The universal phonetic framework is functional In honour of Professor Cao Xuân-Hạo (1930-2007)

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In honour of Professor Cao Xuân-Hạo (1930-2007)

NGHIÊM Xuân Hải (Université de Paris-Sud , Orsay, France)

38 rue de Lozère 91400 Orsay, phone : 0603991238 & 0160104225

e-mail:     Website:


The universal phonetic framework retains only the common part of all languages and discards all particularities of any peculiar one such as French, English…

As the common properties are the essential basics, the framework is spare and simple to understand and to teach to any non mute human as he uses it in speaking.

The universal framework is the alphabet built up by vowels and consonants as the elementary beams defined as actions to be done instead of phonic sounds. The human organ is bounded to intertwine his actions and produces the interaction of two consecutive consonant-vowel functions.

The functional theory ignores all these intertwining bounded functions as a non new degree of freedom and discards all the incoherencies of the phonic alphabet bounded to cope these fuzzy intermediate phonic sounds whose precise definition cannot be given.

With the functional conception, functions are well defined and well shared : the functions of emitting constant sounds are charged to the vowels and a consonant has in charge the remaining function of mute modulation of the sound emitted by the vowel coming before or after it.

1. The human organ can speak slower without lowering frequencies.
You can speak as slow as you want to analyse the mouth actions and their phonic results. Try to say a, ba and ab slower and slower : you put your mouth in position to say a and vibrate you vocal chords and you emit the spoken word a. The same action with different shapes of your mouth gives you different vowels. The same analyse work on for complex sounds such as aba, ab and ba.

2. We know the action to be done, we do it and the sound comes later.

A child learn the skill of acting by hearing the phonic sound that he compare with the sayings of his mother, his father, before catching the meaning. The universals we are looking for are therefore at a lower stage than understanding : The sense of phonic sound is irrelevant in the universal theory as private handlings. What you say must work on for Martian humans if they exists and don’t use the American sense of the words. The universal vowel/consonant property pertains in all languages. Vietnamese consonants are mute, therefore the occidental named “voiced consonants” are actually mute consonants voiced by revealing vowels that one must use for communication reasons.
3. How to handle the vowel a and all other French vowels.
English writing is so peculiar that if I explain with English vowels, nobody can understand.

French is less particular. French have ten wolves : Nine written : a, e, i, o, u, é, è, ou, or and one unwritten. But Alexandre de Rhodes wrote it as ă in Quốc-ngữ (for example in ăn = to eat) and forgot it in ay (instead of ăi) exactly as it was forgotten in the French word ayez.

To say any vowel you put your mouth into the correct shape and vibrate your vocal chords :

Man can define a vowel to be the function of saying it as constant sound of the spoken word written as one character (to avoid further difficulties) and this character denote this function

The vowel and his symbol (= character) are called by the corresponding constant sound.

The vowels has the characteristic property of lasting as long as you want (but don’t suicide by non-breathing), while consonants cannot be elongated as you want.

A theory of continuously varying sounds cannot be built with the constant sounds of vowels and is incoherent but a coherent theory of language can be built with the functional concept.
Application 1° : You can speak slower and slower to hear, to see and to feel what your mouth is doing. Modern machinery, can do it and reproduces all the living details to help your analyse but your senses and your feelings on the situation of your tongue, your throat, your palate, your yaw etc. are sufficient if you slow down your action to recognize what you are doing.

Application 2° : Look, in that way, at your speaking action with the Vietnamese words ăn and ay (you get ay by not tuning the word áy) and au (gotten from cau (= areca) by cutting away the c) : The constant sound you heard at the beginning is the vowel ă, much more shut than a, improperly called á by de Rhodes. Keep unchanged the shape taken by your mouth at the beginning of all these words ăn, ay, au and vibrate your vocal chords. The emitted constant sound you got is the vowel ă which is easily misheard into the constant vowel a and, in order to avoid it, de Rhodes uses incoherently the tuned vowel á to call the vowel ă :

  • A tuned vowel is not a constant sound. Afterthought, if a vowel can change in many ways into many different sounds, which one will you choose to define it ?

  • Why should you use the sound you choose as name in spelling and not the other ones ? This inconsistence proves the theoretic failure of your approach. The failure is that it makes you spell ăn into á+n to get the word án. This incoherence is heard by everybody and never explained, in Vietnamese as in French, with the diphthong ay of ayez whose spelling a+y gives the word ail. This proves the French writing incoherence.

  • The vowel â is incoherently named . Everybody spells ân into +n to get ớn without being perturbed. This is indeed the most visible incoherence of all the business.

