Archive for Phonetics and phonology

The sounds of weather

Since sound is just variation in ambient air pressure, you could think of speech as being like really fast weather in your mouth. I traditionally make a lame joke about this in Intro Phonetics, and the other day I decided to cash the humor in on some facts. Here are the past couple of weeks of barometric pressure observations at Philadelphia International Airport:

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Pre-filled-pause lengthening

It's well known that syllables and words are longer before silent pauses, other things equal.  It makes sense that syllables and words would also be longer before filled pauses (UH and UM), but I haven't seen this explicitly noted or quantified. For a course assignment, I recently prepared an R-accessible version of  Joe Picone's manually-corrected word alignments for the Switchboard corpus (done when he was at the Institute for Signal and Information Processing at Mississippi State) — and so for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I thought I'd take a quick look at pre-filled-pause lengthening.

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Phrasal trends in pitch, or, the lab subject's moan

It's been a while since I posted a Breakfast Experiment™ – things have been hectic here — but yesterday in a discussion with some phonetics students, I learned that certain old ideas about (linguistic) intonation have passed out of memory. And in trying to explain these ideas, I posed a problem for myself that is a suitable subject a little hacking during this morning's breakfast hour.  Attention Conservation Notice: We're going to wander in the history-of-phonetics weeds for a while here.

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Dissimilation, stress, sandhi, and other tonal variations in Mandarin

A few months ago on the Penn campus I heard a Chinese guy and a girl having a conversation in Mandarin, and I was surprised when he twice said, "Wo3 ming2bai4 le."  The rest of his speech was standard, but then he came out with this strange transformation of "Wo3 ming2bai le".  Of course, I shouldn't have been surprised, because I've heard the exact same thing before.  Nonetheless, it still sounded odd to me, since from first-year Mandarin on I've had it drilled into me that this sentence should be pronounced "Wo3 ming2bai le" and that any other pronunciation of ming2bai was wrong.  This was reinforced by the canonical pronunciation ming2bai given in dictionaries and other authoritative sources.

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Reading the Quran

The following photograph appears in this BBC article: "Why is Sanskrit so controversial?"

It is accompanied by this caption: "Muslims in India choose to learn Arabic".

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Jonathan Dushoff sent in this photograph of a sign in the Lukang (Lùgǎng 鹿港) public library in Taiwan (apologies for the reflection off the surface):

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The concept of "mother" in linguistics

I began drafting this post around Mother's Day, which we recently observed, but got distracted by other things.  This is an old topic that I've been thinking about for years.  Namely, I've long been intrigued by the use of mǔ 母 ("mother") in linguistic terms, such as zìmǔ 字母 ("letter", lit., "character mother") (e.g., sānshíliù zìmǔ 三十六字母 ["36 initial consonants"]), shēngmǔ 声母 ("initial", lit., "sound mother") and yùnmǔ 韵母 ("final", lit., "rime mother").  The first two go back to the Song period (960-1279), but I don't know how old the latter two are. See here, here, and here for references.

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The shape of a spoken phrase in Mandarin

A few years ago, with Jiahong Yuan and Chris Cieri, I took a look at variation in English word duration by phrasal position, using data from the Switchboard conversational-speech corpus ("The shape of a spoken phrase", LLOG 4/12/2006; Jiahong Yuan, Mark Liberman, and Chris Cieri, "Towards an Integrated Understanding of Speaking Rate in Conversation", InterSpeech 2006). As is often the case for simple-minded analysis of large speech datasets, this exercise showed a remarkably consistent pattern of variation — the plot below shows mean duration by position for phrases from 1 to 12 words long:

The Mandarin Broadcast News collection discussed in a recent post ("Consonant effects on F0 in Chinese", 6/12/2014) lends itself to a similar analysis of phrase-position effects on speech timing. So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I ran a couple of scripts to take a first look.

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Real fry

You'll search Google News in vain for stories about most technical terms in phonetics — no recent coverage of lenition, for example — but "vocal fry" has been prominent in the popular press for several years. Despite all the coverage, many people seem to be unclear about what it is and where it comes from — so today I thought I'd spend a few minutes on the phenomenon from a phonetician's perspective.

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Consonant effects on F0 in Chinese

Following up on two earlier Breakfast Experiments™ ("Consonant effects on F0 of following vowels", 6/5/2014; "Consonant effects on F0 are multiplicative", 6/6/2014), here are some semi-comparable measurements of consonant effects on fundamental frequency (F0) in Mandarin Chinese broadcast news speech.

[As I warned potential readers of those earlier posts, this is considerably more wonkish than most LLOG offerings.]

Why do people care about the effects of consonant features on F0? The main reason is that tonogenesis — the historical development of lexical tones — often arises from re-interpretation of "micromelodies" of this kind, typically driven by laryngeal features of consonants such as voiceless vs. voiced (e.g. p,t,k,s vs. b,d,g,z). So it's natural to wonder whether languages where this has already happened, like Mandarin Chinese, retain or suppress such effects.

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Vocal fry probably doesn't harm your career prospects

. . . but not being yourself just might.

There's been a lot of media interest recently in a new study of "vocal fry", sparked in part by an unusually detailed magazine article — Olga Khazan, "Vocal Fry May Hurt Women's Job Prospects", The Atlantic 5/29/2014. Other coverage: Gail Sullivan, "Study: Women with creaky voices — also known as ‘vocal fry’ — deemed less hireable", Washington Post 6/2/2014; "Is vocal fry hurting women's job prospects?", NPR Marketplace 6/5/2014; Maya Rhodan, "3 Speech Habits That Are Worse Than Vocal Fry in Job Interviews", Time Magazine 6/4/2014; and so on.

The original study is  Rindy C. Anderson et al., "Vocal Fry May Undermine the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market", PLOSOne 5/28/2014. Below is a guest post by Christian DiCanio, offering a more skeptical take.

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Consonant effects on F0 are multiplicative

[Warning: an unusually nerdy follow-up to an unusually nerdy post…] In the comments on yesterday's post "Consonant effects on F0 of following vowels", the question came up whether the effect of consonant voicing on vowel pitch is additive (e.g. plus or minus N Hz) or multiplicative (up or down by M percent). The fact that I calculated the effects in proportional terms indicates that I assumed, without checking, that the effects are multiplicative.

One easy way to check this assumption is to redo the calculations for female vs. male speakers independently, since we expect the overall F0 patterns of female speakers to be about 65-70% higher on average. So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ I did just that — it required changing just two characters in the scripts I wrote yesterday, so this was the easiest experiment ever…

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Consonant effects on F0 of following vowels

I spent the past couple of days at a workshop on lexical tone, organized by Kristine Yu at UMass. A topic that came up several times was the question of whether "segmental" influences on pitch — for instance, the fact that voiceless consonants are typically associated with a higher pitch in the first part of a following vowel — might be diminished or even eliminated in languages with lexical tone. Several participants observed that the evidence for this is not very strong: the classical paper on the subject studied a small number of utterances from one speaker in Thai, for example.

So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I wrote a little script that calculates and displays (one way of looking at) these effects in the TIMIT dataset, which includes 10 English sentences spoken by each of 630 speakers. (Specifically, there are two sentences spoken by all 630 speakers;  450 sentences spoken by 7 speakers each; and 1890 sentences spoken by a single speaker.)

I had to go to a meeting before I had a chance to write up the results, but the meeting ended early enough for me to find 15 minutes before lunch, so:

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