Archive for Phonetics and phonology

Doubletalk challenge

Malia Wollan, "How to Speak Gibberish", NYT Magazine 1/5/2018:

Strive for linguistic plausibility. In 2014, Sara Maria Forsberg was a recent high-school graduate in Finland when she posted “What Languages Sound Like to Foreigners,” a video of herself speaking gibberish versions of 15 languages and dialects. Incorporate actual phonology to make a realistic-sounding gibberish. “Expose yourself to lots of different languages,” says Forsberg, now 23, who grew up speaking Finnish, Swedish and English.

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Trump: To 'd or not to 'd?

Louise Radnofsky, "White House Disputes Trump Quote in Journal Interview: The Wall Street Journal stands by what it reported and releases audio of disputed portion of interview", WSJ 1/14/2018:

The White House disputed that President Donald Trump told The Wall Street Journal in an interview Thursday that “I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea,” saying that Mr. Trump had instead said “I’d probably have a very good relationship” with the North Korean leader.

The Journal stands by what it reported. The Journal and White House agreed before the interview that audiotape taken by White House officials and reporters would be used for transcription purposes only. After the White House challenged the Journal’s transcription and accuracy of the quote in a story, The Journal decided to release the relevant portion of the audio. The White House then released its audio version of the contested segment.

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Ask Language Log: Easy but unused initial clusters?

From Bob Moore:

I have recently become interested in an important Alaska native weaver named Jennie Thlunaut. The linguistic question is about the initial consonant cluster of her last name, "thl". My initial reaction on seeing the name was that this consonant cluster was not phonotactically possible in English, and that it would be hard for me to pronounce. I was surprised to find that it was very easy for me to pronounce, without the perception of a highly reduced vowel separating the initial consonants that I usually experience when trying to pronounce a foreign word containing a consonant cluster not found in English.

I confirmed that "thl" does not seem to be a possible word-initial consonant cluster in English by grepping for all case-insensitive instances of " thl" in the English Gigaword corpus. I found something between 100 and 200 of these, and I examined all of them, finding then all to be either (1) foreign words or names, (2) attempts to represent the pronunciation of foreign words or names, (3) representations of "lisping" in English, or (4) typos.

I am puzzled that there would be an easy-to-pronounce phonological sequence that is completely unused in a language. It seems like coding efficiency would favor using any sequence that is easy to pronounce. Is there a more general phonological principle in English that would block the use of "thl"? Are there other easy-to-pronounce consonant clusters that are not used in English?

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Of armaments and Old Sinitic reconstructions, part 6

From March through July of 2016, we had a long-running series of posts comparing words in Indo-European and in Old Sinitic (OS),  See especially the first item in this series, and don't miss the comments to all of the posts:

Today's post is not about a sword per se, but it is about an armament for parrying sword thrusts.  It was inspired by seeing the following entry in Paul Kroll, ed., A Student's Dictionary of Classical and Medieval Chinese (Leiden: Brill, 2015), p. 104a:  fá 瞂  pelta; small shield — Middle Sinitic bjwot.  I asked Paul where he got that beautiful word "pelta", and he replied:  "One of the benefits of my early classical studies. I got it from Vergil, but it’s originally Greek."

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Administrative reductions

A couple of days ago, I heard an interesting talk by Juliet Stanton, who proposed that variation in stress on the -at- in (English) words in -ative depends in a gradient way on the total duration of stressless material between -at- and the word's earlier main stress. Thus -at- stressing should (and does) become more frequent through a series like palliative, speculative, investigative, legislative.

It occurred to me to wonder whether there might be an effect in the other direction as well. That is, in a word like administrative (where dictionaries and my intuition agree that /ədˈmɪnᵻstrətɪv/ and /ədˈmɪnəˌstreɪdɪv/ are both possible), perhaps the phonetic duration of the intervening sequence would vary according to Stanton's principle.

I chose administrative for a test because a quick check of the LDC's published collection of conversational telephone speech turned up more than 70 instances of that word. But the OED turns out to be right that the version with stressed -at- predominates in the U.S. — 70 out of 73 instances in this set. And there were some other kinds of pronunciation variation — reductions — that make my idea hard to test in any case.

However, those reductions themselves are worth a look.

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Dysarthria or dentures?

