Thursday, 26 March 2009

a controlled rolling grunt

Anyone who studies phonetics at a British university, and no doubt in many other countries too, has to learn to recoɡnize and produce a number of “difficult” or “exotic” consonants, among them the one that we transcribe ʕ, which is classified on the IPA Chart as a voiced pharyngeal fricative. Here’s what it sounds like (from Ladefoged’s website).
For a language that includes this sound, people usually think first of all of Arabic, where the sound associated with the letter ع (ʿayn) has traditionally been classified by phoneticians as a voiced pharyngeal fricative and written ʕ. (The IPA symbol was chosen to be reminiscent of the top half of the Arabic letter.)
However, Robin Thelwall argued in 1990 (JIPA 20.2:37-41) that the Arabic sound is not actually a pharyngeal fricative but a pharyngealized glottal stop. I think he is probably right. When pronounced by native speakers of Arabic, it often seems to involve, as well as a constriction in the pharynx, a momentary cessation of the vibration of the vocal folds.
The Hebrew alphabet, too, includes a letter ayin (ע), which in some kinds of Hebrew is pronounced in the same way. Apparently this was its historical pronunciation, but nowadays many Israelis just pronounce it as a glottal stop, ʔ (which also has its own letter in the Hebrew alphabet, aleph א).
The foregoing discussion assumes that you, the reader, have enough familiarity with phonetic terminology and classification to be able to follow it. I hope you do. Those who don’t are forced into inventive but incoherent descriptive attempts such as this one that a correspondent came across in a wiki about Hebrew. He sent it to me as a “gem for your collection of examples of the complete inability of the phonetically naive to describe speech sounds”.
Ayin is not pronounced the same as Aleph. Ayin has a gutteral sound
applied to it, a gutteral sound void of tonality almost a controlled
rolling grunt.
My correspondent commented
I don't mean to mock people for knowing nothing about phonetics, but the sheer desperate inventiveness (and uselessness) of the description was striking.


  1. I once read a rather ad-hoc description of how to pronounce ‛ayn: Sing the lowest note you can, then sing one note lower.

    It sort of works.

  2. When I studied Hebrew, I was told to sound like in the moment before vomiting were a good aproximation.

  3. When I embarked upon learning Arabic, I made the mistake of trusting the book and not my ears. My teacher from Algeria was completely dissatisfied with my attempts at /ʕ/ as a voiced counterpart of /ħ/. I made some progress only when I forgot about pharyngeal fricatives and tried to reproduce what I heard, that is, no friction. So yes, I'm inclined to agree that Thelwall is probably right. His paper is on my to-read list now, and I hope it will answer my many questions, such as, if /ʕ/ is indeed a pharyngealized glottal stop, why is it so remarkably stable, while the regular glottal stop was lost in most of Arabic well before Muhammad's time?

    At least to my Italian ear, the most audible effect of /ʕ/ is to lengthen and distort the neighbouring vowels in a set of characteristic ways, and it seems that those distortions are enough to make oneself understood. Usual transcriptions, imprecise as they are, go this way: the aa in “Amin Maalouf”, أمين معلوف, the Lebanese author, stands for /aʕ/; the au in “Saudi”, سعودي, stands for /uʕuː/; the ae in “al-Qaeda”, القاعدة, stands for /aːʕi/, where I simply hear [ɑːe] but infer the presence of /ʕ/ by the absence of [j] or [ʔ]; the ei in “eid”, عيد, a Muslim holiday, stands for /ʕiː/; this word is used in Maltese for “Easter”, L-Għid il-Kbir, “The Great Holiday”, [lɐɪdilk'bir]. I think the Maltese were right in keeping in their spelling, it is much easier to follow templatic morphology voodoo with it. On the other hand, when I started producing a very Italian [ajd] for that word, my teacher was dissatisfied again: the /iː/ had to be kept long and stressed, in order to sound standard. Apparently, I had to think that the initial [a] or [ə] I heard was the realization of /ʕ/! This was like saying that, in non-rhotic English [skweə], [ə] is a realization of /r/... most of you would object to this analysis, but my late English teacher successfully used it to help our class get rid of our Italian [r]'s.

    With this in mind, it becomes clearer why /ʕ/ was traditionally classified as a continuant, and why its letter was consistently used for vowels in non-semitic alphabets: Phoenician ‘ayin was used for Greek (and Latin) o, just as its Hebrew counterpart ע was used for Yiddish e. (But Italian Jews replaced pharyngealization with nasalization: their historical pronounciation of Hebrew ע is [ŋ] or even [ɲ]…)

    I am looking forward to reading Thalwell's paper. No library in town has a JIPA subscription, even though we have three universities, including the one that employs me. I'll have to resort to my budget for amateur linguistic research…

  4. John,
    nice to see chickens coming home to roost after nearly twenty years. I now teach Anthropology at the U of Calgary. Can't figure out how to post except "anon" - Robin Thelwall am on Uni email

  5. Fernando Lamadrid20 December 2009 at 05:28

    To me, the Ladefoged sample sounds like a Uvularized pharingeal fricative, [ʕʶ].