Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Consonants’ Category

Babbling with L

Posted by Neal on February 4, 2017


I loved this punning tweet from @ScottishScouse that ties together the Oscar-nominated movie La La Land, the Teletubbies, and Eastern Europe. It has inspired me to post another installment of Babbler’s Lexicon, featuring the /l/ series: /lala, lele, lili, lolo, lulu/.


So first off, the La La of La La Land (both the movie and the nickname for its setting) is a play on the initialism LA for Los Angeles, since la la land is also, in the OED’s words, a “state of being out of touch with reality.” Both those senses emerged at the same time: The OED’s earliest attestation for both is 1979. In fact, the Los Angeles Times is the
source of that first non-Los-Angeles-related attestation: “Heather was in la-la land after…drinking the LSD-spiked iced tea intended for Diana.” It’s also the source of an even earlier attestation, from 1925, referring not to Los Angeles, but to France; the lexicographers surmise that there’s an ooh-la-la connection in there.

laalaaIn the movie scene that @ScottishScouse used, Emma Stone’s character is wearing a bright yellow dress, just about the same color as that of the Teletubby Laa-Laa. The others, of course, are the purple one (Tinky Winky), the green one (Dipsy), and the red one (Po…get it?).

I’m actually making an exception by including Laa-Laa in this list, because these days I’m leaning toward excluding people’s names. I’m discovering that almost every sequence of two identical consonant-vowel (CV) syllables that I’m looking at has been used somewhere, at some time, as someone’s name. If I think there’s something otherwise noteworthy about a person’s name that turns up in my searches, I’ll include it, but otherwise I won’t.


After excluding several people’s names, I didn’t really find much here. A search for “lay lay” turned up an Urban Dictionary definition for a lazy person, but I haven’t found the expression used in the wild, so I’m suspicious about this one.


Not much here, either, but as for people named /lili/, there’s the actor Leelee Sobieski. Onward!


Mostly proper nouns here, too. Briefly, Lolo is the stage name for the singer Lauren Pritchard, a character in a video game, and a nickname for the founder of a chain of chicken-and-waffles restaurants. It’s also a method of birth control also known as Lo Loestrin Fe. As a common noun, LoLo refers to a kind of cargo ship that uses on-board cranes to load (“lift on”) and unload (“lift off”) the containers.

Moving on to low low is another name for a low-rider, according to a convincingly consistent collection of definitions in the the not-always-trustworthy Urban Dictionary, as well as in . Finally, on the low low is a more reduplicate-y version of on the downlow; at least it is in this video:



Lulu is a fairly common nickname (also spelled LooLoo, Loo Loo, and Lou Lou), as well as the name of a self-publishing website. According to the OED, a lulu is “A remarkable or wonderful person or thing; freq. used ironically;” a citation from 1972 goes like this: “I do hope you’re not scared of earth tremors… This one was a real lulu.”
Looloo is a travel app for the Philippines.

All in all, my /l/ series is pretty short, but not as short as my /θ/ and /ð/ series. Maybe I should get those out of the way next!

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Phonetics and phonology, What the L | 1 Comment »

Trucha Affrication

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2015

If this were a fried chicken restaurant in the US, it would probably call itself "Motherpluckers."

Doug spent last summer in Ecuador at the Tandayapa Bird Lodge, where he doubled his life list by seeing 345 species of birds that he’d never seen before. He also ate a lot of good food, saw a volcano, and spoke mucho español. He got to speaking it pretty well, apparently. But some of the other guests that he heard there had a little bit of trouble with their accent.

He told me about one British guest, who really enjoyed a trout dinner that they served one night, and said so: “¡Me gusta la trucha!

This really amused the cook and one of the guides. One of them asked the guest a couple more times whether he liked la trucha. The guest said yes he did, and wondered aloud to Doug, “Why do they keep asking me that?”

