Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘What the L’ Category

Some Phonetic N-L-ysis (Or, You’ll Want to Hold Your Nose for This One)

Posted by Neal on October 27, 2018

In doing pronunciation tutoring for international students, I’ve found one pronunciation error to be particularly difficult for students to overcome. The specific problem, which I’ve noticed most often in students from Hubei, China, is in making a distinction between /n/ and /l/. Sometimes, /l/ is the troublesome member of the pair. When they pronounce it, it sounds like an /n/, so when they deliver a mock lecture for a teaching assessment, they might pronounce analysis as ananasis. Other times, /n/ is the source of the trouble, when not comes out as lot, or no as low, or my knife as my life.

This phonemic merger has happened despite the existence of common Chinese names such as Liu. One student admitted that it can sometimes be a problem to say words like these, and sometimes people from his home region will be teased for it when they travel to other areas of China. Apparently this local dialect, even though it’s a variety of Mandarin, is known to be difficult for other Mandarin speakers to understand. I imagine American English speakers with the cot/caught merger have a similar experience when traveling to a region where the speakers still make a distinction between these two vowels.

Working with speakers who are struggling to distinguish between /n/ and /l/ highlights how phonetically similar they are. First of all, they’re both made by putting the tip of your tongue behind your top front teeth, on that bony bump behind them (the alveolar ridge). Furthermore, they’re both voiced sounds. Make an extended /n/ sound or an extended /l/ sound and put a finger on your Adam’s apple. For both sounds, you’ll feel the vibrations of the air being pushed through your vocal folds.

So exactly what is the difference between /n/ and /l/, anyway? It comes down to two things:

  1. Does the air pass through the nose? That is, are you making a nasal sound?
  2. Does the air pass over the sides of the tongue? That is, are you making a lateral sound?

So how do you know if air is coming through your nose or past the sides of your tongue? Take a deep breath, put your tongue into position for your /n/ or /l/, whichever one you’re trying to make, and say that sound for a good, long time: [nnnnnn….], or [lllll…]. I’m assuming that you’re able to do this, since you’re probably an English speaker if you’re reading this blog. However, in the unlikely event that you were not able to make that extended [n] or [l], then that means the answer to both of these questions is NO, which means you’re not making an [n] or an [l] at all; you’re making a different alveolar sound: [d]!

But supposing you were able to make that extended [n] or [l], here’s the next part of the test. Do it again, and this time do it while pinching your nose. Were you still able to do it? If pinching your nose totally disrupted things, then air must have been coming through there before, so the answer to the “nasal” question is YES.

On the other hand, if pinching your nose didn’t stop you at all, then air must have been escaping your head some other way, and it probably wasn’t coming out your ears. I mean, I guess it could have, if you get lots of ear infections like I did when I was a kid, and you’ve had tubes inserted into your eardrums. But still, it’s a bit of work to force air to go through there. The more likely escape path is past the sides of your tongue. To find out for sure, put your tongue into the position again, and then just breathe through your mouth for a little bit. You should feel the sides of your tongue is getting cold. So the answer to the “lateral” question is YES.

This means, looking back, that if air was passing through your nose a minute or two ago, and pinching your nose gave it no other way to get out, then it wasn’t just the tip of your tongue making contact with the alveolar ridge. It was actually the entire outer edge of your tongue, from the right all the way to the left, spreading out to seal the passage from your molars on one side, to just behind your incisors, to your molars on the other side. On the other hand, if air was passing over the sides of your tongue, then your tongue was squeezed into a narrow shape, so that only the tip was touching the alveolar ridge.

If the answer to the nasal question is YES and the answer to the lateral question is NO, then you’ve got yourself an [n]. If the answer to the nasal question is NO and the answer to the lateral question is YES, then you’re making an [l]. But what if the answer to both of these questions is YES? In that case, you’re making a sound that isn’t even in English’s phonetic inventory. In fact, there isn’t even an International Phonetic Alphabet symbol for it; the best we can do is to use the [l] symbol and use the tilde (~) to indicate that this is a nasalized consonant: [ l̃ ].

This halfway consonant is usually what the students in question have been making for both /n/ and /l/, leading to the confusion between not and lot; no and low; knife and life.

Here are the differences summed up.

air does not   pass through nose        air passes         through nose
air does not pass  sides of tongue [ d ] [ n ]
air passes sides of tongue [ l ] [ l̃ ]

Once the students are more aware of what’s going on with their speech articulators, it’s a matter of practicing the two sounds, sometimes while pinching their nose to make sure air can’t pass through it unnoticed. When they get good enough at producing the two sounds during our session, they can take on the homework challenge of singing the hook from Roy Orbison’s classic doo-wop tune!