Application 3° : The physical difference between ăn versus an (compact versus diffuse contact) is a functional built-in effect : We shut the air passage by pushing up the tongue. For the large open a, the tongue is two times farther from the palate than for the half-shut ă, and to reach the ă position one needs circa the same time as to shut from the ă position. Of course things are a little more subtle, as the second part of an is not exactly the sound ăn, as the tongue is a little more advanced. This reflects the fact that at the beginning a is a little more advanced than ă. This property shows also that the consonant of n begins to be at the position of the vowel being modulated and that a consonant don’t have an immovable position (this was shown by Cao Xuân Hạo long time ago). The difference can hardly be heard and does not matter. General perception is that the total sound of an is two time longer and on first supplementary half it « sounds » more open : In 1949 Nguyễn Bạt-Tụy used the words độ-chạm loãng/đặc (diffuse/compact contact), so that the interaction of phonic sounds is in mind but in the physical reality, as in our perception, two sounds can’t mix nor interact. But this is a structural fact in the functional theory : This function is compulsory and don’t give any freedom for what so ever : The sound compactness is pleonastic and irrelevant in the theory. The same effect goes on for ơn versus ân, and in, ưn, ach and so on .

4. Phonic functions interact while phonic sounds can’t.

Two sounds can be concatenated without interference. The two wove constant sounds a and i can be produced successively with no silence between them by a tape recorder. But the human machine can’t do alike while saying a and i : The speaker put his mouth into the shape to say a and vibrate his vocal chords, then he moves the shape to the i’s position before vibrating once more his vocal chords. He must hide this move by immobilizing his vocal chords. The result is the hiding silence and as the speaker must not cut the continuous sound represented by ai , he must vibrate his choral chords all along the time and say an intertwining vowel sound starting at the sound a and ending at i. This is not a constant and dead sound, but a living variable one named “diphthong”.

It is impossible to describe and to reproduce a diphthong : You may think to the number octets your computer uses to record an analogical sound and to the speaker himself who can’t emit two identical sounds. This is a particular thing, each case is unique, and the number of cases is unlimited so that nobody can make a general and precise theory of a « diphthong » and sound theory, having to handle undefined sounds is necessary incoherent if this indeterminacy is not taken into account. It is universal that the brain recognize the aim and neglect the way of going : The intertwining aim allows the recognition of the transitory sound because “all the ways leads to Roma” and it is useless to look at the details of the diphthong : It is somewhat incoherent to study it as speaker and hearer don’t mind about is because their brain recognises the function and in spite of the details.

The functional theory discards the diphthongs as non free function and is coherent.

The alphabetic writing records the functions, and the functions of saying a and i interact to produce the « diphthong ». This physical induced effect exists but was fuzzily hidden by the 3000 years old confusion between the sounds and the function of saying them :

The alphabetic universal functional theory exists, is spare and unbeknown,
This existence is proven experimentally: The functional concatenation of the two vowels a and i can be done by speaking at a very low speed, and we heard the always emitted diphthong written in French as ail and in travail, and written in English as I. The difference between French and English words arises as particular uses and is and neglected in the universal theory. The whole physical object can be described as a–i , where three parts are not independent : a is the function of saying the constant a, the hyphen is the intertwining function and i is the action of saying the constant i. The two vowel functions over-lap on the hyphen, at the image of a folded paper, and everywhere on the folded part the two actions interfere. This folded part, represented by the hyphen is not written, but we say it and we heard it.

People wanted to break it into two parts to be included in the boarding vowel-letters a and i but nobody can say where to cut it. Therefore, cutting the “diphthong” into consecutive sounds is as inconsistent not cutting it, as the “whole thing” is written ai : While saying slowly the ai, you heard the constant a at the beginning and the constant i at the end : The physical object is the set of three inseparable functions a–i and the hyphen must be discarded as a non degree of freedom. The hyphen exists and induces and the non-linearity of all languages (Cao Xuân-Hạo proof in his book “Phonologie et linéarité” SELAF Paris 1985, was very long and a bit “literary”)

5. Consonant function is to modulate the constant sound of vowels.
We can make the action of saying ba without vibrating our vocal chords : the final constant vowel sound a is killed, and what is left is the true function of the consonant b : You shut your lips (that is the articulation of the consonant), you keep some air in your mouth (that is the holding of the consonant) and you open suddenly your lips to expulse the air (that is the attack of the consonant), and all three actions give no sound if no vowel is said :
The consonant function is the mute modulation of the existing sound.
For non closed consonant, you can also stop voicing by immobilizing the vocal chords, and you can kill the hushing by damping the strength of the out going air while holding the consonant. Vietnamese people always do so, therefore the muteness is the universal property of the “usually said voiced” consonants and making them voiced is only a particular European practice.
APPLICATION : Take the same function b, and do it simultaneously with all other vowel functions such as a,e,i,o,u : You get the spoken words ba, be, bi, bo, bu. Change the consonant function into the function of t or n : you get the words ta, te, ti, to, tu and na, ne, ni, no, nu.