Before I go further, I’m going to have to do a little bit of phonetic housekeeping, specifically with regard to the R sound in the International Phonetic Alphabet. On this blog, I’ve written the English pronunciation of the R sound with the IPA symbol [r], but that’s actually the IPA representation of a Spanish or Italian rolled R, as in the Spanish perro, or the American English edited (sometimes, for some speakers). The IPA representation of an ordinary Spanish R, as in pero, is [ɾ], which also happens to be the English “tapped” T or D (as in thataway). Of course, some UK speakers roll or tap their R’s, too, such as this Scottish guy. But today, I’m talking about the non-rolled pronunciation of R in American English and the English spoken by the British guest who so enjoyed the trout. That’s a “postalveolar R,” represented as [ɹ]. OK, on with the post.

Do you remember when I was writing about how in English, a /t/ is often pronounced as [ʧ] (the “CH” sound) when it comes before an /ɹ/? Sure you do!

However, that’s an English phonological rule. Do it in Spanish, and you just give yourself away as a non-native speaker (assuming you haven’t already done so by inappropriately aspirating, voicing, or devoicing your stops). You might even embarrass yourself, as this British tourist did. Trout in Spanish is trucha, pronounced [tɾuʧa]. Note the tapped R [ɾ]. The British guest was pronouncing it as [ʧɹuʧə], with a postalveolar [ɹ] and an affricated /t/. This, as it turns out, is uncomfortably close to another Spanish word, chucha [ʧuʧa].

Doug, being such a polite young man, declined to translate this word for me, but did offer that it was part of an expression of frustration or anger that he sometimes heard from the speakers there: ¡chucha madre!. Wikipedia tells me that in other Spanish-speaking countries, the expression is ¡chucha de tu madre!. De tu madre means “of your mother” — “your mother’s” something. I’ll just leave it at that.

Posted in Affricates, Taboo | 1 Comment »

Peanut Eyes

Posted by Neal on September 24, 2015

In a social-media gimmick to promote the the new Peanuts movie, a web page is being shared that invites you to “get Peanutized!” I went there, expecting to upload a headshot and be amused at what came back once the secret Peanutizing software had done its thing. I was disappointed to find that it was really more of a character creator with fewer options than Doug and Adam had on their Nintendo Wii. I did it anyway, though, picking what I thought matched me best from the available options. No choice on the face shape; boys automatically get the Charlie Brown moon face, no lumpy face shapes like Linus’s, or other face shapes like maybe Schroeder’s. Here it is:

Peanutization complete

Aside from the less-than-impressive technology of the Peanutizer, I have a linguistic problem with it. How do you pronounce Peanutize?

Just sound it out, you say? Just say peanut and then add the suffix -ize? That’s all well and good if your base word is something like skolem or tender or Simpson. The trouble with having peanut as a base word is how to pronounce the /t/. Do I pronounce it like a typical, word-initial, aspirated [tʰ]? Or do I pronounce it as a tap [ɾ], the way I do with the /t/ in meter?

If, like my wife, I pronounced peanut to rhyme with seen it, with an unstressed second syllable, then Peanutize is no more a pronunciation problem than digitize. The final /t/ of peanut would be free to break loose from the end of the nut syllable, and attach itself to the ize. The ize become tize, and the /t/ at the onset would be pronounced [tʰ]: “ties.”

But as you’ll no doubt recall, I don’t pronounce peanut to rhyme with seen it. I pronounce it as a compound word, with primary stress on pea, and secondary stress on nut. So for me, the vowel in nut doesn’t get reduced to a schwa; it remains the “uh” sound [ʌ]. And since [ʌ] is a lax vowel, it generally needs to have a consonant close off the syllable. (Exceptions are interjections, such as duh and meh.) This brings up a new issue: Since I now have a /t/ at the end of a syllable (what phoneticians call coda position), and because I speak American English, I have the option of pronouncing the /t/ as a tap [ɾ].

