Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on April 27, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I was pleased to discover that a new episode of The Tobolowsky Files had come out. (You may recall my blogging about this podcast last year.) This one was about a time in Stephen Tobolowsky’s life when he had an Icelandic horse. I never knew there was a breed of horse called an Icelandic, but I guess there is. The horse’s name, Tobo said, was something that sounded like Yokult. He explained that the name was Icelandic for glacier.

Wait a minute–Icelandic for glacier? Didn’t I already know the Icelandic word for glacier? Hadn’t I learned it somewhere? And it wasn’t yokult, it was…

Ah, right! It was jökull, as in Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that preempted so much trans-Atlantic air travel back in 2010. People made fun of the name–The Oatmeal’s take on it was hilarious–but the news stories explained that it meant “island mountain glacier” (or more literally, “glacier of the mountains of the islands”). On Language Log, Mark Liberman explained the pronunciation, and on his Phonetic Blog, John Wells gave some additional details.

The parts I was interested in were the ll sequences. As I’ve learned from the blog posts, in Icelandic represents a “pre-stopped lateral”. The lateral part means basically that the sound is a kind of /l/. In phonetic terms, lateral refers to the sides of the tongue. To get the full picture, you have to know what the tongue is doing for other kinds of consonants, in particular the stops (or plosives) and fricatives. For stops that involve the tongue, the tongue blocks the airflow from the lungs completely. For example, put your tongue in position to say a [t] or [d] and you’ll feel it form a seal all around the edges of your palate, from your top left molars to the area behind your top incisors to your top right molars.

For fricatives that involve the tongue, the tongue obstructs the airflow enough to create turbulence, resulting in the hissing or buzzing sound of, for example, [s] or [z]. The air that does get out passes over the top of the tongue. To see how, put your tongue into position for a [t] again, and now turn that [t] into an [s]. You’ll notice that the sides of your tongue are still touching your top molars. The part of your tongue that’s making way for the air to escape is the tip.

What if instead of lowering the tip of your tongue and leaving the sides in place, you do the opposite? What if you lower the sides and leave the top in place? In that case, what you end up with is an /l/, or to be more precise, a whispered (voiceless) /l/, written in IPA as [l̥ ]. If you turn on your voice, you end up with the ordinary voiced [l].

[l̥ ] and [l] are said to be lateral approximants (or sometimes liquids), which means that the tongue causes the airflow to take a different path out of the mouth than it would if you were just saying a vowel, but doesn’t obstruct it enough to result in a fricative or a stop. But if you want to, you can turn your lateral approximant into a lateral fricative. Just stiffen up your tongue and close the space between the sides of the tongue and the teeth above, just enough to get that turbulent airflow. If you’re doing this without voicing, you’ll get the hiss of the voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ]. With voice, you’ll get the buzz of the voiced lateral fricative [ɮ].

So much for lateral. What about pre-stopped? If you guessed that it has something to do with stop consonants, you’re right. As a reminder, the primary stop consonants in English are [p, b, t, d, k, g]. Sometimes you’ll get a stop right before a fricative. You can probably identify the stop-fricative neighbors in dipshit, ribs, cat sitter, red zone, suck face, and beg the question. A couple of stop-fricative pairs have even achieved the status of phoneme in English; that is, they’re perceived as a single sound. Those pairs are [ʧ] and [ʤ], as in cheer and jeer, respectively. These consonants might have been called pre-stopped fricatives, except that another name had already been established for these: affricates.

So instead of thinking about stops coming right before fricatives, think about stops coming right before other continuant consonants (i.e. consonants that you can keep saying until you run out of breath, as opposed to stops, which are done the moment you allow airflow to resume). Those are the nasals /m, n, ŋ/ and the approximants /l, r, w, j/. Put a stop consonant before any of these sounds, and it’ll be a pre-stopped version of that sound, right?

Not quite. To count as pre-stopping, there are two additional requirements. First, the stop and the continuant have to be homorganic (that is, made with the same parts of the mouth). So, for example, [bm] would count, because both [b] and [m] are made with the lips. [ps] would not count, because [p] is made with the lips, while [s] is made with the teeth and tongue. The second requirement–and this is where English gives up any hope of having pre-stopped consonants–is that the pair of sounds be considered a single sound by speakers of the language we’re discussing, just the way that the affricates [ʧ] and [ʤ] are considered individual sounds by English speakers. The closest English comes to having pre-stopping is in words like hidden, assuming you’re pronouncing it with no vowel between the [d] and the [n], and are just keeping your tongue tip in place and letting the blocked airflow suddenly escape through your nose. But if you ask an English speaker how many syllables hidden has, they’ll say two, not one. For [dn] to be a pre-stopped /n/, the speaker would have to consider hidden to be just as good a monosyllable as catch, or for that matter, lets, fifth, ghosts, and sixths.

Now I can get back to the Icelandic ll. This orthography represents a pre-stopped lateral, i.e. /tl/. This is easy to hear in the slower recordings of fjalla; it sounds like “fyatla”. The difficulty comes in jökull. Icelandic has final devoicing, which means that voiced consonants at the end of a word are devoiced. So /tl/ would be realized as [tl̥ ]. Supposedly. In fact, as John Wells notes and Mark Liberman agrees, that final [l̥ ] sounds more like a voiceless fricative than an approximant, so that the final consonant of jökull is actually [tɬ]. In other words, it’s actually an affricate, not a pre-stopped lateral.

It really blows my mind to force myself to think about [jœːkʏtl̥ ] as two syllables instead of three. I hear it as “yokoot” followed by static as the transmission is suddenly cut off. If I insist on interpreting that static as a speech sound, the same as I do with the staticky sound at the end of catch, the best I can do is hear it as three syllables, taking the [kʏtl̥ ] part as something like “kootle”, but with the /t/ actually pronounced as [t] instead of tapped as in poodle, and the /l/ whispered.

That accumulation of phonetic unfamiliarities–/t/ not turned into a tap, a voiceless lateral fricative that doesn’t exist in English, plus the necessity of interpreting these two sounds as a single phoneme–is too much for most English speakers, as we learned during the season of Eyjafjallajökull. In a collection of clips of newscasters pronouncing the word (which Wells links to), the most common adaptation was to metathesize the [t], and put it before the [k]: “Ayafyatlayotkul”. The adaptation I’d probably use would be to ignore the final devoicing and pronounce it to rhyme with poodle. And coming back to Stephen Tobolowsky, his adaptation is a different metathesis, namely swapping the [tl] to get [lt], as well as not trying to make a [ɬ]. That was an adaptation I hadn’t heard before, but let me ask now: How do you pronounce jökull when you’re not perfecting your Icelandic pronunciation?

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3 Responses to “Yokult”

  1. the ridger said

    I believe the real “most common adaptation” was to pronounce it “the volcanoe in Iceland”.

  2. Paul Clapham said

    I say it like “yokel”.

    You may or may not find it interesting that in the genitive singular case (“jökuls”) the pre-stopped lateral is replaced by an ordinary l-sound. Presumably that’s because of the “s” after it; you can see the genitive plural of “fjell” is “fjalla” as in “Eyjafjallajökull” — along with an example of umlaut, but that’s yet another thing.

  3. I too have Anglicized the pronunciation to “yokel” when I discussed the volcano in the news–rather ironic for a specialist in Scandinavian languages, eh?

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