Any speaking child can do it and already “knows” to read written word with letters as functions.

He can also look at his mouth while speaking to separate the function of the consonant from the function of the vowel. He has only to learn how to write the letters associated to the consonant functions and he can write what he is saying.

COUNTER-EXAMPLE : We are so blinded by our faith that a consonant is a phonic sound that we replaced it by its sounding name and we ask children to say + a to make the sound ba. Let us write b’ for the function denoted by the letter b. We are making them do the actions b’+é+a instead of b’+a and teach them to accept the sound béa as the sound ba. Our dictatorial method force them to think that what they almost know about the true lecture is untrue.

6. Silent consonants are not unbearable.
The voiced consonants are the best example backing the “idea” that consonant are not silent and the best proof of the validity of the mute consonant universal function.

Voicing is to vibrate the vocal chords and we can do it with any shapes of our phonic organ, provide the air issue is not closed. As a vowel is said with an constant shape, we can define it as two concomitant functions: keeping the shape and voicing. When a consonant attack a vowel, voicing is done by the vowel and the consonant don’t voice and is mute. When we articulate a consonant, if no sound pre-exists, nothing is heard so that the articulation is also mute.

The “voiced” consonant can be said unvoiced as voicing is a particular possible choice.

Let us think voicing as one indispensable action to produce phonic sounds and not voicing actions as mute. This standing is consistent because producing sounds such as clicks are particular and not universal therefore out of the scope of this study. Furthermore producing sound by hushing through the narrow air passage is automatic, not always intentional and irrelevant as the functional theory focalises on the intention of the speaker to perform the function he has to do. Europeans continue to hush and because the hushing distinguishes the final consonant, giving rise to different meaning. In Vietnamese, hushing is forbidden at the end of a syllable by the coding obligation to have syllables well separated by a coding silence: What so ever is the shape of the mouth, man must stop to expulse the air. The terminating hushing consonants not easily recognized are never used in communication : Vietnamese spoken words never terminate by the hushing consonants s,z,ph=f.

The consonants s and z are said to differ by voicing or not, but you can say French words se and ze by voicing or not at the beginning but the same word is “heard”. The recognition relies on the way you attack, by a subtle change on the tongue apex action producing the lisping or not, the hushing and voicing awhile holding (and articulating too) are irrelevant for the meaning : You can “say” that consonants are mute as it is simpler to handle, specially with children learning to read :

The most simple is the idea, the best practice you get: We can reserve the voicing action to the vowels only and remain coherent so that the functional theory is simple by good task sharing.
A consonant is the concatenation of three subfunctions :

1°- Articulation : make the air issue smaller, and this action will interfere with a preceding vowel

2°- Holding : keep the minimal air issue.

3°- Attack on a following vowel.

This partition was seen by Ferdinand de Saussure in his Cours de linguistique générale (1916), but he missed the 2°-numbered central part because he never experienced the Vietnamese language whose coding impose the phonic sound to be cut into syllables by the separating silences: Vietnamese autochthones don’t understand the word aba not chopped into ab and ba, so that the central part 2° is said as a big silence, and heard as a big silence even if it is not well said (the Vietnamisation of foreign words fulfils that rule so that Paris is heard as Ba-lê (with some Chinese “help”), Berlin as Béc-lin, Poland as Ba-lan and so on.

Another consequence is that the final b and the opening b are unrelated objects (Cao Xuân Hạo dixit) and this is a Vietnamese (and general) fact often missed by foreigners to Vietnamese.

An here is an ugly problem : Which process is universal, join the three subfunctions together as an unique consonant or chop it into pieces with Vietnamese understanding ?

This is a civilization problem : Vietnamese cook cut the mead into eatable pieces in the kitchen, and when ancient Vietnameses were invited to an European banquet, they asked themselves why those strange people cook at the banquet table by cutting the mead with their knife ... As I have no answer, may you explain ? (Of course, what is actual is no problem and universality is the possibility of all those particular choices)

There are many amusing consequences validating the idea of using the code implications

  • Vietnamese Quốc-ngữ uses two different symbols : opening b is written as b and final b is written as p. But b and p have the same articulation and differ only by the force of their attack. It is more « rational » to use the unique consonant b and throw away the symbol p.

  • The strength of the code induced the Vietnameses to cut abruptly at the end of the word, and Alexandre de Rhodes felt the spoken final b as a p that he never heard. Of course he was right because he did as he felt, and you follows him as you want.

  • By obligation not to have two consecutive syllables, Vietnameses don’t use the final s, z , v and ph = f whose hushing shall be heard as another syllable.