However, this option has a problem. Typically, [ɾ] occurs in English between a stressed and an unstressed syllable (e.g. MET-er), or between two unstressed syllables (e.g. VOM-it-ed). Sometimes it can occur before a stressed syllable (e.g. what-EV-er), but I believe when that happens, that stressed syllable has to have the primary stress in the word. But in Peanutize, the ize doesn’t have primary stress. That honor goes to Pea. If I go ahead and tap that /t/ anyway, I end up with something that sounds to my ear like two words: peanut eyes (which I just discovered is actually an idiom in Thai).

There’s only one solution: Ask myself what Taylor Swift would do. She’d turn that /t/ into a glottal stop [ʔ], that’s what she’d do! So everybody, let’s get peanuh’ized!

Posted in Consonants, Kids' entertainment, Movies | 3 Comments »

U-Nine-Ed States

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2014


Photo by Alan Light

Photo by Alan Light

Glen emailed me a week or so ago:

Do you sometimes feel like people pronounce “united” to sound like “unined”? (Three syllables, but replacing the t sound with an n sound.) If so, is there some principle that would explain it?

In fact, I have heard this. It’s particularly noticeable in the Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know podcast. However, instead of [n], Glen may have been hearing the nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ̃]. (I have enlarged the font to make the diacritic visible.) The non-nasalized alveolar tap [ɾ] is the voiced, /d/-like sound that you hear in American English in words like atom and writer. As for the nasalized version, just as [p] and [b] have a nasal counterpart [m]; and [t] and [d] have a nasal counterpart [n]; and [k] and [g] have a nasal counterpart [ŋ]; the alveolar tap [ɾ] has a nasal counterpart. But there isn’t a special IPA character for it; instead, we just make do by putting a nasalization tilde above the tap symbol: [ ɾ̃].

You may notice that there’s something missing from this picture. [m] corresponds to two both a voiceless and a voiced non-nasal consonant, [p] and [b]; [n] to [t] and [d]; and [ŋ] to [k] and [g]; but [ɾ̃] corresponds only to the voiced [ɾ].

Or does it? It turns out that a voiceless alveolar tap is possible, as I learned on John Wells’ Phonetics Blog. You devoice it the same as you devoice any other consonant: by not letting your vocal folds vibrate while you say it. It’s just that taps happen so much faster than other consonants that it never occurred to me that this was possible. Again, there’s no special IPA symbol for it; instead, we write it by putting a “voiceless” diacritic under the tap symbol: [ɾ̥].

Moving to the second part of Glen’s question, I would call the [jũnɑɪ̃ɾ̃̃əd] pronunciation of united a progressive assimilation, because the nasal quality of the first /n/ persists, turning the subsequent alveolar tap into [ɾ̃]. As for why it persists, I guess it does because it can. We don’t distinguish between ordinary and nasalized alveolar taps, nor between nasalized alveolar taps and /n/. Furthermore, there’s little danger of a speaker hearing it as /n/, because if it were actually an /n/ before the suffix -ed, we’d only have two syllables: [jũnɑɪ̃nd].

If it’s just the nasality of the /n/ that’s causing the assimilation of the tap, we should expect it to happen with other nasal consonants, too. For example, you would expect that people might also realize the /t/ or /d/ as [ɾ̃] in words or phrases like mated or outmoded, hang it up or ring it up. Maybe I have, but if so, I’ve never noticed it the way I’ve been noticing “you-nine-ed.” Have you?

Posted in Consonants | 1 Comment »

Unexpected Glottal Stops

Posted by Neal on April 2, 2014

It began a couple of months ago, as I would listen to the morning news on the radio. Whenever this one guy from the Ohio Statehouse News Bureau signs off, he says, “Andy Chow, Statehouse News Bureau,” but he pronounces Statehouse as [steɪʔhɑus], realizing the /t/ as a glottal stop, instead of turning it into a tap, like I do: [steɪɾhɑus]. I thought it was just a one-time pronunciation glitch the first time I heard it, but the next day, he did it again. I started to listen for more of Andy Chow’s unexpected glottal stops, and they were there: whenever a word ended with a stressed syllable followed by /t/, and the following word also began with a stressed syllable, possibly with an /h/ at the front.

