Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Diphthongs for Doug

Posted by Neal on December 14, 2005

I was looking over the graded schoolwork Doug brought home today. One page was from a phonics workbook, and the task was to circle the words in which y had a “long e” sound. There were eight sentences, such as Ty and Molly were taking care of baby Freddy, and They heard Freddy cry in his crib. Doug had done pretty well, circling Molly, baby, Freddy, hurry, everything, funny, bunny, very, happy, and silly. He’d lost a few points, though, for circling they in the three sentences where it appeared, and play in another one. At supper, I asked him why he’d circled those words.

“Listen, Dad,” he said. “Theyyyyyyyy, playyyyyyyyyy.

Far out–he’d perceived that the long a sound was actually a diphthong. I didn’t think kids were supposed to have conscious access to that kind of information.

“Congratulations, Doug,” I said. “You’ve figured out that the long a sound is actually two sounds smushed together. Most people can’t hear that long e at the end. It just sounds like one sound to them.”

He was pleased enough at having made this discovery that I had him say a long, drawn out, “Ohhhhh” so he could hear that the long o sound actually ended with a long u. Then I picked his worksheet back up and told him there were actually some more words that ended with y making a long e sound as part of a diphthong. He didn’t believe it, and started running through the words to rule them out: “Well, it’s not try, it’s not cry…” I made him slow down, and then he heard the long e creeping in at the end of the long i sound. He thought it was pretty funny that if he’d counted the long i sound as having a long e, he’d have circled every word on the page that ended in y.

And then, the most important part of the lesson: “So now you know that when they say long e, they mean long e that’s NOT part of some other sound like a long a or long i.” I don’t want him going to his teacher tomorrow, trying to argue that y really does make the long e sound in all these words. From the kind of arguments he’s been having with me lately, I could see him trying it.

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2 Responses to “Diphthongs for Doug”

  1. Estel said

    When I was around 9 or 10, I invented something between a cipher and a new more phonetic alphabet – it was based on the English alphabet but it had a letter for CH instead of C, and no letters for X or Q because their sounds could be written with other letters. And I wrote the “long i” and “long a” sounds as digraphs with the letters for “ai” and “ei”, so apparently I recognized them as diphthongs. (I didn’t recognize “long o” as a diphthong till much much later, though)

  2. [...] on this very subject. Before I give his claim, some background is in order. I’ve talked about diphthongs before. The most commonly discussed diphthongs in English are [ai] (”long I”) as in [...]

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