Posted in Consonants, Language learning, Music, What the L | 15 Comments »

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 | 3 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 »


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 »


Posted by Neal on June 2, 2011

In 1988 I saw the movie Mississippi Burning. I stayed for the credits at the end because I wanted to find out the name of the actor who’d played the Ku Klux Klan leader. He’d had an interesting voice and resembled one of my favorite uncles, Uncle Ricky. (Decide for yourself: Uncle Ricky is the one standing in this picture.) Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught the character’s name, so I had to wait until I saw Great Balls of Fire the next year, where I saw him again and this time learned that his name was Stephen Tobolowsky. The guy kept turning up in movies here and there after that, so that when I saw him as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day (1993), I was glad to see his familiar face in a great movie.

What I didn’t realize until recently is that Tobolowsky is an amazing storyteller. I came across his podcast, “The Tobolowsky Files,” immediately recognized the name, and listened to an episode out of curiosity. Since then I’ve been listening to all the back episodes of his “stories of life, love, and the entertainment industry”. I also listen to several other podcasts that feature storytelling: “The Moth,” “NPR’s Story Corps,” “Risk,” “This American Life”. They’re good, but sometimes a story on these podcasts will have me wanting to fast-forward to the next one. Not Tobolowsky’s. Even his dullest stories are interesting. And some of his stories are masterpieces. For out-and-out hilariousness, try “The Dangerous Animals Club” (episode 22). For suspense followed by inspiration and life lessons, listen to “Conference Hour” (episode 13). True, Tobolowsky does have some mildly annoying habits: his tendency to actually say “Pause” when he makes a dramatic pause; his consistent pronunciation of Cerberus as Cerebus when talking about an evil neighbor dog; his distortion of math and science concepts when he turns them into analogies for life. (It’s great that he likes and respects the math and science, but I still gritted my teeth every time he referred to “the x/y axis” in an episode called “The Moment Before Zero”). But overall, I recommend TTF right up there with those other podcasts I mentioned, and certainly above wearisome podcasts like “Tales from the South” and “Second Story”.

All well and good, but what’s the linguistic angle? First, a phonetic one. In listening to Stephen Tobolowsky talk a lot, I’ve realized he pronounces most of his /l/s as a uvular nasal, [N]. It’s easiest to hear when he has an /l/ between vowels, for example, in a lot. In light of this, it’s surprising that I can’t really tell if he’s pronouncing /l/ as [N] when he says his name at the end of the podcast (when he gives his Twitter and Facebook addresses), but I’m pretty sure that’s what I’m hearing during the rest of the show.

Second, Tobolowsky recounts a funny misunderstanding in episode 35, “Playing It As It Lays”:

Whenever I wanted to spend money, Mom and Dad would look at me very disapprovingly and tell me some gem of folk wisdom, like “A fool and his money are soon parted.” I never told Mom, but I never really knew what that meant. I never got the syntax that the money was parted from the fool. I always thought it was like some Quentin Tarantino movie where the fool and the money is chainsawed in two….

Or, I might add, one gruesome scene in The Running Man with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Anyway, Tobolowsky talks about the syntax of this proverb, but this ambiguity is actually a matter of semantics, and has gotten a lot of attention from various semanticists. I read about it in Flexibility Principles in Boolean Semantics by Yoad Winter, who cites about half a dozen other linguists on the topic. Here’s the background: Certain verbs require a subject that’s composed of multiple entities; for example, meet. You can’t just say, I have never met, but Stephen and I have never met is OK. The subject doesn’t have to be compound; a singular works if it denotes a group of things. For example: The committee meets the first Monday of every month. However, if you do have a compound subject, the strong tendency is to interpret each of the noun phrases joined by and as one of the participants in the meeting.

Now, what happens if you coordinate two subjects, and each of them denotes a group of things? Something like…

The budget committee and the speakers’ committee meet the first Monday of every month.

If we mean that the budget committee meets with the speakers’ committee, that’s known as the “non-Boolean conjunction” reading. The Boolean conjunction reading would be the one in which the budget committee meets and the speakers’ committee meets, possibly in different locations.

Separate is another verb like meet, with a slight relaxing of the requirements for its subject. Instead of having to be composed of more than one individual, all that’s necessary is that the subject be something that can be split into more than one portion. Thus, in addition to parting fighting siblings, you can part your hair or part the waves. As with meet, though, the elements in a compound subject will tend to be interpreted as the different participants in the separation event. So in A fool and his money are soon parted, the non-Boolean reading in which the money is parted from the fool, is the most natural one.

