Apico-labials in English

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It's not very often that an observation about articulatory phonetics goes viral. Josef Fruehwald points out a rare example ("Britney Spears tongue", 8/19/2010):

This is apparently not just a (tongue-and-)lip syncing quirk — Joe notes a live performance where she does the same thing:


As Joe observes, there are no apico-labial /l/'s visible in Ms. Spears' interviews, so this is purely a singing (or pretending-to-sing) feature.

John Wells discussed this yesterday ("Linguolabials"), noting that

Linguolabials are found in the consonant inventories of very few languages. Ladefoged and Maddieson, in their book The Sounds of the World’s Languages (Blackwell, 1996), give some examples from Tangoa, a language spoken on an island belonging to Vanuatu, in which linguolabials contrast with both bilabials and alveolars for plosives, nasals and fricatives …

John also points out that Ms. Spears gives visible tongue in singing /θ/ and /ð/ as well as /l/, and speculates that "she thinks it’s sexy". But if that's the explanation, why doesn't she do it at least sometimes in interviews?


  1. Chris said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    I have a completely different guess: it's a function of making lip-synching look more real. Over-articulation helps the illusion? Just a guess, but I'll bet you'll find similar trends with Ke$ha, Ashlee Simpson (sorry, Ashlee Simpson-Wentz), and others.

    [(myl) Yes, this is close to my first hypothesis, which was that extreme-overarticulation might help (some people) with timing control for lip syncing.]

  2. goofy said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 9:16 am

    You can listen to linguolabials in V'enen Taut here

  3. Paul said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 9:29 am

    I agree with Chris. A peek at a Ke$ha video shows a linguolabial at about the 1:50 mark, and a few possible others earlier.


    Possible one in an Ashlee Simpson video, near the 1:28 mark.


    (I'm not at home, so I don't have audio. I can't guarantee the actual phonetic environment, but the articulation is there)

  4. Amy Stoller said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Pretty sure the second "live" video is also lip-synced. Ms. Spears has never had a strong voice or especially good pitch. She is heavily sweetened in the studio, and her dance moves are so energetic that when performing live she syncs to a pre-recorded track.

  5. Telofy said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    I’ve noticed this with AngieAntiTheist a few times, usually when she gets a bit louder. It must have been in one or more of her (superb) The Purpose(-)Driven Life videos, but I don’t remember which. Good to know what it’s called. Thanks.

  6. Telofy said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    I meant for that to be a link to her YouTube channel, but it has apparently been filtered: http://www.youtube.com/user/AngieAntiTheist

  7. Chris said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    Why do I find the spelling syncing so weird? Not sure, but had to post on it.

  8. Kobey S said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    In addition to the funky linguo-laminal /l/ at 1:53 and 2:09, Ke$ha also seems to have a greatly exaggerated (dental-retroflex? even) /n/ in the chorus of Tik Tok on "tonight" at 0:46 and 1:50, but not at 2:06 (which is the same place in the chorus).


  9. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    I can't help but wonder if this is a technique some vocal coach might have taught her? She's been performing since she was a child, she must have had a fair bit of instruction along the way. As someone who's been performing music for a long time, and worked with a lot of singers in various genres and styles, this doesn't seem that unusual to me, although perhaps she does do an extreme version of it.

  10. Dan T. said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    How many phonetic features of languages have technical names that begin with a sound illustrating that feature? That seems to be true of "labial", "rhotic", and "nasal".

  11. Terry Collmann said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 11:11 am


  12. JS Bangs said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Dan T, don't forget fricatives and dentals. None of the other items in my mental inventory of terms fit, though.

    (This is completely off-topic. But fun!)

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 11:43 am

    I've never before seen the name Ke$ha. Is pronounced "key-dollar-hah"?

  14. Walter Underwood said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 11:50 am

    Years ago, when we were touring Versailles, our guide did this. I could hardly listen to what she said, I was so busy watching her tongue come all the way out for every 'l'. The tour was in English, and I'm sure she was a native French speaker.

  15. Mr Fnortner said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 12:05 pm

    @Chris, this is a problem with sync, which I like to spell "synch" Someone who knows more can tell us which shortened form came first, but I suspect synch. We solved the problem of the c before ed with spellings like "picnicked", and that's probably why I prefer synch. Also, why has the shortened form of microphone become mic rather than the (older?) friendlier mike? I can't read mic to be anything other than mick. And of course, the past tense of the new abbreviation is miced, not the more logical miked. Where are the spelling police when we need them?

