Archive for Phonetics and phonology


In China (and around the world among China watchers), everybody's talking about this ungainly syllable.  "Duang" surfaced less than a week ago, but already it has been used millions and millions of times.

"The Word That Broke the Chinese Internet" (2/27/15) by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

"'Duang' is Everywhere on the Chinese Internets, Here’s What It Means" (2/27/15) by Charles Liu

"Chinese netizens just invented a new word, and it's going insanely viral" (2/28/15) by Ryan Kilpatrick (English text part of the way down the page)

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Vocal creak and fry, exemplified

There are several different sorts of things involved on the perceptual side of the phenomena that people call "vocal fry" and (less often but more appropriately) "vocal creak".

One perceptual issue is the auditory equivalent of the visual "flicker fusion threshold". If regular impulse-like oscillations in air pressure are fast enough, we hear them as a tone; as they get slower and slower, we can increasingly separate the individual pressure pulses as independent events. The threshold at which the pulses fuse into a tonal percept is called "auditory flutter fusion" or sometimes "auditory flicker fusion". The transition between separation and fusion is a gradual one, and in the boundary region, we can hear the pattern in both ways, sometimes as what is called a "creak" sound, because it sounds like the creaking of a sticky hinge.

The other issue is the perceptual effect of pressure oscillations that are irregular as well as relatively low in frequency. Large amounts of random local variation in period sound like the sound of frying food, as bubbles of steam randomly form and pop here and there.

Both creak and fry can happen in human speech vocal-cord oscillation. But what people generally call "vocal fry" is actually more often mostly "vocal creak".

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Sarah Koenig

Following up on our recent Vocal Fry discussion ("Freedom Fries"; "You want fries with that?"), Brett Reynolds wrote to suggest that "Sarah Koenig's vocal fry seems to be something new". As evidence, he suggested a contrast between a piece she did in 2000 ("Deal Of A Lifetime", This American Life #162, 6/23/2000) and one from 2014 ("The Alibi: Prologue", This American Life #537, 10/3/2014). Here are the opening passages from those two segments, along with another one from 2000 ("The Mask Behind The Mask", This American Life #151, 1/28/2000), her first for This American Life:

TAL #151
TAL #162
TAL #537

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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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