Not to Stephen Tobolowsky, though. He got the strange Boolean reading, in which the fool is parted and his money is parted. Cool. I wonder if anyone has put up that same misunderstanding on I Used to Believe.

Lastly, a loosely pragmatics-related observation. The podcast was inspired by a 2005 movie called Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, in which Tobolowsky plays himself, telling stories to the camera operator while preparing for his birthday party that night, and during the party itself. I don’t recommend this movie. First of all, many of the stories can also be found in the podcast. Second, it’s one thing to listen to a guy tell lots of his life stories in his own podcast that you choose to listen to. But as I watched him entertain his crowd of guests with story after story in the movie, I kept having trouble suspending my disbelief and imagining that this was a regular party. The only one who did any talking in the crowd scenes was this guy that no one ever interrupted, even with a comment like, “What did you do?”, and who never yielded the floor to anyone else who might be reminded of a story that happened to them. The whole setup results in Tobolowsky coming off as a narcissistic, patronizing conversation hog. Better to stick with the podcast, where the same stories’ entertainment value is undiluted.

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Movies, What the L | 3 Comments »

Links for the New Year

Posted by Neal on January 23, 2011

Hey, what’s this post still doing in my drafts folder? I thought I hit Publish on January 17! Well, here it is now…

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had any collections of interesting links to offer you, but a new year seems like a good time to start up again. I’ll start off with a couple that I’ve had sitting in an unfinished links post for months, and which still seem worth passing on.

You know that within the Phonetics and Phonology category, the pronunciation of /l/ has come up enough here to have its own tab. I’ve talked about Doug’s [j]/[w] realization of /l/ during his toddler years; the pronunciation of /l/ as a uvular nasal vowel by me as a child (and others); and the pronunciation of /l/ as an interdental sound, with the tongue tip between the top and bottom front teeth, the same position as for the TH sounds [θ] and [ð]). This Language Log post comments on and links to a YouTube video first noticed by Josef Fruehwald, who noticed Britney Spears’ /l/ articulation in both singing and lip-synching. She goes beyond the interdental articulation and into apico-labial territory — that is, the tongue curls up to touch the upper lip to make the /l/. (Apical is more specific term than lingual; it refers to the tip (of the tongue).) Don’t believe it? Watch the videos! They’re montages, with the relevant snippets shown at normal speed, then slowed down and repeated.

Next, here’s a short one from Phonoloblog on a news-limerick fail: The contestant in the current-events-limerick-completion challenge on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! can’t figure out the missing word to put in because it only rhymes in dialects with the low-back merger. If you don’t know what that is, that’s OK; the post makes it clear.

In addition to her Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing podcast, Mignon Fogarty does one called Behind the Grammar, in which she interviews anyone she takes a mind to about some aspect of language or writing. In this August 2010 pisode, she interviews sign interpreter David Peach about sign languages in a number of countries. Take it with a grain of salt when he talks about how it’s more logical to use noun-modifier order than vice versa when praising the logicality of a particular language. Otherwise, it’s an interesting look at how sign languages vary, from language to language and from speaker to speaker of one language.

So much for old business. Now to the newly accumulated items to share. First of all, you may have noticed that I have a link to Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column, and I recommend checking that every week anyway. (Or better, you can follow @OnLanguage on Twitter, and read the columns a few days before they’re published in the New York Times Magazine.) However, I found this week’s especially interesting, because he answered a question that I didn’t even realized I’d had: What exactly does trove, as in treasure trove, mean? I especially liked this column because (1) I realized that I’d never asked myself this question; (2) I totally should have asked myself this question long ago; (3) the answer was a complete surprise to me, involving calques (see the article), Anglicized pronunciations, and morphological reanalysis.

Now for a couple tangentially involving last weekend’s LSA conference. The Saturday plenary lecture, given by Joan Maling, discussed the development of a new passive-voice construction in Icelandic. I missed it, because Pittsburgh linguist Lauren Collister had convinced me and some other linguists on Twitter that we should go out for lunch at a locally famous place that served sandwiches with fries and coleslaw actually in the sandwich! (Actually, the sandwich was pretty good — once I picked out those french fries. Hey, I tried it!) Oh, well, I’ve read the paper on this topic anyway, and the interesting comparison that Maling made with English has been written up by Mark Liberman at Language Log. There was a time when the present progressive passive voice (e.g. is slowly being eaten by army ants) was considered ugly, irrational, needlessly innovative, nonstandard English. Why say is slowly being eaten by army ants when the perfectly sensibe is slowly eating by army ants already does the job? Liberman via GoogleBooks links to the peeve as described in 1869 by Richard Grant White.

