Thursday, 1 September 2011


I greatly enjoyed the ICPhS XVII in Hong Kong last month. There were over seven hundred participants from all over the world. It was good to see so many colleagues again, and to listen to some excellent oral and poster presentations. I enjoyed the conference all the more perhaps in that I hadn’t offered a paper myself and so didn’t have to worry about performing.

There was an unexpectedly interesting opening plenary by Klaus Kohler, demonstrating among other things that German listeners needed no more than the palatalization of a single segment n to hear kann Ihnen rather than just kann, deeply buried in the middle of a rapidly spoken colloquial sentence.

Some assorted nuggets of interest:
• In the Berber language Tashlhiyt many words are vowelless, for example kk ‘cross’. Geminate consonants contrast with single ones even in word-initial (and utterance-initial) position, e.g. ttut ‘forget him’ vs. tut ‘she hit’.
• In Iraqi Arabic the voiceless ‘pharyngeal fricative’ ħ and its voiced counterpart the ‘ayn ʕ can actually be aryepiglottic trills, according to John Esling — who proposes to write them ʜ and ʢ respectively. If I understood him correctly, he also claims that the ‘glottal’ stop is actually epilaryngeal. My knowledge of anatomy is not sufficient to enable me to judge these claims.
• In the Wu Chinese of Qingtian there is a tonal depression feature reminiscent of that of Zulu. The triggering consonants are, however, now voiceless.
• In the Chinese of Qiyang there are complex contour tones that don’t fit the usual tone templates. They are high and low fall-rise-fall tones. On a five-point scale, where 5 is the highest, their pitch patterns are 4232 and 2142.
• The Swedish accent 2 (tone 2) is the marked one: it takes longer to process than does accent 1.
• Everyone now seems to call the intonation nucleus or tonic the focus. Well yes: but as I see it the nuclear syllable actually marks only the word at the end of the whole focus domain. Anyhow, among laboratory phoneticians the trendy term for the low, more or less level, pitch of the tail in intonation is now ‘post-focus compression’.
• In some Australian English el has become æl, making celery a homophone of salary and hell a homophone of Hal.

A keen young researcher reported her rediscovery of the wheel by revealing to us that the Polish affricate spelt cz is somewhat different from the Czech one spelt č, the first being retroflex and the second merely postalveolar. I’ve been teaching this for forty years and more, in the context of the range of ʃ-like sounds we can make and how they vary from one language to another. (Compare both the Polish and Czech sounds with the ch ち of Japanese.) No doubt my predecessors taught it for forty or more years before that. We’ve even covered it in this blog: see the sound file posted in the blog entry for 3 March 2008. Notwithstanding, the researcher portentously declared that in her paper “I revise the affricate inventories of Polish and Czech… This conclusion is supported by the results of an acoustic study of Polish and Czech affricates”. It’s also supported by the ear of any halfway decent practical phonetician.

The next ICPhS, in four years’ time, will be in Glasgow, 10-14 August 2015. You read it here first.


  1. On the topic of rediscovering wheels, the Wikipedia article on the "celery-salary merger" cites a paper dating from 2003.

  2. In Arabic dialects (or languages), there's a whole pattern of minimal pairs of words starting with a single vs a geminated consonant, namely where the proclitic article l- is assimilated to the "solar" group of initial consonants, for instance ʃæms (sun) vs ʃːæms (the sun).

  3. The east African language Luganda also contrasts simple and geminate consonants in initial position. For example gwa 'fall', ggwa 'end' (both pronounced as spelt).

    PS: Welcome back, John - your blogs have been missed this past month!

  4. Good to have you back, John. Of ‘ayn ʕ I have long thought and taught that it can at any rate sound pretty much like an epiglottal trill in some varieties, and students of mine have proposed such realizations in their theses and/or publications. My knowledge of anatomy is certainly less sufficient than yours to enable me to judge whether these claims about it are any sort of vindication of that. I tentatively mentioned this idea in December 2009 on this blog, and Lipman said he was sure he'd heard that kind of ‘ayin.

    I suppose the point about the Wu Chinese of Qingtian was meant to be that the triggering consonants for this tonal depression feature became voiceless much more recently than in most other varieties in which this happened to the Middle Chinese voiced initials.

  5. With respect to /el/->[æl] in Australian English: John I'm glad you find it of interest. We hope to document and explain the process in far more detail, especially with respect to regional and sociophonetic variatation.

    VP - that's an interesting comment about our ICPhS paper re-inventing the wheel. Our paper is actually about /el/->[æl] and its possible connection to other sound changes in Australian English. It's also based on perception data, whereas previous work is based on production. I'd argue we are contributing to the bigger picture, we are certainly not claiming innovation with respect to identifying the phenomenon. Oh, and we make clear reference to the 2003 paper by Cox and Palethorpe in our work (incidentally, the publication date is 2004 - Wikipedia has that wrong). It's a shame you weren't at the presentation to hear more, but I hope you can access a copy of the written version (if not, send me an email at

    Debbie Loakes

  6. I can't help thinking that it's a cruel ( and, from my very limited experience reading this blog, uncharacteristic ) way to point out the shortcomings of a "keen young researcher".

    I'm not a linguist, but this blog is one I enjoy every few days. I'm sure offence was not intended- and of course her name was not mentioned- but there must be another way to criticise that doesn't invite bullying.

    Still, glad the blog is back and I look forward to more.

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  8. @Debbie Loakes:

    My apologies: I did not mean in any way to impugn the originality of your research. My comment was not about your paper, but the way it was introduced in the main posting.

    I fully agree. I flirted briefly with an academic career many years ago (in a completely unrelated field), and I remember the terror I experienced giving papers in front of the world experts in my field. I would imagine that the young researcher felt absolutely devastated once audience comments revealed that her research was merely following a well-worn path. The academic world can be a pretty tough and unforgiving place. I'm just a bit sad that this seemed to overshadow the many interesting and positive things that Professor Wells was kind enough to report in his main posting.