Talking is tricky. If you’ve ever fallen over your tongue trying to pronounce a new term, or just tried to speak too quickly, you’ll know this. Because the act of speaking happens in near real time, and is so deeply ingrained in our muscle memory, we tend to forget that there are physical things to coordinate in order to make sounds. Your tongue is jumping from place to place, touching your alveolar plate (just behind your front teeth) to form t and d sounds, touching your soft pallet (velum) to form k and g sounds, and off to other places to make various other sounds.

Meanwhile, your glottis is opening and closing, your lungs are pushing air out, your jaw moves, and your lips are changing shape.

This is a lot of stuff to juggle. (And this is why it can be hard to coordinate these things, particularly if you are 18 months old, or have had too much to drink.)

Sometimes the distance between certain sounds is so great that our tongues adopt a ‘close enough is good enough’ approach. For example, when you say the word ‘key’, the k sound is made towards the front of your mouth, but when you say ‘car’, the k sound is produced further back, subtly affecting the colour of the sound. Of course, the reason for the different k phonemes is the following vowel. An e sound is made towards the front of your mouth, and the a is made towards the back.

Children learning a language will adopt various phonological processes (essentially a way of simplifying complex phoneme clusters) in order to try and say words. Such as my son—he’s a year and a half old.

He says ‘oose’ for ‘shoes’, an example of initial consonant deletion.

He says ‘doh’ for ‘dog’, an example of final consonant deletion.

He says (this morning for the first time!) ‘boo’ for ‘blue’, an example of consonant cluster reduction (picking a single sound out of a group of adjacent consonants).

He says ‘ba’ for ‘tap’, an example of a few processes at work:

  • metathesis, moving the closing p to the front
  • assimilation, substituting the unvoiced p sound with a voiced b sound
  • final consonant deletion, which does what it says on the tin.

It’s interesting to note that these phonological processes occur even if you’re not drunk or trying to learn your first language. For example, in Australia, it’s pretty common to hear ‘library’ pronounced as ‘libe-ry’, an example of weak syllable deletion.

You can read more about phonological processes on, including an amusing anecdote about what can go wrong when you’re a toddler trying to pronounce ‘fishsticks’.