  16. Faldone said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    I'm going with sexy. Why she doesn't do it in interviews? She's not consciously trying to be as sexy in the interviews as she is when she's singing sexy songs.

  17. mollymooly said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 12:27 pm

    The definitive "mic" v "mike" rant is this one. For a more professional view, read Ben Zimmer.

  18. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    I actually have a fairly interdental (clear) /l/, almost as much as my interdentals. It's noticeable enough that I was aware of it before I had studied linguistics. I was guessing that perhaps Britney has the same thing, and that the linguolabial /l/ was simply an overarticulation as has been commented on, but looking at interviews I don't see any interdental contact in her l's, so it must just be a completely affected overarticulation.

  19. exackerly said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:08 pm

    @D Sky Onosson, any voice coach I've ever heard of would tell their students to keep the tongue inside of the mouth at all times. Try singing "I love you" with your tongue stuck out and you'll see what I mean. Not a pleasant sound.

    I just think Ms. Spears has decided never to pass up an opportunity to show us her tongue. Perhaps an atavistic instinct from some earlier species of primate?

  20. Josh said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    My guess is it's an exaggeration done for the sake of performance, and may be done even when she's not lip-syncing. There are a lot of things people do while singing that they wouldn't do speaking. My choir directors over the years would always berate the people who chewed their words–moved their jaws up and down instead of just their tongue. It affects the sound quality, diction, and the speed at which you can sing. Phonemes are also pronounced differently while singing, at least in formal settings like choral music. Examples:
    hard g is pronounced as a k
    d is pronounced as a t
    r's are rolled
    back-to-back stops are split with a brief vowel sound (want to->want-a-to)
    word-initial vowels are preceded with a glottal stop
    word-initial h is overly-pronounced. We would practice this by pulsing the diaphragm as if we had just been punched in the stomach
    vowels are more open and rounded–"I ran" would sound more like "I ron", for example
    m's were often pronounced as n's–nasals are already hard to hear in a performance, a nasal with your mouth closed is just about impossible to hear.

    For l's we were taught to place our tongue to the bottom of our teeth, not behind the teeth at the roof of the mouth, which is how I normally speak. Spears' labial placement may be an exaggeration of this technique to look sexy or the result of advice from a voice coach.

  21. Luenduen Ren said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    This is the most hilarious post I've read in this blog so far. The pop culture is a gold mine for sociolinguists. Thanks for the smile :-)

  22. Brian said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    Even if it's a feature of her lip-synching, I note that she doesn't extend her tongue in the spoken bit "Just listen" right before the singing in the second video. I'm leaning towards something done for vocalization of music as well.

    (And, on the other topic, I note that Firefox seems to think that "synching" is misspelled. Grr.)

  23. Ethan Merritt said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    @mollymooly: That's a great old rant on 'mic', from which I learned several things.
    1) The short form 'fav' for 'favorite' must be more recent than the rant.
    2) Somewhere out there is another pronunciation for 'mayonnaise' that doesn't match up with the short form 'mayo'. What is it? The only thing that comes to mind is part of a 1960's Vaughn Meader comedy sketch that hinges on "mayo" being mistaken for "Mao".

  24. Brian said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 2:00 pm

    @Ethan Merritt: I (and most people I know) pronounce "mayonnaise" with a short a. Really, it almost sounds like man-aize with a slight Southern drawl on the first syllable … mayun-aize.

    It sounds weird when I describe it like that — but really, is it any weirder than Worcestershire sauce?

  25. Ellen K. said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Ethan Merritt: "Somewhere out there is another pronunciation for 'mayonnaise' that doesn't match up with the short form 'mayo'. What is it?"

    Is there a pronounciation that does? Does anyone pronounce the middle syllable as an O sound, like in mayo, rather than a schwa or not at all?

    Me, my pronounciation is /ˈmæneɪz/. That is, like Brian described, minus the Southern drawl.

  26. Ethan Merritt said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    There's an update on the original rant that notes various people had written in to report that "mayonnaise" = "mayo" + is the norm in the UK. Since it's also the norm for me, and I'm not in the UK, that left me wondering what the alternative was. Anyhow yes, for me the word has 3 syllables, with the middle one being an unstressed long o sound. Since you mention it, I guess I have heard the middle syllable become unstressed to the point of being almost non-existent. I was focused more on the vowel sounds, however, since that's what the rant was about. I thought the rant assumed that the a in the short form was different than the a in the long form. Brian reports "man-aize" in his part of the world, which fits the bill.

