Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

How Do You Say Hubert?

Posted by Neal on September 27, 2011

In a post at Lingua Franca, Geoff Pullum writes about reading a novel and being pleasantly surprised when the protagonist referred to the “th” sound in that as a voiced dental fricative, which, in fact, it is. (Interdental, more specifically, but still.) But his admiration turned to disgust when he read another novel in the same series, and the protagonist tells the Secret Service that from their recording of a bad guy saying, “You won’t get that lucky again” and “Hey, I want to talk to you,” they have all the phonetic information they need to identify the guy: “All the vowel sounds, most of the consonants. You got the sibilant characteristics, and some of the fricatives.”

A panphonic set of unscripted utterances consisting of only 13 words? Pullum sets the record straight in his usual style. I already knew firsthand how difficult it would be to round up all the English phonemes in one utterance, having tried doing it in the Mission: Impossible poem, which Ben Zimmer kindly linked to in a comment. For panphonic passages written by other people, check the other posts in the Panphonic Phun category.

As it happens, I was thinking about my panphonic poem just the yesterday. I had just read a post at Grammarphobia about the pronunciation of h before [ju], as in Hubert or Houston (the city in Texas, that is, not the street in Manhattan). Here’s Patricia O’Conner’s description of it when it is pronounced (instead of dropped, as some speakers do):

Phonetically, the letter “h” in these words is a voiceless palatal fricative (a consonant produced by narrowing the air passages, arching the tongue toward the hard palate, and not vibrating the vocal cords).

I was surprised for a moment, since I’m used to thinking of [h] as a voiceless glottal fricative, made simply by opening your vocal folds wide and letting air from the lungs pass through the opening between them (i.e. the glottis). But then I realized that I do pronounce Hubert and Houston with a palatal fricative at the beginning. I started to say Hubert, but quickly switched to home after saying the /h/, and the pronunciation sounded off.

This phonetic realization makes sense, since [j] (that is, the “y” sound) is a palatal consonant, and turning the glottal fricative [h] into the palatal fricative [ç] before [j] is a typical assimilation. Alternatively, instead of producing a fully palatal fricative, a speaker might get the back of the tongue only as far forward as the velum (aka soft palate) before making the /h/ sound, in which case it would come out as the voiceless velar fricative [x]. If you speak German, you’ll recognize [ç] as the sound at the end of Ich, and if you listen to Bill Cosby comedy routines, you may recognize [x] as the way he often pronounces /k/, but that’s about as but English doesn’t have /ç/ or /x/ as phonemes in their own right, so using them for /h/ here and there doesn’t cause confusion.

The significance for my poem, in which I had attempted to use not only every phoneme but also every allophone (way of pronouncing) every phoneme, was that I had learned about one more allophone that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in. I had /h/ in the words he, him, and horrible, and in all those words I think it’s realized as simply [h] and not [ç] or [x]. Some speakers might have it as [ç] in he, but not as reliably as they would in Hubert.

What about you? Do you use a glottal, velar, or palatal /h/ before the “you” sound?

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2 Responses to “How Do You Say Hubert?”

  1. The Ridger said

    I’m not sure – maybe the velar fricative, maybe the palatal. (I’m still stunned by that claim – sibilants? Where are the sibilants?)

  2. German isn’t the only relative of English to use the [ç] sound; it’s also common at the beginnings of Swedish and Norwegian words. The most usual spellings for Scandinavian [ç] are kj- (Norwegian kjær [çæ:r] ‘dear, beloved’) or tj- (Swedish tjugo [ˋçʉ:gə] ‘twenty’). More often than not, that fricative goes back to an underlying /kj/ or /tj/ in Old Norse–I’m guessing that it’s a lefover from an old assimilation.

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