This is not where I expect glottal stops in American English. In a post on his now-discontinued but still great Phonetiblog, John Wells quotes himself from his Longman Pronunciation Dictionary on glottal stops in American English:

ʔ is found as an allophone of t only
• at the end of a syllable, and
• if the preceding sound is a vowel or sonorant

Provided these conditions are satisfied, it is widely used in both BrE and AmE where the following sound is an obstruent

football ˈfʊt bɔːl → ˈfʊʔ bɔːl
outside ˌaʊt ˈsaɪd → ˌaʊʔ ˈsaɪd
that faint buzz ˌðæt ˌfeɪnt ˈbʌz → ˌðæʔ ˌfeɪnʔ ˈbʌz

or a nasal

atmospheric ˌæt məs ˈfer ɪk → ˌæʔ məs ˈfer ɪk
button ˈbʌt ən → ˈbʌʔ n
that name ˌðæt ˈneɪm → ˌðæʔ ˈneɪm

or a semivowel or non-syllabic l

Gatwick ˈɡæt wɪk → ˈɡæʔ wɪk
quite well ˌkwaɪt ˈwel → ˌkwaɪʔ ˈwel
brightly ˈbraɪt li → ˈbraɪʔ li

This has been my understanding of American English glottal stops up until now. I take it to be an indication of the novelty of this pronunciation that even John Wells, who has made a career out of knowing this stuff, doesn’t mention it at all.

The next phase began when I heard Doug refer to that classic 1990s comedy cartoon duo, Beavis and Butthead. He pronounced Butthead as [bʌʔhɛd] instead of [bʌɾhɛd]. Once I heard him say that, I started listening more closely, and now know that he regularly produces a glottal stop in such words as butthole and pothole as well. Just a couple of days ago, he was making spaghetti sauce, and said,

I [heɪʔ] how the brown sugar gets so hard.

(Yes, we put 2 tablespoons of brown sugar in our spaghetti sauce. So what?)

Finally, I drove from Ohio to Northern Virginia a few weekends ago for the funeral of the wife of oldest friend. On the way back, I listened to this episode of This American Life, which was devoted to a single story reported by Susan Zalkind. As I drove, I realized that Zalkind had this pronunciation, too. Every few minutes, she’d do it again, in a string like met Eric or shot Ibragim. But having an entire episode to listen to, I decided to listen closer, to hear if there were places where she had the opportunity to make one of these glottal stops, but realized her /t/ as a tap. It turned out there were, and that they had just been slipping by, undetected because they sounded so normal.

When I got back home, I re-listened to the podcast, and wrote down every example of /t/ that occurred at the end of a word before a word that began with a vowel or /h/ plus a vowel. I kept a list of /t/ realized as [ʔ] and /t/ realized as [ɾ], put them in a table, and was surprised to find that the two columns were just about equal. The glottal stop hadn’t completely taken over this phonetic environment after all.

So then the question was whether Zalkind (and others with this pronunciation) used it randomly, or there was some rule that could predict when she would use it. It didn’t seem to matter whether the following word began with a stressed syllable (e.g. at all) or unstressed (e.g. about it), or what vowel the second word began with. But I was able to make one generalization: When the second word began with /h/–in other words, the very environment that I’d noticed with Andy Chow’s Statehouse and Doug’s butthead–the /t/ was almost certain to be realized as a glottal stop. Out of 17 examples of /t/ at the end of a word before a word beginning with /h/, 15 of them realized /t/ as [ʔ]. Furthermore, if that second word began with a stressed vowel, chances of a glottal stop were 100%. (The /h/ examples appear at the bottoms of their respective columns.) In other words, a phrase like beat him up was likely to contain a glottal stop, and a phrase like got home was certain to.

