Archive for Phonetics and phonology

Inter-syllable intervals

This is a simple-minded follow-up to "New models of speech timing?" (9/11/2023). Before getting into fancy stochastic-point-process models, neural or otherwise, I though I'd start with something really basic: just the distribution of inter-syllable intervals, and its relationship to overall speech-segment and silence-segment durations.

For data, I took one-minute samples from 2006 TED talks by Al Gore and Tony Robbins.

I chose those two because they're listed here as exhibiting the slowest and fastest speaking rates in their (TED talks) sample. And I limited the samples to about one minute, because I'm interested in metrics that can apply to fairly short speech recordings, of the kind that are available in clinical applications such as this one.

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New models of speech timing?

There are many statistics used to characterize timing patterns in speech, at various scales, with applications in many areas. Among them:

  1. Intervals  between phonetic events, by category and/or position and/or context;
  2. Overall measures of speaking rate (words per minute, syllables per minute), relative to total time or total speaking time (leaving out silences);
  3. Mean and standard deviation of speech segment and silence segment durations;
  4. …and so on…

There are many serious problems with these measures. Among the more obvious ones:

  1. The distributions are all far from "normal", and are often multi-modal;
  2. The timing patterns have important higher-order and contextual regularities;
  3. The timing patterns of segments/syllables/words and the timing patterns of phrases (i.e. speech/silence) and conversational turns are arguably (aspects of) the same thing at different time scales;
  4. Connections with patterns of many other types should also be included — phonetic and syllabic dynamics, pitch patterns, rhetorical and conversational structure, …

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Ron's Princibles

Sunday's post on "Listless vessels" opened with this clip:

The movement has got to be
about what are you trying to achieve on behalf of the American people
and that's got to be based in principle
uh because if you're not rooted in principle
uh if all we are is listless vessels that just supposed to follow
you know whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning
that- that's not going to be a durable movement

And in the 30th comment, Yuval wrote

FWIW, both utterances of "principle" sound like 'princible' to me.

He's absolutely right — but what those two words "sound like" leaves an important theoretical (and practical) question open.

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Pronouncing literally

Commenting on yesterday's post "Semantic drift of the week", Nicholas wrote this about the pronunciation of different senses of the word battery:

In Australia and many parts of the UK, the pronunciation between both is significantly different.

"Batch-ry" holds the electrical charge.

Batt-ery is the criminal charge.

Pronouncing words like military, literally, and battery without making the "ch" sound (mili-chery') is a sign of an uneducated person..

Many other comments followed, discussing various pronunciations of these and similar words, along with their geographical, social, and lexical distributions.

This morning I'll ignore the interesting sociolinguistic aspects, except to note (as sociolinguists often remind us) that people's intuitions about when and why they say what are generally not very reliable, so that it's a good idea to check how people actually talk, including ourselves…

Instead I'll take a brief look at the phonetic issue under discussion.

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Language as a (nonviolent) weapon

From the movie "Jak rozpętałem drugą wojnę światową" (How I Unleashed World War II):

The initial Q&A:

Q: Name und Vorname?
A: Grzegorz Brzęczyszczykiewicz.

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"Tortured syllables"?

"Language change (about to be?) in progress" (6/12/2023) linked to media commentary on divergent features of Northeast Philadelphia speech, e.g. "Side effect of the highway collapse: A perfect example of Northeast Philly hoagiemouth", Billy Penn 6/11/2-23. Some of the characterization was extremely evaluative:

The Billy Penn article was gentler and more descriptive:

You can really hear the accent in the elongated roundness of all the “ooo” words he speaks, the way he drags out the end of others, and how he softens each and every consonant (“phouen,” “tex messagessss,” “schreenshoz”).

But in fact, none of the commentary describes this man's speech in an accurate way.

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Old Sinitic "wheat" and Early Middle Sinitic "camel"

[This is a guest post by Chris Button]

OC uvulars tended to condition rounding (e.g OC q- becoming EMC kw-). In the case of ʁ-, we sometimes get m- (for a modern-day example, note how惟, which also had a ʁ- onset in Old Chinese, gives an m- reflex in Fuzhou Min). The classic example is 卯, where Pulleyblank once postulated ʁ- and Li Fang-kuei notes lack of evidence for a cluster, such as ml- or mr-, in its Tai loan. Unfortunately Li’s Tai evidence tends to either be ignored (e.g. 丑 hr- is often erroneously reconstructed with a nasal hn- based on misleading xiesheng evidence) or overly literally interpreted (e.g. 戌 χ- being treated as something like sm-).

