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I was told years ago by a teacher at a Carden School that they teach their students that English homonyms, especially those with diphthongs, can be told apart by the pitch profile of the vowel sound. Now I see in wiki that all English diphthongs have a falling tone. This does not necessarily mean it won't work, but it makes it a little harder to achieve. I can listen to myself talk, but my bias interferes. Is there any scholarship on this?

The example I remember is "meat" versus "meet". It was said that "ea" has a flat profile while "ee" has a rising profile. This might be relative to each other. I also think that 'pitch' may have been a paraphrase and it actually means something else like emphasis or volume?

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"Meet" and "meat" are not homonyms but homophones, because they are spelled differently. Is this what you're referring to? –  Aspinea Jan 28 '13 at 12:49
    
This question is great, but it is about a single language, English. If you need a strict, formal explanation or references, I would recommend moving the question to English Language & Usage. OTOH, if your primary concern is distinguishing homophones in a spoken language as a language learner, it may fit better at English Language Learners. –  bytebuster Jan 28 '13 at 15:20
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@bytebuster According to our FAQ, single-language questions are OK. This is better here than EL&U. –  Alenanno Jan 28 '13 at 15:35
    
I've read somewhere that the difference is actually in vowel length. –  Otavio Macedo Jan 28 '13 at 16:09
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Pitch and tone are definitely the wrong terms here. The labels falling and rising, in the context of diphthongs, have to do with "prominence" relations (more prominent to less prominent or vice versa). Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article is misleading, if not flat-out wrong when it implies that higher pitch marks higher prominence--this is only true if the words in question are uttered in a certain prosodic context. In some other context, the opposite can be true (lower pitch marks greater prominence). –  musicallinguist Jan 28 '13 at 18:32

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

I'm afraid this is wishful thinking on the part of some instructor.

I know of no dialect of English where meat and meet (and, for that matter, mete) are not pronounced identically as /mit/, and there is no intonational difference between them. English does not distinguish words by pitch profiles like Chinese does.

As pointed out, by the way, these two words are spelled differently, so they're not homographs (Gk 'same writing'), but they're pronounced the same, so they are homophones (Gk 'same sound').

Homonym is ambiguous between these senses, and tends to confuse folks, since most people believe that writing is the real language and speech just comes from that. That's the complete opposite of the truth, of course.

Speech is real language, and writing is just a poor representation of some parts of it. That's the wishful thinking that the instructor indulged in — if they're spelled differently, they ought to be pronounced differently, right? As we all know, however, English spelling emphatically does not represent the sounds of modern English, so this is a lost cause.

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+1. I would just add that different written words usually refer to different lexical items, and some theories posit that lexical frequency has an effect on phonetic realization. One version of the theory goes something like, "all else being equal, higher frequency words tend to get realized with shorter duration and more undershot articulation than lower frequency words." Weaker versions only make a binary distinction between function words (to, I) and content words (two, eye). Of course pitch never enters into such theories, and I doubt the instructors had such theories in mind! –  musicallinguist Jan 28 '13 at 20:32
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I would've said that meat and meet are both /miːt/, and that mitt is /mɪt/. I would avoid /mit/ altogether as being too ambiguous. But of course there's more than one way to do English phone[mt]ic transcription. –  hippietrail Jan 29 '13 at 2:37
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I don't use long marks for phonemic notation, because vowel length isn't phonemic in English; it's predictable. I use the Kenyon and Knott system, as exemplified here. –  jlawler Jan 29 '13 at 3:49

As others have pointed out, it seems that you probably meant to discuss homo*phones*, and I'll proceed on that assumption.

There isn't a lot of "mainstream" scholarship on the issue of whether alleged homophones are distinguishable or not, but there is some. Pursuing it leads down the fascinating rabbit-hole of so-called "fine-grained phonetics", and typically winds up at a theory claiming that people store much more (and much more nuanced) phonetic detail in their mental lexicon (the repository of words in our mind, in particular their sound-meaning(-and-perhaps-spelling) associations).

A good start on the homophone question is the following:

  1. Gahl, S. "Thyme" and "Time" are not homophones. Word durations in spontaneous speech. Language 84(3), 474-496.
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This is fascinating, what you are saying about fine-grained phonetics. My interest in the question stems from a curiosity about sub-conscious error correction in language. It looks like your lead may take me closer. I will have a look. –  timquinn Jan 30 '13 at 17:53
    
Gahl's point seems to be that we are more careful in pronouncing less common words. Can I get a job saying that? –  timquinn Feb 1 '13 at 7:16

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