There's been a lot of media attention paid to some slurring of speech in Donald Trump's recent announcement about moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, especially this passage:

Most of the focus has been on his pronunciation of "the United States" in the peroration (though there were some issues with sibilants elsewhere in the speech):

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Mistranscribed character

Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322) is one of the most famous painters in the history of Chinese art.  Many of his priceless works still exist, and he was even honored by having a 167 kilometer-diameter feature on Mercury (132.4° west, 87.3° south), the "Chao Meng-Fu crater", named after him.

When Zhao Mengfu's name came up in a discussion on connoisseurship in one of my classes a few days ago, I almost fell off my chair upon hearing a graduate student from mainland China pronounce it as "Zhao Mengtiao".  Where did she learn that strange pronunciation for this ultrafamous artist's name?  Did she hear it from her teachers?  Her classmates?  Or was she just making a wild guess based on what she thought the ostensible phonophore, zhào 兆, would yield?  However she came up with "Zhao Mengtiao", the effect upon hearing it would be akin to hearing someone say "Michelanjump" or "Leonardo da Jump".

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Stress, emphasis, pause, and meaning in Mandarin

In "Mandarin Janus sentences" (11/4/17), there arose the question of whether duōshǎo 多少 ("how many") and duō shǎo 多少 ("how few") are spoken differently.  I'm very glad that, in the comments, Chris Button recognizes that Sinitic languages can have stress.  (The same is doubtless true of other tonal languages).

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The New Yorker baubles it

Yesterday, The New Yorker posted an article on its website: "The Error in Baseball and the Moral Dimension to American Life," by Stephen Marche. As originally published, the article contained this paragraph (emphasis mine):

In practice, “ordinary effort” describes, as Bill James wrote, what should have happened. What should have happened in a piece of fielding can have nothing to do with the play of the fielder. Utter offered me a case: The runner hits the ball into the outfield, the fielder baubles the ball, and the runner advances to second. Is that an error? It depends. “What we would have to look at is—is it a single or is it a double? Or is it a single and advance on an error or on the throw?” The way that the scorer determines whether that bauble is an error or not has less to do with the action of the fielder than with the action of the runner. “Was the runner going all the time? Did he never think about stopping at first? Or was he running and looking at the play and then slowed down a little bit and then took off when he saw the little bauble?” If he paused, noticed the misplay, and ran to second, “That becomes the error.”

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Toe-ly gumby a sound change

On Sunday 9/10/2017, Steve Bannon was interviewed on 60 Minutes. Looking at the interview from the perspective of a phonetician, I was struck by pervasive evidence of a little-studied sound change in progress. Word-internal intervocalic coronal consonants — /t/, /d/, /n/ — in weak positions (i.e. not followed by a stressed vowel) are deleted, and the surrounding vowels are merged. This process is increasingly common in American English, and is frequently exemplified in Steve Bannon's speech, at least in this sample.

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Sinitic historical phonology

[Or, as David Prager Branner, who wrote the guest post below, jokingly calls it, "hysterical phrenology".  Note that Branner uses Gwoyeu Romatzyh ( "National Language Romanization"), a type of tonal spelling, for the transcription of Mandarin.]

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This is on the subject of Carbo Kuo's 郭家寶 performance of Shyjing "Shyi yeou charngchuu 隰有萇楚" ("In the low wet grounds is the carambola tree") in Jenqjang Shanqfang's 鄭張尚芳 various antique reconstructions, sent to me by Victor Mair. It pleased me a lot. The issue is one of art, not scholarship, and it should be judged as art.

[VHM:  must hear]

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Pitch contour perception

Listen to this brief four-syllable phrase, and answer a simple question:

once the eggs hatch

Is the end of the last sylllable ("hatch") higher or lower in pitch than the start of the first sylllable ("once")?

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GA

One of my favorite Chinese words is GANGA (pronounce as in "Lady Gaga", but put a nasal at the end of the first syllable).  It is so special and has had such a deep impact upon me since I began learning Chinese half a century ago that, in this post, I shall refer to it simply as "GANGA", in capital letters only, except when discussing its more precise pronunciation, derivation, meaning, and written representation in Chinese characters.  Referring to this unusual word as "GANGA" is meant to emphasize the iconic quality it has for me personally, in the sense that its nature reveals many verities about Sinitic languages and Chinese writing.

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