Archive for Phonetics and phonology

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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BYD — the look and the sound

Yesterday, Charlie Munger, the 99-year-old billionaire Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, declared that the Chinese company, BYD, was beating Tesla in the electric vehicle (EV) market.  I had never heard of BYD, so I asked my students from mainland China what "BYD" meant.

They all seemed to consider the apparent initialism as though it were an English word, pronouncing it Beeyah'di, making the second syllable long and stressed.  I pursued by asking, "But what does it mean?  What does it stand for?"

They said, "It doesn't mean anything and it doesn't stand for anything.  It's just the name of a car company:  Beeyah'di."

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Toxic bird pits?

David Leonhardt, "Did He Say 'bird'?", NYT 2/10/2023:

As President Biden was reciting a list of bipartisan accomplishments during his State of the Union address this week, he seemed to use a phrase that I had never heard before: toxic bird pits.

Was it some major news story that I had missed while on leave over the past few months? Or was it the latest Biden malapropism, destined to dominate post-speech commentary? I tried to figure out the answer by typing the words into Google and Twitter, but they offered no clarity. Google had nothing for me. A Twitter search yielded dozens of people tweeting a version of “toxic bird pits???” and not much else.

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Taylor Swift fanilect

By now I must have listened to Taylor Swift's "Blank Space" a hundred times.  The first fifty times I heard a crucial line in it as "Got only Starbucks lovers" or "Not only Starbucks lovers", and it was driving me crazy because I couldn't make sense of it.  Sometimes I forced myself to believe that she was saying "Got only starcrossed lovers", but that didn't make sense either.  Then, on December 4, 2014, I read Mark Liberman's "All the lonely Starbucks lovers" on Language Log, and I learned — much to my astonishment — that, according to the lyrics, she was supposedly saying — repeatedly in the song — "Got a long list of ex-lovers".  Still today, after listening to the song and watching the video countless more times, plus reading the printed lyrics, I hear her sing "Got / Not only Starbucks lovers", never "Got a long list of ex-lovers".

Thus I am simultaneously assailed by multiple Taylor Swift mondegreens and polyphonic earworms ("trouble, trouble, trouble; shake, shake, shake it off").

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Ashkenazi click sounds, part 2

Following up on their query which formed the basis for "Ashkenazi click sounds" (1/27/23), Dana F. appends this additional valuable information:

I have been searching for a while and have not been able to find anything on Youtube (my theory is that it is used in casual speech only, and people might not do it as often when being filmed for that reason). However, I did find this article that discusses it and describes it as a "hesitation click." By googling "hesitation click," I also found this article and this relevant, and really interesting, quote:

Benor lists several features that make all Orthodox speech special, such as a high number of loanwords from Hebrew and Yiddish, far more than are found in the vocabulary of non-Orthodox American Jews; Yiddish-influenced phrasing, as in English sentences like “I want you should come right away” or “We’re staying by my in-laws on Shabbos,” and Yiddish-influenced phonetic deviations, such as a full “t”-sound at the end of words and syllables. (An example of this would be saying “right” with the same “t” as is heard in “today,” as opposed to the partially swallowed or glottalized final “t” of American English.)

Two other peculiarities complete Benor’s list. One is a singsong “talmudic” intonation, particularly in sentences with logical reasoning expressed in dependent clauses like, “If you were going to the grocery anyway, why didn’t you buy some bread?” The other is what Benor calls a “hesitation click” — a “tsk”-sound used, like “um,” to give the speaker time to think of what to say next. (Although she is no doubt correct in ascribing this to Israeli influence, she errs in thinking that it is used this way in Israeli Hebrew. The Israeli “tsk” simply means “No,” although when occurring in midsentence in what Binor rightly calls a “corrective click,” this “no” can have the sense of, “On second thought, that isn’t what I really wanted to say, so I’ll try to say it again.” This is probably how, misinterpreted by Orthodox American Jews exposed to Israeli speech, it became an American Jewish “hesitation click.”)

This gives some context to the origin, although it does not explain how the meaning of the click evolved from Hebrew ("no") to simply a filler word that is used, in my experience, multiple times per sentence.

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