For most readers, this is a new word. Roughly speaking, it means the set of sounds in a language. We are accustomed to using written letters to organize our language into words, grammar and the expression of meaning. But there are other ways of organizing a language: by its sounds, not its letters. For example, the ‘c’ in the word ‘cool’ is the same sound as the letter ‘k’ in ‘leek’. Though different letters, they are the same sound – just one sound in a phoneme ‘alphabet’.

Yes, this topic is extremely esoteric, Mariner is attracted to any topic that has to do with hearing and speaking. The marvel of science that could make a scientist the richest man in the world would be to emulate the mechanics of hearing.

His experience with hearing aids is subpar. It seems that trying to convert sound waves into human speech is flawed. Every human listening system is slightly different because brains are different, bone structure is different, language expectations are different (budder in the US is the same word as buTTa in England or ‘sar’ in Massachusetts versus ‘saw’ in the rest of the US. Mariner’s pleasing favorite is anything Fats Domino says; mariner’s favorites are ‘haut’ for ‘heart’ and the permanent replacement of a short ĭ with a long ē – My haut stood steel on Blueberry Heel).

He has noticed that in general practice, there is a human who translates sounds between two incommunicable groups – either a translator of language or a converter changing sounds to hand gestures. Hearing aids don’t have translators; they only hear sound waves without intelligent interpretation.

Perhaps hearing aids should have a phoneme lexicon built in. Computer storage can store a sound value on an atom these days. Why not build a phonemic dictionary into hearing aids; adaptability to parochial sounds could be as rapid as human listening.

Here is the difficulty: Phonemes are categories rather than actual sounds, they are not tangible things; instead, they are abstract, theoretical types or groups that are only psychologically real. (In other words, we cannot hear phonemes, but we assume they exist because of how the sounds in languages create a pattern.) For example, the word ‘kicked’ has two ‘k’ sounds but they are not identical. The first k is clearly thrust from the throat and the second k is a collaboration between the tongue and the roof of the mouth.

Nevertheless, mariner feels there must be some form of phonemic intelligence incorporated into hearing aids.

Ancient Mariner

1 thought on “Phonemes

  1. Just re-read this. You hit the nail on the head about phonemes. The phoneme is just a construct, but a very useful one. It’s used in articulatory phonetics (the way sounds are made ), but I believe that hearing aids make use of acoustic phonetics (the characteristics of the speech sounds). Here’s a definition of acoustic phonetics: Acoustic phonetics investigates time domain features such as the mean squared amplitude of a waveform, its duration, its fundamental frequency, or frequency domain features such as the frequency spectrum, or even combined spectrotemporal features and the relationship of these properties to other branches of phonetics (e.g. articulatory or auditory phonetics), and to abstract linguistic concepts such as phonemes, phrases, or utterances. I hope this helps.

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