Archive for Phonetics and phonology

Logos: The sacred phonology, mathematics, and agriculture of the alphazodiac

[This is a guest post by Brian Pellar]

. . . the consonants are the letters or ciphers which assemble around the vowels to form the words, just as the constellations assemble around the Sun, image of the Divinity, and compose the community of stars over which it presides.                                                                        — Hebreu Primiti

The Consonants of Command

Dear Professor Mair,

In regard to your question, “Is there some sense in which we could think of the 12 aspects/signs/symbols of the alphazodiac as comprising/encompassing the basic sounds of the universe?” I’ve dabbled a bit with some intriguing answers in my papers. For instance, in my very first paper, SPP 196, I placed in the endnotes a very interesting reference from the Gospel of the Egyptians (a Nag Hammadi text) that I feel might bear a relationship to the structure and the underlying “sacred” vowels that comprise the Logos/Word — the breath of God — of the alphazodiac. More specifically,

the “three powers” (the Father, Mother, and Son) give praise to the unnamable Spirit — and the “hidden invisible mystery” that came forth is composed of seven sacred vowels (i.e., the Son “brings forth from the bosom/the seven powers of the great / light of the seven voices, and the word/[is] their completion”), with each of those seven vowels repeated exactly twenty-two times (“iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii[iii]/ ēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēēē /oooooooooooooooooooooo/uu[uuu] uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu/eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee/aaaaaaa[aaaa]aaaaaaaaaaa/ ōōōōōōōōōōōō ōōōōōōōōōō”) (Robinson 1990: 209–210). [SPP 196, pp. 38-39].

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Of chariots, chess, and Chinese borrowings

Having gotten a good earful of Latin last month, Chau Wu was prompted to write this note in response to our previous post on "From Chariot to Carriage" (5/5/24):

“chē 車 ("car; cart; vehicle") / yín 銀 ("silver")”

In my view, these two words are among those most representative of cultural and linguistic transfers from West to East. This comment will focus on 車 chē only. 車 is pronounced in Taiwanese [tʃja] (POJ chhia), quite similar to the first syllable char- of English chariot. I believe, like E. chariot and car which are derived from Latin carrus (see Etymonline on car and chariot), Tw chhia is ultimately also a derivative of L. carrus.

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xkcd: Fluid Speech

Today's xkcd is (or should be)  the illustration for a week or two in every introductory course on the sound side of language:

Mouseover text: "Thank you to linguist Gretchen McCulloch for teaching me about phonetic assimilation, and for teaching me that if you stand around in public reading texts from a linguist and murmuring example phrases to yourself, people will eventually ask if you're okay."

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Spelling Manchu with Chinese characters

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"Lord of Heaven" in ancient Sino-Iranian

[This is a guest post by Chris Button about xiān 祆 (usually defined in English as:
Ahura Mazda, god of the Zoroastrians 
From: Shuowen Jiezi, circa 2nd century AD
Xiān: húshén yě. [Pinyin]Xian is the god of the foreigners.
The two components of the 祆 glyph are shì / ("show, reveal, manifest; spirit") and tiān ("sky, heaven, celestial").
Although hugely important in the history of religions in China, the etymology of xiān 祆 is highly elusive.  Through close attention to the phonology of the glyph and its components, Chris aims to ferret out the source of a possible loanword.]
I've been pondering over 祆 EMC xɛn "Ahura Mazda, Zoroastrianism" for a while and its possible relationship with 天 EMC tʰɛn "heaven" (compare 忝 EMC tʰɛmˀ with 天/祆 as phonetic in the top half). 

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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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