Linguistics A-level project

Unit 1


  • Module 1: introduction to language structure
    • A. Phonology
      • A1. Sounds and letters


  • Students can distinguish letters and sounds in their thinking and in notation.
  • They know some of the possible mismatches (e.g. alternative pronunciations or spellings, clusters of letters or one sound and vice versa) and have appropriate metalanguage
  • They are used to studying mismatch patterns in different languages via datasets, and to working out the correct generalisations
  • They are used to handling different versions of the Roman alphabet (e.g. diacritics and non-English letters), but not necessarily more fundamentally different kinds of writing systems – these could be studied in a separate unit.


  • Writing and speech are fundamentally different manifestations of language, so letters and sounds are different kinds of thing.
  • Speech is prior to writing in (almost) every sense.
  • Sounds can be represented by a transcription, but this is different from ordinary writing, and the relations may be complex.
  • Sounds are organised systematically, e.g. in terms of voicing.
  • It’s important to distinguish transcriptions visually from writing by using /…/.
  • There are different kinds of mismatch. (Is there an established terminology for these mismatch types?):
    • clusters: 1 sound = 2 letters or v.v.
    • alternatives: 1 sound = 2 letters or v.v.
  • The relations between sounds and letters are essentially arbitrary so they vary from language to language.

Teaching (divided into three 40-minute lessons)

Lesson 1 (cluster mismatches)

  • English:
    • activity: count the number of sounds and letters in various words where there’s a clustering mismatch:
      • off, ox, shin, chin
    • discussion: Which comes first?
    • teaching: introduce transcription conventions:
      • <…> for orthography
      • /…/ and the IPA for pronunciation. Introduce a few IPA symbols:
        • /f, k, s, esh, t/
    • activity: transcribe the words studied earlier; keep /i,o/ for vowels but promise IPA symbols later.
    • activity: work out ‘phoneme-grapheme’ (sound-letter) correspondence rules for consonants.
    • discussion: are these cases irregular or just complicated?
  • Non-English: Czech
    • activity: consider some C words (S/C = s/c^hachek), together with their IPA transcriptions (: = length):
      • box /boks/ ‘boxing’, Sa’lek /esh+alek/ ‘cup’, Cokola’da /t^esh+okola:da/ ‘chocolate’
    • activity: Work out the phoneme-grapheme correspondence rules for the words in this sentence.
    • Discussion: What’s the general difference between C spelling and English? Which is better?
    • activity: Transcribe the following: Clen ‘member’, SaSek ‘clown’, Ci’Sni’k ‘waiter’
    • teaching: summarise the main points.

Lesson 2 (alternative mismatches)

  • English:
    • activity: select a letter and collect examples of alternative pronunciations, and vice versa. E.g.:
      • <s>: /s/ (sin) or /z/ (is)
      • /s/: <s> (sin) or <ss> (miss) or <ce> (rice)
    • activity: dictate nonsense words for them to write in orthography.
      • /was/, /zam/, /maz/
    • discussion: what rules were they applying? Do these rules have exceptions?
    • teaching: /s/ and /z/ are phonetically related by voicing, so it’s no coincidence that they’re confused in orthography.
    • teaching: introduce more IPA consonants in voiceless:voiced pairs:
      • /s:z, f:v, t:d, p:b, k:g/
  • Non-English: Welsh
    • activity: consider some Welsh words borrowed from English and work out the pronunciation of <f>, <ff> and <c>:
      • actif ‘active’,  ffigur ‘figure’, ffocws ‘focus’, lefel ‘level’, proffesiwn ‘profession’, tancer ‘tanker’, cic ‘kick’.
    • discussion: what are the phoneme correspondences for these Welsh letters? Is there a general difference between the spelling of borrowed words in Welsh and in English? Which language is likely to have more regular correspondences?
    • activity: guess how the following Welsh names are pronounced (<ch> = /x/) and transcribe them:
      • Fforest Fach /forest vax/, Ffestiniog /festiniog/, Cefn /kevn/, Caernarfon  /kaernarvon/
    • teaching: a bit about the history of Welsh. The phonological regularity of Welsh spelling. Summary of main points about alternative phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

Lesson 3 (Systems)

  • English:
    • activity: work out the rule for using a or an, using a sample of words:
      • pear, apple, school, youth, uncle, university
      • does the rule apply to letters or to sounds?
    • teaching: distinguish consonants and vowels. Introduce:
      • phonology = study of how sounds are organised.
      • phonotactics = study of how sounds combine with each other.
    • activity: does a word have to contain a vowel?
    • discussion: is <y> a consonant or a vowel?
      • Compare words such as: <youth>, <by>
  • Non-English: Czech and Welsh
    • activity: why do the following words look odd to us?
      • Czech: trg ‘market’, krk ‘neck’, rok ‘year’, vlk ‘wolf’, led ‘ice’
      • Welsh: cwm ‘valley’, cwt ‘tail’, bwlch ‘gap’, winc ‘wink’, wns ‘ounce’
    • discussion: What’s going on?
    • teaching: it’s important to distinguish ‘function’ from ‘form’:
      • a consonant-like sound may function as syllable nucleus.

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