Archive for Phonetics and phonology

Words without vowels

Our recent discussions about syllabicity ("Readings" below) made me wonder whether it's possible to have syllables, words, and whole sentences without vowels.  That led me to this example from Nuxalk on Omniglot:


clhp'xwlhtlhplhhskwts' / xłp̓χʷłtłpłłskʷc̓

IPA transcription



Then he had had in his possession a bunchberry plant.

This is an example of a word with no vowels, something that is quite common in Nuxalk.

Souce: Nater, Hank F. (1984). The Bella Coola Language. Mercury Series; Canadian Ethnology Service (No. 92). Ottawa: National Museums of Canada.

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English syllable detection

In "Syllables" (2/24/2020), I showed that a very simple algorithm finds syllables surprisingly accurately, at least in good quality recordings like a soon-to-published corpus of Mandarin Chinese. Commenters asked about languages like Berber and Salish, which are very far from the simple onset+nucleus pattern typical of languages like Chinese, and even about English, which has more complex syllable onsets and codas as well as many patterns where listeners and speakers disagree (or are uncertain) about the syllable count.

I got a few examples of Berber and Salish, courtesy of Rachid Ridouane and Sally Thomason, and will report on them shortly. But it's easy to run the same program on a well-studied and easily-available English corpus, namely TIMIT, which contains 6300 sentences, 10 from each of 630 speakers. This is small by modern standards, but plenty large enough for test purposes. So for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I tested it.

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From a physical point of view, syllables reflect the fact that speaking involves oscillatory opening and closing of the vocal tract at a frequency of about 5 Hz, with associated modulation of acoustic amplitude. From an abstract cognitive point of view, each language organizes phonological features into a sort of grammar of syllabic structures, with categories like onsets, nuclei and codas. And it's striking how directly and simply the physical oscillation is related to the units of the abstract syllabic grammar — there's no similarly direct and simple physical interpretation of phonological features and segments.

This direct and simple relationship has a psychological counterpart. Syllables seems to play a central role in child language acquisition, with words following a gradual development from very simple syllable patterns, through closer and closer approximations to adult phonological and phonetic norms. And as Lila Gleitman and Paul Rozin observed in 1973 ("Teaching reading by use of a syllabary", Reading Research Quarterly), "It is suggested on the basis of research in speech perception that syllables are more natural units than phonemes, because they are easily pronounceable in isolation and easy to recognize and to blend."

In 1975, Paul Mermelstein published an algorithm for "Automatic segmentation of speech into syllabic units", based on "assessment of the significance of a loudness minimum to be a potential syllabic boundary from the difference between the convex hull of the loudness function and the loudness function itself." Over the years, I've found that even simpler methods, based on selecting peaks in a smoothed amplitude contour, also work quite well (see e.g. Margaret Fleck and Mark Liberman, "Test of an automatic syllable peak detector", JASA 1982; and slides on Dinka tone alignment from EFL 2015).

In this post, I'll present a simple language-independent syllable detector, and show that it works pretty well. It's not a perfect algorithm or even an especially good one. The point is rather that "syllables" are close enough to being amplitude peaks that the results of a simple-minded, language-independent algorithm are surprisingly good, so that maybe self-supervised adaptation of a more sophisticated algorithm could lead in interesting directions.

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Automatic Pinyin annotation — state of the art

[This is a guest post by Gábor Ugray]

Back in 2018 your post Pinyin for phonetic annotation planted an idea in my head that I’ve been gradually expanding ever since. I am now at a stage where I routinely create annotated Chinese text for myself; this (pdf) is what one such document looks like.

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Farther on beyond the IPA

In "On beyond the (International Phonetic) Alphabet", 4/19/2018, I discussed the gradual lenition of /t/ in /sts/ clusters, as in the ending of words like "motorists" and "artists". At one end of the spectrum we have a clear, fully-articulated [t] sound separating two clear [s] sounds, and at the other end we have something that's indistinguishable from a single [s] in the same context. I ended that post with these thoughts:

My own guess is that the /sts/ variation discussed above, like most forms of allophonic variation, is not symbolically mediated, and therefore should not be treated by inventing new phonetic symbols (or adapting old ones). Rather, it's part of the process of phonetic interpretation, whereby symbolic (i.e. digital) phonological representations are related to (continuous, analog) patterns of articulation and sound.

It would be a mistake to think of such variation as the result of universal physiological and physical processes: though the effects are generally in some sense natural, there remain considerable differences across languages, language varieties, and speaking styles. And of course the results tend to become "lexicalized" and/or "phonologized" over time — this is one of the key drivers of linguistic change.

Similar phenomena are seriously understudied, even in well-documented languages like English. Examine a few tens of seconds of (even relatively careful and formal) speech, and you'll come across some examples. To introduce another case, listen to these eight audio clips, and ask yourself what sequences of phonetic segments they represent:

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"Will life be better in the coming year?"

So asks the Chinese colleague who sent me this photograph:

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Tao vs. Dao: amazing restaurant sign near UPenn

I've eaten in this hot pot (huǒguō / WG huo3-kuo1 / IPA [xwò.kwó] 火锅 / 火鍋) restaurant at 3717 Chestnut St. on a number of occasions, and each time I go, I am struck by the creative sign out front:

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D for Dog, L for Love

When confirming reservations on the phone with clerical folks in certain southeast Asian countries, Paul Midler noticed they often used variations of the NATO phonetic alphabet. “D for Dog” and “L for Love” seemed to be a couple consistent additions. Passing through a travel agency in Thailand, he saw this:

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Agu hair bian

Here I am standing in front of a hair salon near the south gate of Kansai University in Osaka, Japan two days ago:

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Pronouncing Kiev / Kyiv

The Wikipedia article on Kiev or Kyiv gives this as the pronunciation of the Ukrainian form Київ, transliterated as Kyiv:

And here's a lesson from Twitter:

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Variations on a colloquial Sinitic expression

When I walked into my "Language, Script, and Society in China" class on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., the students were energetically discussing a colloquial expression.  Those from south China didn't know the expression, but the ones from northeast China knew it, although they weren't entirely sure how to write it in characters, and there was some difference of opinion over how to pronounce it.

Finally, they agreed that we could write the sounds this way:  yīdīlə.

Then we moved on to a consideration of the meaning of this expression.  The consensus was that it meant "carry / pick up a group of things (such as a six pack)".

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Remarkable Name of a Hong Kong Restaurant

From Bob Bauer:

Bob explains:

The photograph shows the front of a Hong Kong restaurant which has not only chosen as its name the colloquial indigenous Cantonese word, 冚棒唥 ham6 baang6 laang6 ‘all; in all’ (Sidney Lau 1977:324), but has also displayed this name in BOTH Chinese characters AND Jyut Ping. We should especially note that the Cantonese romanization is correct AND complete with tone numbers!

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"Horse" and "language" in Korean

A Korean student was just in my office and saw this book on my table:  mal-ui segyesa 말의 세계사.

She said, "Oh, a world history of words!"

But I knew that couldn't be right because the book is a world history of horses.  It's actually a Korean translation of this book by Pita Kelekna:

The Horse in Human History (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2009)

So what happened?  Did the student make a mistake?

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