us consider, then, what it means to represent language alphabetically. Suppose we wish to communicate a simple word -- for example, "bag." To do that in writing, we must first appreciate that the word comprises three phonetic elements or segments: the first segment is the consonant we call "b," the second is the vowel "ae," and the third is the consonant "g."