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"Romanisation 'gives clarity'"

As we have pointed out countless times on Language Log, if one wishes to learn a Sinitic language, one can concentrate on the characters (writing system), one can rely exclusively on romanization or other phoneticization, or one can devise various means for combining the two approaches.  Here is a clever, fun method for learning Cantonese that tackles the problem head on.

Hongkonger creates colourful Cantonese font to foster language learning

Jon Chui’s new font shows coloured, context-sensitive jyutping for Chinese text. He created it as his partner “had a hard time with the tones” when learning Cantonese.

Mandy Cheng, Hong Kong Free Press (5/16/23)

Jon Chui "has created a new Cantonese font, which combines over 8,000 characters with colourful, Romanised pronunciation guides in order to foster language learning and teaching."

Cantonese Font. Photo: Jon Chiu.

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Signs of the phonetics of Moroccan French

[This is a guest post by Scott Mauldin]

I recently visited Marrakesh and was fascinated by the signs that I submit in the attached photographs. Ostensibly these were originally a kind of business sign that artisans and professionals could hang on their businesses or homes to advertise their profession, but they have evolved into something slightly different for touristic consumption as they now sometimes feature the faces of celebrities or even items.

They're interesting in themselves as a cultural item, but if you look closely at the photos the truly fascinating bit are the "errors" and deviations from standard French spelling. These signs are often made by artisans without a formal education in French and sometimes are phonetic renderings that encode Maghrebi French pronunciations.

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"Shribe" in Mongolian historiography

A couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with one of my former students at a tea/coffee shop (that's what I call 'em because I don't drink coffee very often, almost never).

We were talking about a controversy in Mongolian historiography.  It was a question of whether it is ever suitable to use a certain term to describe the social organization of the Mongols.  He kept saying a word that sounded to me like "shribe".  Since I didn't know that word, I asked him to elucidate various aspects of the problem, and he kept saying "shribe" this, "shribe" that, e.g., that one side of the debate says you can't use the word "shribe" with regard to Mongolian history because "shribes" can't form states, but then that would be to deny the possibility of state formation to the Mongols.  The other side says that "shribes" can form states, so the Mongols could form states even though they had "shribes" in their social organization.  Or something like that.

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Shanghainese under attack

Headline in a Hong Kong Chinese newspaper, Bastille Post 巴士的報 (4/15/23):

Shànghǎi Xújiāhuì shūyuàn yìmíng zhī zhēng shìfǒu gǎi yòng Hànyǔ Pīnyīn zhuānjiā hándié

上海徐家匯書院譯名之爭 是否改用漢語拼音專家咁䏲

"Controversy over the transcription of the name of the Xujiahui Library in Shanghai:  should it be changed to Hanyu Pinyin? Expert opinions"

Currently the name of this library at the entrance to its impressive building is "Zikawei".  What does this name signify, and why is it a matter of contention?  Put simply, "Zikawei" is the Shanghainese pronunciation of Mandarin "Xujiahui", and some nationalistic partisans are opposed to the use of Shanghainese on a public building in Shanghai.

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Combinatory Sound Alternations in Proto-, Pre-, and Real Tibetan

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-first issue:

Bettina Zeisler, “Combinatory Sound Alternations in Proto-, Pre-, and Real Tibetan: The Case of the Word Family *Mra(o) ‘Speak,’ ‘Speaker,’ ‘Human,’ ‘Lord’” (free pdf), Sino-Platonic Papers, 331 (March, 2023), 1-165.

Among many other terms, discusses the Eurasian word for "horse" often mentioned on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below for examples).   Gets into IIr and (P)IE.


At least four sound alternations apply in Tibetan and its predecessor(s): regressive metathesis, alternation between nasals and oral stops, jotization, and vowel alternations. All except the first are attested widely among the Tibeto-Burman languages, without there being sound laws in the strict sense. This is a threat for any reconstruction of the proto-language. The first sound alternation also shows that reconstructions based on the complex Tibetan syllable structure are misleading, as this complexity is of only a secondary nature. In combination, the four sound alternations may yield large word families. A particular case is the word family centering on the words for speaking and human beings. It will be argued that these words ultimately go back to a loan from Eastern Iranian.

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