There is a word in Indian Bengali which is "sala", but in Banladesh Bengali it is pronounced as "Hala". The "s" becomes "h" in a Bangladeshi's tongue. Similarly "Tsunami" seems to be impossible to be pronounced (ts part); but it is asssumable Japanese can utter it. So why does such things happen? Is it because those who can utter hard constructs, have a letters in their alphabet which helps them pronouncing? Or is it totally a regional and anthropological thing?

  • 5
    Because every language has its own set of sounds, and its own rules for arranging them. These sounds and rules are called the Phonology, or phonological system, of the language. – jlawler Feb 17 '13 at 5:18
  • 2
    It is neither regional, nor anthropological, nor anything whatever to do with an alphabet (which is merely the way a language happens to be written, and nothing intrinsic to the language). It is everything to do with the sounds, sound sequences, and sound distinctions which are made in the language(s) that speakers in that area are familiar with - the phonology as John Lawler says. Incidentally, /s/ became /h/ in the history of such diverse languages as Greek and Welsh. – Colin Fine Mar 23 '13 at 14:32

A child, or more precisely an infant (from Latin in-fans - not-speaking), is said to be "universal phonetician". This stems from the fact that you can observe in children of this age the ability to distinguish between any two phonemes in any world language (and the child can grow and learn to make that difference in speech).

Now this is no supernatural ability, superpower or proof that our educational systems kill children's wonderful abilities. This means that the child is a rough, unformed piece of wood that will eventually evolve into a precisely carved... something (sorry, I had a beautiful metaphor in mind but it slipped away).

During this process of learning, you put stuff into context and you discard the rest, you build your phonological space, you segment the vowel space as required by the realities of language environment around you and you train your articulatory muscles for the gestures required to utter the sounds of that language.

After this lengthy process is accomplished, you will inevitably struggle with distinctions, which you were learning in the long previous years to be irrelevant (because in your language they are varieties of the same phoneme). So you have to unlearn what you learned and overcome the constraints set up by your own own phonology. And considering certain articulatory gestures have to be very, very precise to produce the required sound (e.g. Czech voiced /h/, voiced /ř/ etc.), it may require lot of effort to learn them past certain age.


Every language has it own phonology and rules for putting them together. Every language has something called phonotactics, which are language specific rules for what sounds can occur, where they can occur and in what combinations they can occur. For example, English phonotactics prevent the consonant cluster [pf], whereas in German [pf] is acceptable as in the word Pferd 'horse'. Also in English we pronounce the word gnome [nom] instead of [gnom], because English phonotactics prevents the cluster [gn]. It is a result of these rules that some languages can have certain sounds and combinations of sounds that other languages can't have.

  • 2
    To be precise, English phonotactics forbids [pf] in initial position. We can cope perfectly well with [pf] medially, as in cupful. – Colin Fine Mar 23 '13 at 14:29
  • 2
    Same with [gn] as in ignition. – cyco130 Mar 26 '13 at 13:46

This is called mothertongue influence! When we use other languages, the linguistic system of the mothertongue effects the other language too. But we can overcome this by conscious effort.

  • The examples given in the question imply that the OP already knows that the speaker's mothertongue is to blame. They want to know what mechanisms cause these differences. Could you edit your answer to include a more detailed explanation of how one's mothertongue affects their speech? – acattle Mar 24 '13 at 12:34
  • I mildly disagree with your your "we can overcome this by conscious effort" statement. While conscious effort can lead to improvements, I'd qualify that these improvements only occur to a point. The critical period hypothesis suggests that our personal phonology (and phonotactics) become locked down around the age of 12. For example, this would explain why most people have an accent in their second language no matter how great their skill-level and no matter how much they practice. – acattle Mar 24 '13 at 12:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.