In thinking about this pronunciation, I’ve begun to wonder why I should consider it such a natural environment for speakers like me to have a tap. The canonical location for [ɾ] is between a stressed and an unstressed vowel. This isn’t the case in a word like statehouse, where the vowels on both sides of /t/ are stressed, and we have an intervening consonant, /h/. In fact, having a glottal stop before /h/ would allow Wells’s rules to be stated more concisely. Instead of referring to “obstruent, nasals, semi-vowels, and syllabic /l/,” it could refer to “all consonants”. Well, make that, “all consonants except /r/”. Even so, this pronunciation that sounds so strange to me can be seen as just a step in the direct of regularity.

If you have encountered this pronunciation or use it yourself, leave a comment! (And not just any comment; a comment on the pronunciation. But of course, you knew that from the Maxim of Relevance.)

Posted in Consonants, Ohioana | 10 Comments »

Interdental L for Emphasis

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2013

“Who put Blackfish on our Netflix queue?” my wife asked.

“Oh, that was me. Entertainment Weekly recommended it.”

She didn’t want to watch it, though, so I ended up watching the documentary on killer whales in captivity myself, while I wrapped Christmas presents last week. It was a well-done film, and it was short enough that I even watched the DVD extras while I finished wrapping. They included an interview with marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose, in a segment called “The Truth About Wild Whales.”

At the end of the interview, Rose was asked whether she thought Sea World should be shut down. She finessed the answer by saying that as a business, Sea World would do what its customers demanded, and offered this advice about how customers could make their wishes known:

They have to [pause] write a letter. [pause] Change their vacation plans. [pause] Let Sea World know they changed their vacation plans.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "letter".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “letter”.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "Let".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “Let”.

I had to put down the scissors and the wrapping paper and rewind the video to the beginning of that statement to watch and listen to it more closely. There it was! In the first sentence, Rose pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of the word letter in the way it’s described in texts on English phonetics: with the tip of her tongue behind her front teeth. But in the third sentence, she pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of let with the tip of her tongue between her top and bottom front teeth, in the same position as it would be if she were pronouncing /θ/ (as in thick) or /ð/ (as in this). In other words, she was pronouncing it as an interdental sound rather than an alveolar one.

This is a pronunciation that I learned about about 10 years ago from some college students in southern central Ohio. Now that I think more about it, I imagine that probably most English speakers pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. Since that link no longer works, here’s a fresh one. In the post, Mark Jones sums up responses from other list members, some of whom note that the interdental pronunciation seems to be used for emphasis, or when a speaker is hyperarticulating. That, I think, is what’s going on in Rose’s interview. Before she says let Sea World know, she pauses slightly and leans forward; and as she says it, she speaks at a higher volume.

Whether or not you’re interested in Dr. Rose’s interdental and alveolar /l/s, I recommend watching Blackfish. I wish I’d seen it before taking Adam to Sea World in San Antonio when we went down for my sister’s wedding in May.

Posted in Movies, Variation, What the L | 3 Comments »

Gay or Shtraight?

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2013

One of my posts from 2011 has been gathering some new comments recently, and not spam comments, either. The post was about the pronunciation of “str” clusters as [ʃtr], and a reader named Andrew Leitch left this comment earlier this week:

I first noticed it when my sister in law returned to Canada from grad school at Purdue and work in New Jersey more than ten years ago. It took a while but now I’m hearing it everywhere. Recently I heard it from a middle aged, white, Canadian, male, construction superintendent. That was the most surprising.
When movie characters, such as those described above, use it, I think they are saying: Only pussies and mamma’s boys would say straight when you can say shtraight. Straight is for fastidious librarians; shtraight is for guys who know how to load a gun and stuff a 20 down a shtripper’s g-string.
It’s an anti-lisp. It says: Not only am I not gay, but I’m almost unbelievably shtraight.