Phoneticians classify vowels according to various articulatory and acoustic properties, and end up with natural classes of vowels according to criteria such as “height,” “roundness” and “tongue root advancement”. These classes often seem to have psychological reality, as phonological rules will affect only some natural class or other. However, you have to know about phonetics to classify vowels this way. One linguist wondered what kind of classes of vowels would shake out if people without linguistic training listened to recordings of a lot of vowels and were told to classify them into two, three, or four classes. He presented the poster during the LSA conference, and I’m hoping he’ll make the research available online. I won’t try to summarize it here, but I’ll be interested to see if some of the new natural classes that emerged turn out to be relevant in phonological processes. The main reason I bring it up is that the linguist is Douglas Bigham, whose big project right now is the rollout of Popular Linguistics Online — or at least, it was until he tweeted about it as PLO and learned that there were associations there he probably didn’t want to burden a new publication with. So instead, today marks the public release of Popular Linguistics Magazine. The title says it all, and I hope the magazine succeeds. I also owe PLM a thank-you for 200 of yesterday’s hits. I didn’t see exactly where they were coming from at first, but eventually figured it out: The left sidebar on the main page is a list of several linguistics blogs that changes with every page refresh, and every now and then, Literal-Minded turns up there, with the last two or three posts listed. In this way I also learned of a couple of llinguistics blogs I had been unaware of, so check it out!

BTW, I think for future linkfests, I won’t try for one a month. When I have at least three interesting links that I haven’t already passed on via Twitter, I’ll put them up and start accumulating the next batch.

Posted in Linkfests, LSA, Morphology, Passive voice, Variation, Vowels, What the L | Leave a Comment »

Clumsy Interdental L

Posted by Neal on November 26, 2008

About the fourth or fifth time this video played on the overhead flat-screen TV in the gym, I began to notice: Fergie has an interdental L! At least sometimes she does, assuming that she made the same articulatory movements during the lipsynching for the video that she made when she was being recorded in the studio. I’d embed the video here, but it won’t play when I do, so you’ll just have to follow this link to the video on Google to check it out. Watch closely at 1:00 for falling and a second later for love; and again at 1:52 and 1:53 for the same words when the chorus is repeated. You’ll see her tongue sticking right out between her upper and lower teeth to make the L’s. The chorus, by the way, is clumsy ’cause I’m falling in love, and as far as I can tell, Fergie’s L in clumsy is an ordinary alveolar one. In between those two times, there’s one more repetition of clumsy ’cause I’m falling in love where the L’s seem to be alveolar. There are other L’s in the song, but not where you get a clear and sufficiently close view of her mouth to see how she’s pronouncing them.

On the other hand… When I realized the video couldn’t be embedded here, and went looking for another copy somewhere, I found this next one, which seems to be a video recording made in the studio, and (one would imagine) not lipsynched. This video gives many clear close-ups for pronunciations of flippin’, fumblin’, slippin’, stumblin’, clumsy ’cause I’m fallin’ in love, and all the L’s there are clearly alveolar, with the tongue tip behind the upper teeth. So I guess the interdental articulation is just for show.

Oh, and did you catch the witchoo pronunciation of with you at the very end?

UPDATE, Sept. 12, 2010: Replaced broken video link.

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Posted in What the L | 12 Comments »

Yateraw Gwiding

Posted by Neal on January 2, 2008

The December 2007 issue of Language arrived while we were packing for our trip to visit Mom and Dad. I glanced at the contents and some abstracts, figuring I’d read more when we got back. The first article: “Positional neutralization: A case study from child language,” by Sharon Inkelas and Yvan Rose. When I looked at the abstract, I realized this article couldn’t wait for us to get back from our trip; it would have to go in my carryon bag for the plane. It was about a child they referred to as E, who from the ages of about one and a half to three years exhibited … lateral gliding.

Lateral gliding, you say?

Yes, lateral gliding! Lateral is the phonetic term for /l/ sounds, and glide is a term referring to vowel-like consonants such as [y] and [w]. (They’re also known as approximants.) Lateral gliding, then, is the pronunciation of /l/s as [w]s and [y]s. Sound familiar?

