Archive for Phonetics and phonology


In a comment on yesterday's post ("High vowel lenition/devoicing in French"), carveuir wrote:

Ha! As a final-year undergraduate in 2015, I mentioned having come across devoicing of the second /i/ in "université" to my French linguistics tutor and he didn't believe me. Finally I've been vindicated.

My impression is that this is common and perhaps almost categorical in Québecois vernacular, but more gradient (or maybe I should say less complete?) in Parisian French. So I looked from some examples of the word université in a collection of transcribed radio broadcasts and political speeches from France. And I found a few, all of which were consistent with my impression. So my recent series of French phonetic anecdotes continues below.

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High vowel lenition/devoicing in French

On a trip to Québec in the 1970s, I asked a passerby for directions (in French), and he gave me an answer that at first I thought was in Polish or some other Slavic language unknown to me. He also pointed to the visible train-track overpass a couple of blocks away, and waved his arm to indicate a right turn, so I got the meaning from his gestures. And after a bit, I realized that his opening phrase, which I heard as something like


was a Québecois vernacular version of "tu vas direct jusqu'au trac", with the [i] and [y] vowels deleted (and the  initial /ʒ/ of "jusqu'au" devoiced). I asked a Canadian colleague about it, and was told that the deletion of high vowels was known to linguists in Francophone Canada, but (as far as he knew at that time) had not been documented.

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Nest: a rare and perplexing surname

By chance, I came across the surname "Gnaizda".  Its phonological configuration puzzled me for a while, but then I began to formulate hypotheses about its origin.  I briefly thought that it might have been Semitic and considered the possibility that it was cognate with "genesis".  It was easy to rule out "genesis", though, because that goes back to the PIE root *gene- ("give birth, beget").

Rather than making stabs in the dark about what language Gnaizda might derive from, I thought it would be more sensible to search for individuals with that surname and see whether there were any pertinent biographical, genealogical, or onomastic information available about them.

The most prominent Gnaizda I found was the civil justice advocate, Robert Gnaizda (1936-2020), who was the General Counsel and Policy Director for the Greenlining Institute based in Berkeley, California.  There are many references to him on the internet.  Unfortunately, the Wikipedia article on Robert Gnaizda does not provide any etymological information about his surname.

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Still more Mongolic

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"There's no T in Scranton"

According to Jennifer Bendery, "At 81, Joe Biden Is Still The Last Guy To Leave The Party", Huffington Post 3/8/2024:

After his State of the Union speech, the president was so eager to keep talking to people he didn't care that the lights went down or that hot mics picked him up.


“Thank you, man,” said Biden, before shaking someone else’s hand and pointing at him. “You know there’s no T in ‘Scranton.’ It’s Scran-un!”

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English allophonies of the day

My original interest in the conversation behind yesterday's post "Our digital god is a CSV file?" was a sociophonetic one. As often noted, spontaneous speech often strays far from dictionary pronunciations, and Elon Musk's side of that conversation is full of interesting examples. A few are documented below.

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"Emote Portrait Alive"

EMO, by Linrui Tian, Qi Wang, Bang Zhang, and Liefeng Bo from Alibaba's Institute for Intelligent Computing, is "an expressive audio-driven portrait-video generation framework. Input a single reference image and the vocal audio, e.g. talking and singing, our method can generate vocal avatar videos with expressive facial expressions, and various head poses".

As far as I know, there's no interactive demo so far, much less code — just a github demo page and an paper.

Their demo clips are very impressive — a series of X posts from yesterday has gotten 1.1M views already. Here's Leonardo DiCaprio artificially lip-syncing Eminem:

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Ask Language Log: Manchu Blue Dragon

Continuing our series on dragons, this note and illustration come from Juha Janhunen, the Finnish linguist:

Happy Blue Dragon Year to everybody! Below is the official flag (1889-1912) of the Manchu Empire (in the west misleadingly known as "China"), which happens to have a blue dragon on it. Manchu muduri 'dragon' still seems to lack an external etymology. Any suggestions?

