Saturday 31 August 2013

there aren't many -crats

credit: Thomas Hawk
This semester's reading text in my phonetics course finals contained the word 'aristocrat'. Many of my young professionals trying to speak English placed the stress on either the first or second syllable and correctly used the ash vowel in the ultimate syllable. There were, however, quite a few who pronounced a schwa in the final syllable.
All the words ending in -crat have the ash vowel whether it is
  • aristocrat
  • autocrat
  • bureaucrat
  • democrat
  • Eurocrat
  • plutocrat or
  • technocrat
They are not the only ones ending in <-crat>:
  • cosmocrat
  • gerontocrat
  • ochlocrat
  • theocrat
  • phallocrat
  • ...

Thursday 29 August 2013

count words

credit: Lupin
No, I don't want you to tot up words! Rather, this post is about words starting with the letter sequence <count->.
  • count
  • countenance
  • counter,-act, -bid,-...
  • countess
  • county
  • ...
They are all pronounced with an initial /kaʊnt/.
But in the case of
  • country and its derivatives
the pronunciation is /kʌntri/. This is so obvious that my regular readers might wonder (/wʌndə/) why I mention this at all. Well, many a German student of mine pronounces the word as /kaʊntri/.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

The junction of /n/ and <-ction>

John Maidment's blog post of the 27th of August on the word-final letter sequence <-ction> inspired me to dig a tiny bit deeper. John writes in his blog post:
If the sound preceding the sequence is s, then the pronunciation is tʃn, as in combustion, digestion, question and the like. For other preceding consonants the pronunciation is ʃn, as in deception, invention, protection etc.
What happens when there is another consonant preceding <-ction>? The only consonant that seems to be possible in this position is /ŋ/ (= <n>). Here's an incomplete list of words with this sequence:
  1. conjunction
  2. distinction
  3. (dys/mal)function
  4. extinction
  5. junction
  6. sanction
  7. unction
Two pronunciations are likely to be heard: /ŋkʃ(ə)n/ or /ŋʃ(ə)n/. Occasionally an inserted  /t/ may be heard as, for example, in /dʒʌŋktʃ(ə)n/. Whether this is induced by spelling or something else, I don't know. German speakers of English are particularly 'fond' of the /t/, because in German the <t> is regularly pronounced in words such as 'Konjunktion' (= conjunction) /kɔnjuŋkˈtsjoːn/.

Thursday 22 August 2013

phonetic scheme - segmental articulation - degree of stricture

Besides place of stricture we must take a closer look at the various degrees of stricture.
First, there is complete closure. Plosives (= stops) have a stricture of complete closure somewhere in the oral cavity; additionally the velum is raised to shut of the nasal passage. During this stage air is compressed behind the place of closure and when the articulators part quickly, a short puff of air is audible. There are sounds other than plosives which also require a complete closure (e.g. taps) about which we will talk later.

The second degree of stricture may be termed close approximation. The articulators are close to each other but there is a narrow opening through which the air has to force its way resulting in turbulent airflow - something we perceive as friction. Fricatives are formed like this.

The third degree of stricture is characterised by open approximation. The vocal tract is wide enough so that there is no audible friction. Some academics call them approximants, others sonorants, still others resonants. Sounds produced with open approximation will be dealt with in a separate blog entry, which will also dwell upon some additional aspects of segmental articulation.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

phonetic scheme - segmental articulation - place of stricture

When we describe the individual sound segments of English, we need to take various features into consideration. One of them is the place of stricture, i.e. the place within the vocal tract from the glottis to the lips or nose where there is some degree of narrowing or approximation between articulators. The degrees of stricture range from complete closure of the vocal tract and narrow stricture with resultant turbulent airflow to an opening of the vocal tract leading to laminar airflow.

A further distinction is appropriate here. Most English sounds have a single place of stricture, e.g. /p, f, j, r/. The name for such a place of stricture corresponds to the articulators involved in forming the stricture. Most of the places are named after the passive articulator. An articulator is called passive if neither its shape nor its position can be changed. The hard palate is such a passive articulator. The soft palate (or velum) is moveable, but I guess there aren't many people who do this voluntarily on a daily basis. Be that as it may, some phoneticians call the velum a passive articulator.

There's an English phoneme with a double place of articulation: /w/. Two strictures are required at the same time to articulate a proper /w/ - a labial and a velar stricture.

Besides single and double place of stricture there are also secondary strictures. The adjective 'secondary' points to the fact that one stricture is of lesser importance than another. Pronounce the word <zoo> and watch or feel what your lips do shortly before and while you pronounce the /z/. Your lips are rounded - [zw]. Try to say the same word with a neutral lip position for /z/. The word is still recognisable as <zoo>, but normally you round your lips. This is the reason why labialisation is of lesser importance than the alveolar stricture of /z/.

Palatalisation is the term for another secondary stricture involving an approximation between the tongue blade and the hard palate. It's indicated in IPA by a superscript j as in the transcriptions [ljiːf] and [ʌnjjən] of the words <leaf> and <onion>.

Velarisation involves a secondary stricture between the tongue back and the velum as in [ɫ].

Laryngealisation (or glottalisation, glottal reinforcement, pre-glottalisation) describes the fact that a glottal closure is formed just before the formation of a syllable-final or word-final voiceless stop. The pronunciation of <look> as [ʔk] is a case in point.

More on segmental articulation in a future blog entry when we talk about degrees of stricture.

Saturday 17 August 2013

phonetic scheme - phonation

The second feature of my phonetic scheme is called phonation. Phonation describes the laryngeal actions of transporting various types of acoustic energy into the vocal tract. As far as English is concerned we can concentrate on two main types and a minor one.