This is getting us in to sociolinguistics territory, a topic I didn’t get into when I reported the findings of a study by David Durian in that last post. One main idea (maybe the) main idea in sociolinguistics is that there are layers of meaning in what we say beyond the actual compositional meaning of the phrases. That’s also the main idea in pragmatics; the difference is that sociolinguistics is more specifically about layers of meaning that signal things your relationships with others. For example, y’all doesn’t mean just “second person plural”; it could also mean, “I am (or wish to be perceived as) a Southern American.” Sociolinguists refer to very specific kinds of variation, such as use of y’all, as variables, and say that they index various characteristics. Durian found that [ʃtr] indexed urban-ness, at least in central Ohio.

Leitch’s claim, then, is that [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality; indeed, a kind of hyper-heterosexuality. So I asked my followers on Twitter:

Josef Fruehwald tweeted back that Campbell-Kibler (2011) had found that “speakers with backed /s/ were rated more masculine and more "country."” More on that later. Douglas Bigham responded with a personal observation:

Gay hicks use /shtr/ all the time; I've noticed it all over the country, too. That doesn't make it NOT hetero, tho.

A good point. Just because you are gay doesn’t mean that you’ll use the behaviors (linguistic or otherwise) that index gayness. A follower named Derron Borders offered a clearer counterexample, in himself:

I am completely and utterly gay (not uber masc[uline]) and am from Circleville, Ohio and definitely say /shtr/.

He followed up with a note of caution:

It's hard to say any phonetic item indexes a particular gender or sexuality, b/c of variation in the pop[ulation].

Moving away from the question of whether [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality, Lucy Fisher and Lauren Squires offered some other observations of people with this pronunciation. Fisher noted that [ʃtr] was “quite downmarket” in the UK, while Squires reported hearing it in The Real Housewives of Atlanta and in the speech of NPR announcers.

Moving back to the issue of heterosexuality-indexing, I read the paper by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, who found that /s/-backing (in other words, pronouncing /s/ further back in the mouth, as [ʃ]) interacted with other speech variables she was investigating (pitch, and pronouncing the -ing suffix as -in). For example, if a male speaker doesn’t already have an obvious Southern (American) accent, /s/-backing will make him sound more “country”–an interesting contrast from Durian’s findings. In addition, it affects perception of three other characteristics, as it

shifts the relationship between competence, sexuality and masculinity, by increasing perceptions of the complex style “masculine, unintelligent, straight man.”

In other words, although the effect isn’t completely clear-cut or consistent, Leitch was on to something. From an articulatory standpoint, his assertion that /s/-backing is the “anti-lisp” is exactly right. Campbell-Kibler even refers to a lisp as /s/-fronting: pronouncing /s/ with your tongue a bit too far forward, so that it becomes [θ]. Unlike with /s/-backing, linguists agree that /s/-fronting has a very clear effect on listener perception, and it’s the same effect that the person on the street might tell you: It makes a man sound gay. (It’s not the only thing that does, of course, but the effect is there.) So the real opposition between /s/-fronting and /s/-backing actually does reflect to some extent the opposition between being gay and being “almost unbelievably shtraight.”

Posted in Consonants, Sociolinguistics, Variation | 3 Comments »

I Got Laboved

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2013


Bill Labov came to visit Ohio State University this week. This is the guy who, 50 years ago, began to answer what was then a 100-year-old question: What is the origin of the sound changes that run through a language, changing entire vowel systems, collapsing two phonemes into one, splitting one phoneme into two? More specifically, who starts these changes, and how, and why? With just a couple of well-known studies which are now standardly cited in historical linguistics textbooks, he changed how linguists went about researching these questions.