  • They use the closed d and t but they cut off their endings to kill the following syllable. Their way to articulate produces two very near results and for the safe of code security, the Vietnameses hear and identify the two results as the same communication vector. You can say cád instead of cát , Vietnamese people always understand it as cát. Alexander may have written d in place of t, the converse situation would exist but this is irrelevant. We can explain his choice : The abrupt ending driven by the code made him heard it as a t which is more explosive than a d and has a stronger articulation.

  • This is not innocent: The phenomenon occurs with final n and l . They are identical whence their final parts are cut off. Denote it by an n or an l makes no theoretic difference but different orthography : Vietnameses hear the final l and n spoken by foreigners as an unique n, and the final d as a t , and they say them as the unique n or t . A Vietnamese teacher may or can or must punish their « faulty» pupils who makes no universal phonetic fault, but this is a civilization problem, therefore out of the scope of this work.

  • Because of this cutting obligation, final g does not differ so much with final c, and once c is chosen g can’t.

For the points 1° and 3°, the function sharing is well done. If there is no vowel, no sound is emitted and we can reserve voicing to the vowels. Consequently these partial consonant actions are silent and ignored by any pure phonetic theory. Such a theory is unable to describe the human speaking.

The point 2° is subtler : If the issue is closed the voicing don’t exist. If the issue is small, the hushing may “exist”. It does not in Vietnamese and is very strong in English (ass, kiss, pass...) and in French (messe, passe). To handle those particular cases, we have to add a small neutral vowel ǝ and interpret it as the very beginning of the attack, the ending part being forlorn by autochthones habits. A similar procedure works for the voicing.

As application, let us interpret the case of two or three successive consonants, such as in the Polish word Gdansk : Just write it as Gǝdansǝkǝ and we get the reality: the consonants are said by adding the small short revealing vowel ǝ , the n being already heard by its articulation.

This speaking is particular to these language and not universal because not used in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese coding into monosyllables implies all the ends to be cut off in order to create no joint syllable : the consonants collapse together into an unique consonant such as nh, ng, tr, th, ch, the writing must be taken as the concatenation of the non shutting part of the consonants, as their shutting part creating two syllables are preventively and largely cut off. For this reason all these Vietnamese consonants are not rugged. To learn saying them, you have to say softly and to throw away all what is harsh.

The same phenomenon explains what happens to the French word tir in Vietnam : the final part of the consonant r is largely cut off to give the Vietnamese ill-written word tia (well written as tir , the consonant r being said as an âm-biến = fugitive consonant action). We may also ask why the âm-biến r is not accepted with other vowels than i,u,ư. The explanation comes on with code security. The âm-biến r opens too little the not enough shut vowels a, e, o, ô, ơ and gives rise to many hearing confusions : Unable to differentiate the communication signals, it is discarded.

1°. Confusing name are redefined
Vowel = nguyên-âm is renamed âm-nguyên instead of nguyên-âm

Consonant = phụ-âm " âm-im " phụ-âm

Diacritic accent = dấu-thanh " dấu-ngâm " dấu-thanh

English « diacritic accent » should be renamed « tuning accent », as monosyllabic word are tuned and not said at a different and fixed frequency as the Vietnamese word thanh may suggest.

This is a real joke : That tiny distinction has an unbeknown consequence : Foreigners to Vietnamese can learn to say the six tuning accents in less than an hour, as they can learn any tune. The teacher tune very slowly and tell them to repeat until they catch it. By my own experience with French friends, the three forward tunes sắc, bình, huyền are almost already knew. The three last ones, as the same pulled back into the throat, sắc → ngã, bình → hỏi and huyền → nặng are uneasy because the indigenes ( = natives of European countries seen by foreigners) don’t use all their ability to speak with their throat. They take circa 30 minutes to learn how. My receipt for teaching the tune ngã is to tell them to swallow without shutting the mouth as they already know how to do.
Tiny modulation is named âm-biến. In fact, in any Vietnamese diphthong or triphthong, only one vowel is dominant with high level of differentiation and normally spoken, and the other ones have less importance in differentiation and are said very shortly as âm-biến.

The very important case is the non opening consonant r, whose articulation modulate the preceding vowel, and attack and holding are cut off in order to kill the illegal following syllable. This modulation is used to differentiate only with the u-modulated and non-modulated cases and is said very tiny as an « âm-biến » (case 3. below), and r is the unique consonant handled as an âm-biến. Such an unusual use make it « recognized » as many completely different vowels : a, ê, ô, ơ at many different places. One tenth of the ill-written Vietnamese words got the same virus and nobody tried to identify the unique cause of all these illnesses.

2°. Confusing choice of the first vowel.
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