The two chief types are voiced and voiceless phonation. The adjectives 'voiced' and 'voiceless' seem straightforward, but one has to be careful when applying them to sounds. A sound can be called voiced if the vocal folds vibrate during much or all of its articulation, e.g. vowels such as /æ, iː, ʊ/ and voiceless if the vocal folds are pulled apart (i.e. abducted = they cannot vibrate), e.g. for consonants such as /s, f, θ/. The distinction between /z/ and /s/ is clearly one of voicing: either the vocal folds vibrate (= /z/) or they don't (= /s/).

Is this the only difference between /s/ and /z/? And what about pairs such as /p-b, t-d, k-g, f-v/?

For /s/ the friction is stronger and the duration greater than for /z/ (the same goes for /f-v/). See the sound traces for the two words 'Sue' and 'zoo':

 For /p/ the closure is longer and the aspiration is usually stronger and longer than for /b/ (the same applies to /t-d, k-g/). And, last but not least, the muscular energy or tension needed to produce /p/ or /s/ seems to be greater than for /b/ or /z/. Occasionally there is no vocal fold vibration at all when you articulate /b/ or /z/, e.g. in words like 'lab' or 'lose'.
credit: jamingray

This is the reason why some phoneticians prefer the terms fortis (for /p, s/ etc.) and lenis (for /b, z/ etc.). So, when you try to make a distinction between word pairs such as 'feet-feed, lap-lab, loose-lose, tale-dale, peas-bees' and many others, don't concentrate too much on the vibrations of the vocal folds.(I can't dwell here on what you should focus on instead.)

The minor type of phonation is whisper phonation. /kə̣ṇ jʊ̣ hɪ̣ə̣ ṃị/.The dot is used as a diacritic to indicate whisper phonation.

Other types of phonation - breath phonation, creaky voice or falsetto - need not be discussed here.

The next blog entry in this series will deal with segmental articulation.

Thursday 15 August 2013


There are a few English words starting with the letter sequence <kn>:
  • knack
  • knag
  • knap
  • knar
  • knead
  • knee
  • kneel
  • knife
  • knight
  • knicker
  • knickerbocker
  • knob
  • knot
  •  ...
The <k> is a silent letter in all these words. <kn> had been pronounced /kn/ in Old, Middle and Early Modern English times before it was reduced to /n/ (via /x/ and /h/) in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The only word I'm familiar with which has initial /kn/ is the word 'knesset'. The earliest quotation attested in the OED dates back to 1949. So the word seems to have entered the English language long after the change from /kn/ to /n/ had taken place.
Correction: In the meantime another word with initial /kn/ popped up in my mind: 'Knossos'.
Being a modern loanword, however, does not prevent it from being adapted to the usual sound restrictions:


Wednesday 14 August 2013

phonetic scheme - initiation

This is the first of a series of blog entries dealing with what I call a 'phonetic scheme'. It is used to describe phonetic features of spoken English. The scheme is no invention of mine - I do not intend to reinvent the 'phonetic wheel' - but depends heavily on relevant books and articles - too many to be mentioned here. It is intended for teaching purposes and many details of this scheme will be familiar to you.
Here we go then!

Initiation = airstream mechanisms

Inhale, hold you breath, do not exhale and try to say: "Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker's man. Bake me a cake as fast as you can". Nothing happens. You can't pronounce a single regular speech sound as long as you hold your breath.
Now, inhale again and while you exhale say the two lines of the nursery rhyme again. Well? No problem at all under normal health conditions.
Next, exhale and then inhale and while you inhale try to say the two lines. Did you manage to do it? If not the whole two lines, you were probably able to pronounce at least a fraction of them. What did it feel like? Awkward, dinnit? Our articulatory organs are obviously not used to working properly while we breathe in.

This tiny self-experiment tried to demonstrate that air has to flow either into or (preferably) out of our body if and when we speak. Sound production is initiated by airflow, and this is the reason why this section is called initiation. If we exhale while we speak the airstream is termed egressive (derived from the Latin verb ēgredī, ēgredior, ēgrediēbar, ēgressus sum meaning ' to go out, leave, depart, exit'); otherwise it's an ingressive airstream (from Latin ingredī).

The normal way to recite the nursery rhyme is by exhaling the air out of the lungs - the airstream is pulmonic egressive (the Latin noun for lung is pulmō and the corresponding adjective is pulmōnārius 'of the lung'). If you try to say the rhyme while inhaling air it would be a pulmonic ingressive airstream. You may have heard someone say 'yuh' while inhaling air; another example is French 'oui'  said with a pulmonic ingressive airstream.

But the lungs are not the only starting (or end) point of the airstream. Take, for example, the expression "Tsk Tsk!" (or "Tut Tut!"), which is (are) the usual transliteration(s) of the tutting sound made to express disapproval. Try to make this sound and feel the airflow. It's ingressive, i.e. the air is sucked inwards but does not flow into the lungs (you can inhale and exhale while you make the sound). For the air to flow into the oral cavity, the back of the tongue must be sealed against the velum. This is the reason why this kind of airstream mechanism is called velaric.Other velaric ingressive sounds (aka clicks) are the 'kiss sound' (which is a bilabial click), the sound we make when we imitate the clip-clop of hooves (a postalveolar click) or the sound (a lateral click) to make horses speed up.

So far we've mentioned pulmonic egressive and ingressive and velaric ingressive airstream mechanisms. There's another one worth mentioning as a more or less infrequent variant of English sound production: the glottalic egressive airstream. Its use seems to be restricted to the English plosives /k, t, p/. Sound samples can be found here. Sounds articulated with a glottalic egressive airstream are called ejectives.

Airstream mechanisms other than the ones mentioned here are not relevant for English.

The next blog entry in this series will deal with phonation.