One of those early studies involved listening to how clerks in higher- and lower-end New York department stores pronounced the phrase fourth floor, in order to hear whether they were pronouncing or omitting the /r/ in those words. (This study was recently the subject of a two-part episode of Lexicon Valley.) The method consisted of asking a clerk where to find some item that the researcher knew to be on the fourth floor. When the clerk said, “Fourth floor,” the researcher would pretend not to have heard properly, and the clerk would say it again. In this way, Labov obtained a pair of utterances of the same phrase, said casually (the first time) and more carefully (the second time). Comparing the percentages of speakers who omitted the /r/ both times, pronounced it both times, or omitted it and then pronounced it provided interesting insights when put together with the demographics of the speakers; for a fuller presentation, listen to the Lexicon Valley podcast.

During his visit to OSU, Labov made several presentations, and tonight he and his colleague Gillian Sankoff were the guests of honor at a party at a professor’s house (his daughter’s, in fact). When I got to the party, I saw Labov talking with Brian Joseph, who introduced me.

“Neal Whitman,” I said, shaking hands.

“What was that?” Labov asked.

“Neal,” I said. It was a bit noisy, so I did my visual aid of making as if to kneel. (Get it?)

“No, your last name.”

“Oh!” I said. “Whitman.”

“Ah, you aspirate your W!” he said.

I burst into a grin. “Yes, I do!”

After that we talked for a few minutes about where I grew up, the “Cool Whip” Family Guy clip on YouTube, vowel mergers, and about sounds that persist in a language long after their reported death.

Driving home, I realized: One of Labov’s oldest tricks had taken me completely unawares.

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, Variation | 6 Comments »

Twenty Wung Guns

Posted by Neal on May 3, 2012

Glen once noted that the trouble with being able to put all your favorite songs on one convenient device is that you have to consciously decide to listen to new music. Motivation to listen to the radio plummets: “Why listen to someone else’s lousy mix plus advertisements, when you can listen to the best mix ever without advertisements?”

So true, so true, as I concurred once before in this space. These days I get exposed to unfamiliar music only when something unusual is going on. As I noted in that earlier blog post, in 2010 I heard a few new songs I liked only because I made a point of listening to the pop station every day for two weeks while I was writing a column on the use of the word <I>Im(m)a</i> in popular songs. I’ve heard a new song here and there in the bowling alley with Doug and Adam, or in the movie theatre while I’m waiting for the previews to begin.

And, as it happens, in the roller skating rink, too. That’s where, at Doug’s birthday party later in 2010, I heard a song that I identified with my song-identifying phone app as “21 Guns” by Green Day. I added it to my iPod, and now, two years later, “21 Guns” has become just one more piece of music that I listen to to the exclusion of new stuff.

After a couple of years of listening to it, I’ve gradually become interested in the chorus:

Twenty-one guns
Lay down your arms
Give up the fight.

Twenty-one guns
Throw up your arms
Into the sky.

Two things are interesting about the chorus, one of them because of the way Green Day sing it, and the other because it brought back memories of writing Chapter 1 of my dissertation.

In English, the phoneme /n/ might be pronounced not only as [n], as in Neal, but also as [ɲ], as in In your face!, or as [ŋ], as in drink. That last assimilation is consciously known to most literate English speakers, some of whom had to be taught that ng was actually pronounced [ŋ], and not [ng] “nuh-guh”, as it was spelled.

In fast, or even normally paced speech, these assimilations can cross word boundaries, as happens in my example of In your face! Speaking carefully, I would pronounce 21 guns as “twenty [wʌ̃n] guns”. But speaking freely and easily, I would (and do) pronounce it as “twenty [wʌ̃ŋ] guns”. (The ~ is supposed to go over the ʌ in those transcriptions

In fact, Green Day sing it this way, too, as you can hear in the video. What I find unusual, though, is that they do this even though the song is somewhat slow (about 80BPM, the low end of “andante”, according to my metronome). Nevertheless, every time they sing that chorus, it’s a very carefully enunciated “twenty wung guns”. Why?

Posted in Consonants, Music | 12 Comments »


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?

Posted in Affricates, What the L | 3 Comments »