language and mind

April 10, 2011

Inner speech – the ‘inner voice’?

The archiphoneme or not the archiphoneme – that is the question.

Please try a very simple exercise. Fix your gaze on anything – your morning cup of tea or coffee, your bookcase trinket, or whatnot. The thing you’d be looking at would not matter much. The stunt would be to look at something and think absolutely nothing.

‘I could do that stunt regular’, you might say. ‘It’s starting in the right chapter I’d be less enthusiastic about’.

Hardly anyone would dispute the possibility of the right chapter’s being a different thing. Yet, thinking about literally nothing is more difficult than it might seem. You can keep a wristwatch to see how long you actually think nothing. Sooner than later, something’s sure to pop up in your head. ‘Sooner than later’ meaning seconds.

What is thinking? ‘The action of using one’s mind to produce thoughts; action marked by use of the intellect, cogitation, cerebration’, the dictionary says[1]. Greek philosophers sculpted in pensive body positions could be the picture. However, the fact is that live human brains have a continual tendency to produce a process. The processes could remain ‘in the background’. If you try to focus on them, you notice they involve trace speech qualities. You notice your inner speech.

‘What are those guys with the inner speech about?’ you might ask. ‘Anyone to tell me I got voices in my head? I only notice them and they grab my attention?’

Whatsoever. Inner speech is not a voice and it is not voices. It involves trace speech qualities. This means there aren’t whole phrases, words, or even speech sounds. Inner speech uses only traces, minute aspects of speech sounds. You don’t hear them – you can’t produce a speech sound without using your mouth. Those traces are how you remember your own language ability.

‘This inner speech is how I remember myself talking? Something I never said before couldn’t pop up in my head?’

Usually when we think about our memories we think about a kind of a record for what happened already. Human memories do have some know how store however, too. The know how for language is very individual. It tells you how to speak based on how you have spoken. With this regard, the language know how would concern also the future.

‘How I’ve spoken? I wish I had playback about that gal ten years ago. I said something wrong and I never knew exactly what. She was pretty.’

Well, the brain doesn’t make recordings. It keeps the know how. As children, people have the so-called egocentric speech. Kids like ‘talk to themselves’. What they actually do is establishing paths for their language know how.

‘You trying to get me embarrassed? Now that gal would never talk to me. Ma says she remembers I wanted the hare stop falling on my Santa bear. It’s kind of secret, you know, I feel a little odd.’

For no reason at all. All normal kids go through the egocentric stage. Wild children never learn to speak – possibly because they never have their egocentric speech.

On the other hand, let us think about someone to have had a mild brain injury to have impeded their articulation, that is, the know how on speaking. The brain happens to be very good recovering, but it takes time. The person goes to another country. They go to England, for example, and they regain their American accent – although they do not have it anywhere round, literally.

‘Something like stored in the head? But, wouldn’t they rather change their accent to British?’

Language know how is not fixed for ever. Humans can change their accents volitionally, just practicing. Yet the language know how matters to the self-preservation instinct. If it gets shackled, it tends to restore itself and not adopt change, at least till some recovery takes place. The brain most probably keeps multiple memory patterns for that – the know how is like ‘backed-up’.

Let us imagine another stunt. You could say you recognize people mostly by their voices. We are living in an era of advanced computer technologies. With a recording of your voice, a computer could emulate you using your voice parameter. If it would not emulate you exactly the way you make your speech sounds, you’d listen for a while and say ‘It’s not me’, even if the voice would be exactly like yours.

‘That wouldn’t work with that gal, I mean, trying to tell her I was emulated. Even them best agents, you know, you see at the cinema, their lips move.’

Not so much with silent reading. Silent reading can be much faster than reading out. You do not use your voice for it and you do not ‘say’ things in your mind. You use your inner sound forms.

‘Hokum’, you might say again. ‘I read this book about the chap with the Army and I almost can hear like him talking, not me. I ain’t no admiral.’

You sure use your phonemic imagery. You imagine someone speaking. The way you imagine them speaking might be much different from the way they really make their speech sounds, for one thing. Another thing would be how you’d feel about that gal if she’d use her phonemics to imagine ‘this handsome lad to know how to bake the cake’.

‘K. What about the guy with the news. He speaks three languages. What are his inner sounds?’

This is why ‘the inner voice’ could be only a way of saying things. We can think about more than three languages. For example, the phonemic label for a house is ‘house’ in English. It is ‘maison’ in French, ‘Haus’ in German, ‘casa’ in Italian, ‘casa’ in Spanish, or ‘dom’ in transliterated Russian.You couldn’t have one sound label for all of them.

There have been guys saying you could have something like an ‘archiphoneme’. You have the sound [m] in English, French, German, and other languages. Your brain would remember something like an [m] for all those languages. Things get a little more complicated with other sounds, however. You say [t] on your teeth in Italian and you say it a little more to the back, like on the inside to your gums in English. You couldn’t have anything like one [t] for both languages anywhere in your brain because it actually needs to work different for both the sounds.

Vowels could come out totally different. Think about something like the French ‘aujourd’hui’. It is literally au +‎ jour +‎ de +‎ hui, “on the day of today”. Let us say someone tells you it is [o] but you say it like [all], and then there is [u] but you say it like [book], and then you get to the end of it saying something like the [i:] in [ear] after the [w]. You are not going to make a single French sound and there are plenty of guys in Canada, for example, who are successful speaking both English and French. More, they can read, write, and altogether comprehend English and French.

‘Would I have the archiphonemes if I’m not like a guy from Canada?’

Well, you could think about your brain like it is a real good gear. There ain’t computers to make it the way with language. This gear can be very specific, individual, and capable of learning. No other guy’s gear would be exactly the same. On the other hand, it has its standard modes of functioning, standard as for the human species. If archiphonemes could not work for bilingual or multilingual people, they wouldn’t work for monolingual people either, I guess. The archiphoneme idea might be a little scholastic…

‘Darn. This is what I told that gal, that she was scholastic…’ ;)

Please feel welcome to see my poetry corner

my scribbling site

or my other WordPress posts; they are listed at

1] Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate® Dictionary, 2005.

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