Imagine you were a visiting anthropologist from a different planet, on assignment to “live among the apes”. From the fresh outside perspective, many things about us would be fascinating. Our language, the multitude of sounds that emanate from our little naked-monkey heads, is rather amazing if you stop to think about it. From the corner of Hong Kong to the Scottish highlands, it seems an endless variety.
The meat of our speech is delivered via vowels. Vowels, by definition, are the sounds spoken without any build-up of air pressure. (if you think about a K, we start working on the sound slightly before it is released) As was pointed out to me at a singing workshop I attended, the vowels carry all the emotion in our speech. Comparing the expression of vowel sounds pinpoints the difference between the dramatic Italian tongue and the stuffy British.
As such, there are a lot of ways to bend the vowels to make each dialect unique. For example, Canadians are often characterized as pronouncing “about” like “a-boot”. The difference between the two is the position of the tongue. If you make an “ooo” sound, you can feel your tongue more curved, whereas the lazier “aaa” results in a flat tongue. (Which is likely why it’s the preferred sound by doctors during a check-up) So, if a Canadian actor wants to speak more American, they must learn to keep their tongue forward.
A pure vowel, one that sounds the same at the beginning as it does at the end, is called a monophthong. (mono = one, phthong = sound, pronounced mono-f-thong) Italian features a lot of solid monophthongs, which is what makes it such a great language for opera. A nice fat un-changing monophthong can be belted out with a lot of power and emotion.
Next up is the diphthongs, which start with one vowel sound then bend into a second sound. Not all languages have these. Going further along you get triphthongs (three sounds) which are rarer still, but do show up in English a fair bit. Let’s wrap our tongues around some examples.
“Ten”. When I say that, it’s a monophthong. T-eeeeee-n. My tongue stays perfectly still until I cut into the N. However, if my tongue was born in the state of Georgia in the southern USA, things would be different. T-eee-aaaa-n. At least a diphthong, or more depending on the part of the south. Same language, same word, same letters, but the way the vowel is handled is a world of difference.
Now the word “fire”, which tends to be a triphthong no matter who’s saying it. Faaa-iiii-eeeerrr. Of course the three sounds are blended together smoothly, but the tongue is never at rest.
Getting back to the singing, it’s tough to sing the word “fire” with much emotion. Go on, give it a try. The shifting vowel sound seems to drain away the energy. To make it work, you’d probably want to hang on to a monophthong as long as possible. Faaaaaaaaaaa-i-er!
There you go. Linguistics plus a singing lesson. That would be two things you’ve learned today.