Sunday 31 May 2009


While we’re on the topic of nasals (blog, 28 May), it’s interesting to note that there’s one nasal that is pretty common in the world’s languages in general, but which we don’t have in English: the palatal nasal, ɲ.
When we borrow words containing a palatal nasal from languages that do have one, we have two possible strategies: map it onto nj, or map it onto simple n.
In final position, there’s no choice: it has to be n. So French Charlemagne ʃaʁləmaɲ becomes ˈʃɑː(r)ləmeɪn (mostly), and champagne ʃɑ̃paɲ becomes ˌʃæmˈpeɪn; we use the French name for German Köln kœln, namely Cologne kɔlɔɲ, which we pronounce as kəˈləʊn. In Boulogne bulɔɲ, on the other hand, we transfer the palatality to the vowel and say buˈlɔɪn.
Medially, we have nj in poignant, cognac, vignette. French doesn’t have word-initial ɲ, so the question of what to do with it doesn’t arise; but Italian does have it, and when confronted with gnocchi I think most people just say ˈnