Monday, 9 November 2009

ancient nonsense

I was digging around in one of my old notebooks dating from the early sixties when I was a postgraduate student at UCL doing a master’s in phonetics and linguistics. One of the things I found was a collection of nonsense words used for ear training in general phonetics. I received this kind of training from J.D. O’Connor, Marguerite Chapallaz, Hélène Coustenoble, and A.C. Gimson.
Alongside I have reproduced fifteen of O’Connor’s words. I assume this page of my notes is a fair copy rather than my own attempts at recognition.
In the first word, kʼoβɓaŋ͡ʇyʔ you will see that four different airstream mechanisms are involved: as well as the default pulmonic egressive, they are glottalic egressive for the ejective , glottalic ingressive for the implosive ɓ, and velaric ingressive combined with pulmonic egressive for the nasalized dental click ŋ͡ʇ (which nowadays we write ŋ|).
Among the other points of interest are
• (lines 4 and 5) the other two old click symbols, retroflex ʗ (now !) and lateral ʖ (now ǁ).
• (line 5) an ejective cluster, with a bilabial plosive and an alveolar lateral combined in a single “ejection”: I don’t know of any language that has this kind of combination.
• (line 7) the symbol ɐ with a “more open” diacritic, to represent a fully open vowel halfway between cardinal 4 a and cardinal 5 ɑ. Compare this with the “advanced” ɑ in line 3, which shows that we were operating in terms of five degrees of advancement among open vowels: cardinal 4, retracted 4, this central one, advanced 5, cardinal 5.
• (line 8) the symbol ɹ with a subscript dot (= closer), standing for the fricative rather than the default approximant (or “frictionless continuant” as we used to call it in those days).
• (line 10) a velarized voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. Nowadays we would have to write it ɬʷ.
• (line 14) the symbol sf stood for a labiodentalized s. ExtIPA (see the IPA Handbook) now writes this as sʋ.


  1. Presumably you meant ɬˠ, rather than ɬʷ. But, hey, what's a dark lateral between friends: perhaps this shows we might lump together labialised and velarised things as some sort of dark/grave sort of gestalt. Perhaps.

  2. Aah - lovely stuff. Takes me back to Ken Albrow's classes at Bangor.
    BTW - shouldn't the modern version of the velarized voiceless alveolar lateral fricative have a raised gamma?

  3. PS Hi Martin - plenty of ɬʲ around Bangor, of course!

  4. John, I'd love to hear an attempt at vocalizing thse!

  5. Ever since I quit the university as a professor (in Japan anyone could be a professor, you know), I have been more and more into the UCL tradition. My own collection of nonesense words on which I received ear training and articulatory training from Professor John Wells and Mr Michael Ashby is the most precious treasure I have. Thanks very, very much for posting the photo of your all too familiar handriting!!

  6. John, I've wondered before what the thinking was behind the decision to replace ʇ to with | and ʖ with ǁ, and asking you here seems like a painless way of finding out. The new symbols are difficult to distinguish in some fonts and font sizes, and the display here is no exception: I have Firefox set to 15pt minimum and I have to go up 7pts to be able to see ǁ properly! Above that it behaves very oddly, flipping between single and double line with every point.

    And I liked the old symbols. They were in keeping with the general level of iconicity in IPA.

    (line 5) an ejective cluster, with a bilabial plosive and an alveolar lateral combined in a single “ejection”: I don’t know of any language that has this kind of combination:

    At least the l is devoiced! It sounds quite plausible, doesn't it? It may yet turn up somewhere.

    (line 10) a velarized voiceless alveolar lateral fricative. Nowadays we would have to write it ɬʷ:

    It does look as though we would have to write it ɬˠ, as there's no evidence of labialization in the ɬ̴ on the handwritten page, even if at that time the tilde overlay could be used for (unspecified?) velarization. It's only for sulcalization now, I believe.

    It's taken me this long to experiment with different fonts, graphics and even browsers since my last post on Spouses!

  7. Sorry, everyone - yes, I should have said ɬˠ.

  8. @mallamb: it was the Africanists working on Khoi-San languages. They convinced Ladefoged and others that the IPA ought to use the Nama orthographic symbols, as they did, and the IPA indeed adopted them in place of the previous ones at the IPA Kiel Convention in 1989.

  9. Many thanks, John. That shows how long I've been out of touch. Not a very edifying story, is it? Certainly doesn't make me feel that the change was any less unfortunate (than the Pin'yin i I mention re 'more old nonsense' for example)or any more necessary an upheaval than I thought!