Maybe you remember a few years ago, when I wrote about how Doug pronounced his /l/s until he was about six years old. Sometimes he’d say them as [y], sometimes as [w]. (BTW, I should mention that I’m using a corrupt version of the International Phonetic Alphabet here. Technically, the consonant y sound is written as [j]. The j sound, meanwhile, is written [ʤ]. But for consistency with the posts I’m linking to here, and to lessen confusion for my nonlinguist readers, I’m representing the y sound as [y].) I was dissatisfied with my own analysis of the rule describing when Doug would produce a [y] and when he’d produce a [w]; another linguist had a better one, but I was naturally curious about what a paper in a scholarly journal would have to say on the subject. This wasn’t academic; it was personal.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in The darndest things, Uncategorized, What the L | 3 Comments »

It Was Never Said Anything About

Posted by Neal on February 25, 2007

Last month, I said in one of my posts that it sounded like Ira Glass, host of “This American Life”, had a uvular /l/. Justin “Semantic Compositions” Busch decided to hear for himself, and after doing so commented, “I can convince myself that I hear the uvular nasal when Ira Glass says his name at the 25:48 mark in the 1/5/07 broadcast, but most of the tokens of his /l/ don’t trigger that sensation for me at all.”

Since that time I’ve listened to a lot more of the weekly podcasts and archived MP3s (they’re somewhat addictive, even though they’re not all equally interesting), and I’m sticking with my call. The uvular /l/ is most perceptible at the beginning of words and in word-initial consonant clusters, not quite so much so intervocalically (between vowels), and hardly at all word-finally. If, like Busch, you want to hear some of these uvular /l/s for yourself, you can browse episodes to listen to here.

One of the more interesting episodes is “Family Legend”. As a bonus, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Circumstantial passives, What the L | 1 Comment »

LSA 2007: L and S at the ~

Posted by Neal on January 10, 2007

The Tensor is giving other LSA highlights, including the third annual bloggers’ gathering that happened on Friday night. It was fun; as he mentions, we got to meet Justin “Semantic Compositions” Busch in person, plus we saw the Tensor himself with non-purple hair. But I don’t want to talk about that. Conversation topics included how to make the best conlang ever, assuming you’d want to, and how to incorporate learning a language (or as Mark Liberman suggested, chemistry or other things) into a really cool videogame. And I put in a plug for my own Literal-Minded Linguistics Supplement. But enough about Friday night; I want to talk about Saturday night, when (now former) LSA president Sally McConnell-Ginet delivered the presidential address. The Tensor mentions his most memorable moment from the talk: when McConnell-Ginet spilled water on her PC. After she’d hastily mopped off her keyboard, recovered her composure, and continued with her talk, he and Included Middle were muttering things like, “She’s got about a minute, and then her motherboard’s fried.”

However, a friend whom I’ll call Rebecca that I talked to later that evening found something else about the talk memorable. It drove her crazy, she said, how McConnell-Ginet would often exhibit a sociophonetic variation that Rebecca sometimes observed in women’s (and only women’s) speech: a labialized /s/. That is, when she said her /s/, she would simultaneously round her lips as if to say a /w/. “Now far be it from me,” Rebecca said, “to condemn someone’s linguistic variation,” but it was still distracting, because McConnell-Ginet didn’t produce labialized /s/ consistently, or in some patterned way. Sometimes she’d produce a labialized /s/, other times a regular one; that was what really got under Rebecca’s skin. Oh, and about the talk itself? Ah, it was something about words and meaning. You can read the abstract on page 69 of the meeting handbook if you’re interested.

Hearing about this variant pronunciation of /s/ reminded me that on the shuttle from the airport on Thursday night, I’d heard another speaker who, like Adam, me as a kid, Stephen King sometimes, and possibly Tom Brokaw, pronounces his /l/ as the uvular nasal [N]. It was a three- free-year-old boy going to visit Disneyland with his parents, or as he put it, Disney[N]and. And that reminded me of yet another celebrity I’d heard using [N] for /l/: Ira Glass, host of NPR’s This American Life. I’ve started downloading episodes of this program and listening to them on my iPod, and after a couple of hours of listening, I was pretty sure that he was saying “Ira G[N]ass” and “This American [N]ife.” Fortunately, most of the program is other people telling their stories, and the stories are usually really interesting, enough to mitigate the distraction of Ira Glass’s uvular /l/s. Why don’t you listen to a few episodes yourself and tell me what you think of his /l/s? Actually, I’d recommend listening even if you don’t care at all about his /l/s.

Posted in LSA, Phonetics and phonology, What the L | 2 Comments »