  27. Will said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 2:45 pm

    @Brian and @Ellen, I also pronounce mayonnaise that way, but I just discovered that this is an American pronunciation, and that in the UK the full "mayo" sound is pronounced. Anyway, there is a note in the linked rant explaining this.


    A reader wrote in to him:

    Here in the UK we proudly put 'y's in our mayonnaise. What's to say that the abbreviation didn't originate over here? Ditto 'expat'. In the British English form of 'expatriate', the first 'a' is a short vowel sound, as in the abbreviation.

    This is a little unclear to me, since taking the "y" out of "mayo" doesn't produce the sound I'm thinking of either, but I presume that's just because he doesn't really know exactly how it's pronounced in the US. The important thing he was trying to convey was that the abbreviated form "mayo" sounds in the UK exactly how it sounds it in the full word.

    Note that I am not familiar with this personally…just relaying the note from the essay.

  28. Will said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 2:47 pm

    Oops, looks like Ethan was posting at the same time as me. Anyway, I guess that's one case where the full sound is pronounced in US English too.

  29. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

    Do Brits stress "mayonnaise" on the penultimate syllable, as they usually do with French words?

  30. Neal Whitman said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 4:30 pm

    That video is amazing! Regarding the "'sexy overarticulation for video" hypothesis, there's also the case of Fergie and her solo song "Clumsy": In the video, her /l/ is sometimes interdental, while in another clip of her actually recording the song in the studio, it's alveolar.

  31. Nat said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 4:50 pm

    @ Dan T.
    Not "labial". But "bilabial". Also, "plosive".

  32. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    Mr Fnortner:

    In the music industry, I've only ever seen it as mic. What's really interesting is when it gets verbed and inflected: mic'ed, mic'ing, etc.

  33. Bobbie said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    Britney is selling T & A! All that tongue action is supposed to add to her "sexiness"… my guess. (And no, I do not mean tonsils and adenoids!)

  34. Chandra said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 5:50 pm

    Sure, she's doing it to be sexy. She doesn't do it in interviews because it would look and sound odd (and probably be uncomfortable) to overpronounce her words so much in standard speech. But lip-synching gives her the opportunity to sexy it up (or try, anyway).

    Re "mayonnaise": I'm Canadian, and I pronounce it MAY-uh-nays. "Mayo" isn't too much of a stretch for me.

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  36. dirk alan said,

    September 10, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

    to lynch is not a lyncing – to synch is not a syncing.

  37. Ethan said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 1:44 am

    @Brian: So if mayonnaise is "man + aize", how about bayonet? Bayonne NJ? payola? rayon? Is there something special about mayonnaise, or do you never have the long a before a y sound?

  38. Therese said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    Re: mayonnaise:
    In NOLA metro area, the Y'ats tend to say ma~ ne:z or ma~ nEz rather than me yo ne:z (or however y'all crazy other people say it).

    And this New Orleanian has a pronounced linguolabials when she's not trying to not use them. One would guess that they were learned in the speech therapy class one was forced to endure because one could not pronounce θ and ð as a kid.

  39. Jenno said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:51 am

    @Coby Lubliner: Ke$ha is pronounce keh-sha. First time I saw it, I thought it would be kee-sha, but no, it's keh-sha.

  40. Ellen K. said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 11:19 am

    @Ethan. So if mayonnaise is "man + aize", how about bayonet? Bayonne NJ? payola? rayon? Is there something special about mayonnaise, or do you never have the long a before a y sound?

    I'm another man-aize person (as you'll note from my post above). None of those words have a Y sound in them, for me. They have a "long a" (diphthong, ei I think in IPA), followed by a vowel. 3 different ones, one per word. (I don't have a pronunciation of Bayonne to comment on.) Schwa in bayonet, "long o" (accented syllable) in payola, rayon the vowel of "on". Mayo same way (long o, not accented).

    I've no idea why mayonnaise has a different vowel for the A than those other syllables, nor why the O disappears altogether. It wasn't my doing; that's how I learned them.

  41. Ethan said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    Re "sync" v "synch":
    For many years "sync" was an important command to know if you were about to shut down the computer. Unix is/was notorious for using imperative commands created by shortening their normal English form past the point of recognizability ("mv" for "move", "tr" for "translate", "cat" for "concatenate", don't even ask about "grep"). So "sync" as technical term has been around since at least the 70s. In this context the only possible form is "syncing", as in "If you care about your data, you had better get in the habit of syncing all your disks before shutting them down".

