Archive for Phonetics and phonology

bus v. buzz

In a post a couple of days ago ("PSDS", 3/30/2014), I observed that in English, "Syllable-final (and especially phrase-final) /z/ is usually voiceless". In a comment, Mark F. asked

[A]re "buzz" and "biz" just isolated counterexamples to the generalization about syllable-final /z/, or is it generally false for accented syllables? Or do I just think I pronounce the /z/?

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Linguists are generally scornful of "eye dialect", in both of the common meanings of that term:

  1. As an "unusual spelling intended to represent dialectal or colloquial idiosyncrasies of speech", like roight for right or yahd for yard;
  2. As a "the use of non-standard spellings such as enuff for enough or wuz for was, to indicate that the speaker is uneducated".

The first kind of eye-dialect is seen as inexact ("you should use IPA") and the second kind is seen as snobbish.  I'm generally more curious than censorious about both of these practices; but in any case, I recently saw a case of the first kind that struck me as especially interesting.

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Doubletalk of the month

Several people have sent me links to this recently-posted video:

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How Sid Caesar learned double-talk

The obituaries for the great comic Sid Caesar invariably mention his proficiency in "double-talk," mimicking the sounds (but not the sense) of foreign languages. (On the phenomenon of double-talk, see Mark Liberman's posts on yaourter here, here, here, and here.) It turns out that this was a talent Caesar had cultivated ever since he was a boy clearing tables at his father's restaurant in multi-ethnic Yonkers.

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Sing! King! Wa! Ta!

Sing! King! Wa! Ta! Sing! King! Wa! Ta!

The words were being hastily shouted down a phone, with loud sounds of wind and waves in the background, and the emergency call center operator could make no sense of them. Attempts at conversing with the caller failed; he seemed not to understand English. Yet the tone was unmistakably urgent: someone was in danger of his life. But who? And where?

About 23 people died in the event that led to that desperate, unintelligible phone call. It happed in 2004, ten years ago today. My vagueness about the number of victims is because no one who knew all the facts wanted to talk about the circumstances (the skull of one victim was only found in 2010).

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Can you tell the difference between English and Chinese?

… from the pitch contours alone? It should be easy, right? Chinese is a tone language, English isn't, etc.

So try it…

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The little village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, birthplace and final resting place of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, is in the news today. But I have heard no one on the BBC's radio services who can even attempt to pronounce the name correctly. The IPA transcription is ['k!u:nu]. That initial consonant does not sound like [k] as in a word like kudu (the [k] in the transcription merely signifies that the consonant transcribed [!] is voiceless). It is a click consonant, produced by creating a suction effect above the tongue in the roof of the mouth and then pulling the tongue tip away from the ridge behind the upper front teeth so that air rushes in to make a dull "pop" like the sound of a champagne cork coming out. The lips are rounded to amplify the lower frequencies of the resultant click. It is not at all difficult to do: most people can imitate the popping of a champagne cork with their tongue. Putting it into a syllable like [k!u:] is not quite so easy. And after quite a bit of listening to BBC reporters and newscasters during this week of farewell for the great Nelson Mandela, I have heard no one even attempt it.

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Metal v. medal

Paul Krugman, "My Lawn Guyland Roots Are Showing", The Conscience of a Liberal, 11/24/2013:

I see that some commentators were wondering why, in an earlier post, I wrote “pedal to the medal” instead of “pedal to the metal”. The answer is, typing fast, and writing what I heard in my head. The truth is that sometimes, usually when I’m tired, I do hear myself referring to a bottle of water as a boddle of oo-waugh-duh — gotta get the three-syllable pronunciation there.

I’ve never made a conscious effort to change my accent, and I know from recordings that a bit of the Noo Yawk is still there, but four decades in academia have, I believe, flattened it out into Mid-Atlantic neutral most of the time. But not always, and sometimes not even when I write.

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English prosodic phrasing

We can read a 10-digit sequence in the style of an American telephone number, 3+3+4 — e.g. 752-955-0354:

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Or we could read the same sequence in a 3+2+3+2 pattern, 752-95-503-54:

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It won't surprise you to learn that this changes the pattern of average digit durations:

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A miscellany of mondegreens

Click here for a stellar collection of mondegreens from comedian Peter Kay. And prepare to have half a dozen songs ruined for you forever. A mondegreen is a speech perception error that causes you to hear the words of a song incorrectly. Peter Kay tells you what you're going to hear, and then plays passages from well-known pop songs of the last decade or two, often miming the crucial part; and thereafter you will never be able to hear those lines any other way. In fact you will forget what the real words were in the first place. Be afraid; be very afraid.

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The dormitive virtue of root-power quantities

One of the concepts that comes up in the Introduction to Phonetics course that I'm teaching this semester — first meeting yesterday — is SNR ("Signal to Noise Ratio"). This is the ratio between the power of the "signal" (defined as the stuff you care about, essentially) and the power of the "noise" (the stuff that you aren't interested in).

And at this point, there are a few things that students need to learn. Since SNR is a ratio of power to power, it's a dimensionless quantity. Similar ratios of physical quantities come up elsewhere in acoustics, like "sound pressure level" (SPL), defined as the ratio of sound pressure to the some reference level, usually taken to be the nominal threshold of human hearing. Because additive scales are more intuitive, we generally take the log of such ratios. And because powers of ten are inconveniently far apart, we generally multiple log10(whatever ratio) by 10 to get "decibels".

Now comes the part that I'm interested in this morning: the power of a sound wave is proportional to the square of its amplitude. And I'm looking for a simple and correct way to justify this statement, and to explain why we generally quantify "levels" of physical signals as ratios of powers rather than as ratios of amplitudes.

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Clipping McDonald's

Commenters on a recent post ("Australian hypocoristics") discussed the vowel quality of the first syllable of McDonald's in detail and at length. The issues involved are interesting enough to deserve a post of their own.

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"Chinese" well beyond Mandarin

A topic which I have raised here and elsewhere a number of times is that of Sinitic topolects and languages (, and I have also called attention to the increasing domination of Mandarin in education and the media.  Even native speakers within China sometimes don't appreciate quite how varied the Sinitic group of languages can be.  People often say that someone can move from one valley to the next, or one village to the next, and just not be able to make themselves understood.  But until you've been in that situation yourself, it doesn't really hit home.  Before long, I'll post on Shanghainese and will provide audio recordings that will demonstrate clearly just how different it is from Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM).  There are countless other varieties of "Chinese" that are just as different from each other as Shanghainese (or Cantonese or Taiwanese, for that matter) are from MSM.

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Mid-Sagittal Music

The official music video for Sivu's Better Man Than He:

According to Gavin Lucas, "Singing in a scanner", Creative Review 1/28/2013:

Director Adam Powell's latest music video (for musician Sivu's track Better Man Than He) was "shot" using an MRI scanner at London's St Bartholomew's Hospital

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Portuguese is disappearing, one vowel at a time

Here in Macau, a few people still speak Portuguese. (And even fewer speak Macanese Patuá, which mixes Portuguese with Cantonese, Malay, Sinhalese, and a few other linguistic ingredients.) But according to Isabel Trancoso, who is attending the same conference here that I am, the local variety of Portuguese lacks the extreme reductions that are transforming the Iberian version.

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