The Letter “p”

The letter ‘p’ changed my life. I was a junior in high school, and I was attending a science fair at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Like most science fairs, this one was dominated by exhibits and presentations about physics and chemistry and biology, but I saw that a professor from the department of linguistics was scheduled to talk about linguistics as a science. I was interested in languages, and I had studied French and Latin in school, but I had never thought that studying language was a science, so I decided to see what this professor would say.

            What changed my life was a little demonstration he did during this talk. I’ve seen this demonstration several times since then, and I’ve done it for my own students. The linguistics professor—I don’t remember his name—held a thin strip of paper in front of his mouth. He pronounced the word spin, and nothing happened. Then he pronounced the word pin, and the strip of paper gave a little flap. He then told us to hold our hands up in front of our mouths while we said the same two words. It was easy to feel the puff in pin and to feel the absence of the puff in spin.

The professor went on to explain that in most dialects of English there are two ‘p’ sounds. One of these sounds—the ‘p’ in pin—comes with a little puff of air, but the other—the ‘p’ in spin—doesn’t have a puff of air. Every time a ‘p’ is the first sound of a word, it has the puff, and every time it comes in the middle of a word, it doesn’t. Or we can say that in most dialects of English, initial ‘p’ is aspirated, while medial ‘p’ is unaspirated. These different pronunciations of ‘p’ are quite regular—in most dialects, every initial ‘p’ is aspirated and every medial ‘p’ is unaspirated. (Final ‘p’ is a little more complicated—what happens to it depends partly on what sound comes next.) Regularities in nature—such as the regular ways stones fall when they are dropped—we call laws of nature; by analogy, we can call this regularity of pronunciation a law of culture. I was amazed. At that moment I knew I wanted to study language, and I’ve spent most of the last fifty years doing just that.

When a stone falls, it doesn’t know the laws of nature, because it doesn’t know anything. People know a lot of things, but by and large, they don’t know the laws of culture. Very few speakers of English know that initial ‘p’ is regularly aspirated while medial ‘p’ is not, but they obey this cultural law even when they don’t know it. So we can say that cultural laws can be effective even if they are not known to the people within that culture. This is what I found so amazing—the way we obey these laws of culture without even knowing that they exist.

We can indicate aspirated ‘p’ by adding a superscript ‘h’, like so: ‘ph’. If we want to make a special indication of the lack of aspiration, we can use a superscript ‘o’: ‘po’. The word ‘spin’, then, would be represented by the letters ‘spoin’, but the word ‘pin’ would be represented by the letters ‘phin’. English speakers usually hear these two different ‘p’ sounds to be the same sound. We don’t have to hear the difference, because the difference never makes a difference—in English. The English alphabet uses the same letter for both of these sounds—the letter ‘p’—because we think of them as the same, even though they are not.  We need to know the difference between ‘p’ and ‘b’, because these two sounds make a difference: the difference between pin and bin, for example. It’s the difference between the ‘p’ and the ‘b’ which tells us the difference between the two words. And the English alphabet uses two different letters for these sounds, ‘p’ and ‘b’. But there is no pair of words in English which differ only because of the difference between ‘ph’ and ‘po’; we have ‘phin’ but never ‘poin’, and we have ‘spoin’ but never ‘sphin’. In technical language, the sounds ‘ph’ and ‘po’ are in complementary distribution: wherever you have the one, you don’t have the other. In English, wherever ‘ph’ can be found, then ‘po’ never occurs, but wherever ‘po’ is found, then ‘ph’ never occurs—‘ph’ can be found at the beginning of word and ‘po’ never occurs at the beginning of word; ‘po’ can be found in the middle of a word and ‘ph’ never occurs in the middle of a word. The sounds ‘p’ and ‘b’ are not in complementary distribution; either one can be at the beginning of a word, and it makes a difference.

In technical terminology, we can say that the sounds ‘ph’ and ‘po’ are two different phones, but in English both of these phones belong to the same phoneme. Phones which belong to the same phoneme are called allophones. A phoneme is not an individual sound, but a class of sounds that are grouped together by the speakers of a language—even if the speakers are not aware of what they are doing. Phones are usually written in brackets, and phonemes are usually written between slanted lines, so we could say that the phoneme /p/ includes the two phones [po] and [ph]. (Written letters are indicated with angle brackets, so we could say that the letter <p> stands for the phoneme /p/ and the two phones [po] and [ph].)

The study of the phones of a language is called phonetics, and the study of the phonemes of a language is called phonemics. It is a fact of phonetics that English uses both an aspirated and an unaspirated ‘p’, and it is a fact of phonemics that in English these two phones belong to the same phoneme.

In English, the two kinds of ‘p’ never make a difference, but there are languages that do distinguish these two sounds. Classical Greek, the Greek spoken by Plato, is one of these. In Classical Greek the letter pi—written p—stood for unaspirated ‘p’, and the letter phi—written f—stood for aspirated ‘p’. There are quite a few words in classical Greek which are differentiated by aspiration of the ‘p’ sound—for example, there is the Greek word πάγος, which we can transcribe ‘poágos’—meaning ‘a crag’—and φάγος, which we can transcribe ‘phágos’—meaning ‘a glutton’. So in ancient Greek aspirated ‘ph’ and unaspirated ‘p’ are not in complementary distribution, even though in English they are. Most English speakers automatically aspirate initial ‘p’, so English speakers find it difficult to say ‘poagos’ and automatically say ‘phágos’.

When the Romans borrowed Greek words beginning with phi, they used the spelling ‘ph’ to indicate the aspiration, and English has followed the Latin spelling. But later on, the aspirated ‘p’ became a sound like our ‘f’, and that’s why we pronounce ‘pharmacy’ and ‘philosophy’ with an initial ‘f’ sound. In Classical Greek all of these would have been pronounced with an initial aspirated ‘p’. Our spelling has retained the memory of the original sound. Some other languages have changed the spelling as well as the pronunciation; Spanish uses ‘farmacia’ and ‘filosophia’. There are a few English words that are spelled both ways – ‘fantasy’ and ‘phantasy’, for example.

In modern Greek the letter phi is pronounced ‘f’, but in ancient Greece it wasn’t ‘f’, it was ‘ph’, aspirated ‘p’. When we teach ancient Greek today, we usually follow the modern Greek pronunciation. Most English speakers who learn ancient Greek pronounce the Greek letter π as if it were the English phoneme /p/ – that is, aspirated at the beginning of a word and unaspirated in the middle – and the Greek letter φ as if it were the English /f/. So we usually pronounce πάγος as if it were ‘phágos’ and we pronounce φάγος as if it were ‘fágos’. If this is confusing, a chart may help:

                        Classical pronunciation        English pronunciation

πάγος             poágos                                     phágos

φάγος             phágos                                     fágos

Using the technical terminology introduced above, we can say that in Ancient Greek these two phones [po] and [‘ph’] belong to two different phonemes, /po/ and /‘ph’/, but in English the two phones [po] and [‘ph’] are allophones of one phoneme, /p/. As it happens, English has one letter <p> for one phoneme /p/, and this letter represents both allophones, but in Greek there are two letters—p and f—to distinguish two phonemes.

            In my next post I will talk more about phonemes, and also about the general distinction between “emics” and “etics”.

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