  42. Mark F. said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Ethan – All the examples you mention have different accent patterns than mayonnaise. Mayonnaise is the only one with main accent on the first syllable.

    It's a stereotype about Southern US English that single syllables get drawn out to two. Tim becomes Tee-yum, damn becomes dayum, and sometimes man becomes mayun (or maybe /ˈmæjin/; the point is that there is some kind of a glide involved, and it happens in other US dialects too). Given that, there's very little distinction between may-oh-naze and man-aze. I imagine that there were parents who were in fact saying the former three-syllable pronunciation, but that just happened to sound the same as the way they'd say "man aze" (even though, as they spoke it, they would think of "mayonnaise" as three syllables and "man aze" as a nonsense two-syllable phrase). The kids would hear the two as the same.

    Ellen K — how would these words sound different if you did put a y sound between the a and the o?

    Finally, now I understand something I didn't before about mic and sync. To summarize/paraphrase what others have said, "mike" and "synch" are renditions of clipped speech forms, while "mic" and "sync" are abbreviated written forms.

  43. tablogloid said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:48 pm

    Oh! Was she singing?

  44. Dan T. said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    I remember a humorous article once, I think in Reader's Digest (though a lot of their articles are reprinted from somewhere else, sometimes condensed), where the author mis-heard "No man is an island" as "No mayonnaise in Ireland", and his response of "No ketchup in Australia" confused the heck out of the original speaker.

  45. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:16 am

    Re mayonnaise, I'm English and I certainly don't pronounce the 'o' as a full /əʊ/, and nor does anyone I know, even people with RP accents. Mine is a North London/BBC accent with a few northern vowels, and I think I use a triphthong /eɪə-/, the same as in 'bayonet'.

    The /əʊ/ is pronounced in the abbreviation 'mayo' though.

  46. john riemann soong said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    "Ms. Spears has never had a strong voice or especially good pitch"

    uhh, did you EVER seen her sing for the Mickey Mouse club when she was 10 years old? she had a remarkably powerful and operatic voice for a ten year old girl.

    or are you just guessing based on a hunch. do you actually have evidence? all major pop stars depend heavily on autosync?

    I don't even like Spears that much. but get your facts straight.

  47. J1 said,

    September 13, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    Stop it right there. Here's the answer.

    It's all for the sake of visibility of the pronounciation of the words. In a video, every shot lasts for approx 1 second. It has to be clear that she pronounces that word. So she exaggerates. Otherwise she would look like a hand puppet, doing babababa.

    I'm sure she did not invent this technique. Some video director told her to do this and she got used to it.

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  49. Moritz said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 1:50 pm

    "to lynch is not a lyncing – to synch is not a syncing."

    That's a flawed analogy, the words aren't related. In their "full" infinitive they aren't very similar in orthography (to lynch vs to synchronize). You probably pronounce the former with an affricate and the latter with a stop. The former apparently derives from a name, the latter from the Greek kronos. I vote for synk as the short form. ;)

  50. Ken W said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    Neal Whitman offered the only clue as how to find out rather than opinionating – does she do it when singing in the studio? And to be certain, you'd have to film her without her permission (or simply observe), as she's been filmed for enough of her life to be 'on' if she knows pictures are being taken. And even then, she might be the kind of singer who likes to perform for an audience in the studio.

    Compare it to British-Invasion bands who sang in nearly perfect American English, yet had intensely thick British accents of various kinds in interviews. Or consider people with various sorts of brain damage (Parkinson's, for example) who sing or speak in accent in order to use another part of their brain than the 'normal' speaking part.

    Singing is a whole different thing than talking, in many if not most cases.

    And no, none of this rules out "doing it to be sexy" – that could just be a part of singing for her, just like an American accent is for many foreign singers.

  51. Farzaneh S said,

    November 16, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    Another amusing example, 1:34 here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUspLVStPbk

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  53. Amos said,

    January 25, 2011 @ 7:56 am

    This is a very late comment, but I noticed the same thing on Glee in the episode 'Hello' (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAYC-uwql6Q&feature=related), when both Lea Michelle and Jonathan Groff are singing Lionel Ritchie's 'Hello. Given that their characters are meant to be flirting with each other, I suppose the 'doing it to be sexy' hypothesis still stands.

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