Archive for Phonetics and phonology

Ask LLOG: "friends" vs. "flense"

Query from reader RR:

Just trying to get unpaid labor from a phonetician here…

I've written a puzzle which involves swapping out one phoneme for another in various words. A couple of testsolvers have objected that "flense" doesn't become "friends" if you change the second phoneme; they insist they pronounce the D in "friends" (or don't have a D in the transition from N to Z in "flense", if you prefer).

Try as I might, I can't pronounce those two words such that they don't rhyme exactly, at least without sounding like an idiot. And like all people, I of course believe my self-judgment of phonetics is better than average. :-)

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The end of the line for Mandarin Phonetic Symbols?

Just as all school children in the PRC learn to read and write through Hanyu Pinyin ("Sinitic spelling"), the official romanization on the mainland, so do all school children in Taiwan learn to read and write with the aid of what is commonly referred to as "Bopomofo ㄅㄆㄇㄈ "), after the first four letters of this semisyllabary.  The system has many other names, including "Zhùyīn fúhào 注音符號" ("[Mandarin] Phonetic Symbols"), its current formal designation, as well as earlier names such as Guóyīn Zìmǔ 國音字母 ("Phonetic Alphabet of the National Language") and Zhùyīn Zìmǔ 註音字母 ( "Phonetic Alphabet" or "Annotated Phonetic Letters").  From the plethora of names, you can get an idea of what sort of system it is.  I usually think of it as a cross between an alphabet and a syllabary.

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An interesting topic, presented [in French] in a fun way:

[If you have trouble with the Facebook embedding, try this YouTube version.]

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Real tone

In 'Tones for real", 2/5/2018, John McWhorter expresses his frustration as an American learner of Chinese: "How much must I attend to the damned tones in a sentence, as opposed to in citation, to really speak this language?"

As John very well knows (when he's not frustrated by the difficulties of learning a new language), his question has the same answer as the analogous question "How much must I attend to the damned consonants and vowels in a sentence, as opposed to in citation, to really speak this language?" Fluent native speakers almost never use standard citation forms in fluent speech — sometimes the fluent versions are reduced or assimilated or dissimilated versions of the citation forms, and something they're just variably different. This is partly because informal speech is variably non-standard, but mostly because of the complex effects of linguistic and communicative contexts on the phonetic realization of phonological categories.

Unfortunately for language learners, these complex effects (though in some sense "natural") are different in different languages and dialects/varieties, so you can't just use your normal phonetic habits and expect the results to sound right.  And we can use John's own pronunciation of English to illustrate some of these contextual effects.

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One of the most widely noted aspects of last night's SOTU address was the president's pronunciation of "Obamacare" as if it were spelled "Opamacare":

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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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