(See at the very bottom of this post for a possible connection to "otter".)

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What is the difference between a dragon and a /lʊŋ³⁵/?

Today is the Lunar New Year's Day, and it's the Year of the Dragon / /lʊŋ³⁵/ . As such, a kerfuffle is stirring in China and the English-speaking world regarding the English translation of lóng ⿓ / 龙 / 竜 (J), which is usually "dragon".

I will begin with the pronunciation of the word.  In MSM, it is lóng (Hanyu Pinyin), lung2 (Wade-Giles), lúng (Yale), long (Gwoyeu Romatzyh [the configuration of GR tonal spelling for this syllable indicates second tone), лун (Palladius).  They all represent the same MSM syllable.  I will not list the scores of other topolectal pronunciations for Cantonese, Shanghainese, Hakka, Hokkien, Xiamen / Amoy, Sichuan, etc., etc. and their dialects and subdialects.

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Don't be afraid of tones

So says Stuart Jay Raj, a Thai-based Australian polyglot who speaks several tonal languages.  Here is a half-hour video by him which is linguistics heavy, but is actually an effort to simplify and systematize how tones work.  For example, Raj makes a sharp distinction between pitch and tone, something that many people get all mixed up about.  Not to mention intonation, which we have often discussed on Language Log.

In this episode, Raj focuses on Burmese, but in other presentations he focuses on different tonal languages and on general principles.

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Tone vs. syllable in Cantonese

Andus Wing-Kuen Wong et al., "Tonal and syllabic encoding in overt Cantonese Chinese speech production: An ERP study", PLOS ONE 2023:

Abstract: This study was conducted to investigate how syllables and lexical tones are processed in Cantonese speech production using the picture-word interference task with concurrent recording of event-related brain potentials (ERPs). Cantonese-speaking participants were asked to name aloud individually presented pictures and ignore an accompanying auditory word distractor. The target and distractor either shared the same word-initial syllable with the same tone (Tonal-Syllable related), the same word-initial syllable without the same tone (Atonal-Syllable related), the same tone only (Tone alone related), or were phonologically unrelated. Participants’ naming responses were faster, relative to an unrelated control, when the target and distractor shared the same tonal- or atonal-syllable but null effect was found in the Tone alone related condition. The mean ERP amplitudes (per each 100-ms time window) were subjected to stimulus-locked (i.e., time-locked to stimulus onset) and response-locked (i.e., time-locked to response onset) analyses. Significant differences between related and unrelated ERP waves were similarly observed in both Tonal-Syllable related and Atonal-Syllable related conditions in the time window of 400–500 ms post-stimulus. However, distinct ERP effects were observed in these two phonological conditions within the 500-ms pre-response period. In addition, null effects were found in the Tone alone related condition in both stimulus-locked and response-locked analyses. These results suggest that in Cantonese spoken word production, the atonal syllable of the target is retrieved first and then associated with the target lexical tone, consistent with the view that tone has an important role to play at a late stage of phonological encoding in tonal language production.

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Sanskrit is far from extinct

[This is the first of two consecutive posts on things Indian.  After reading them, if someone is prompted to send me material for a third, I'll be happy to make it a trifecta.]

Our entry point to the linguistically compelling topic of today's post is this Nikkei Asia (11/29/23) article by Barkha Shah in its "Tea Leaves" section:

Why it's worth learning ancient Sanskrit in the modern world:

India’s classical language is making a comeback via Telegram and YouTube

The author begins with a brief introduction to the language:

The language had its heyday in ancient India. The Vedas, a collection of poems and hymns, were written in Sanskrit between 1500 and 1200 B.C., along with other literary texts now known as the Upanishads, Granths and Vedangas. But while Sanskrit became the foundation for many (though not all) modern Indian languages, including Hindi, it faded away as a living tongue.

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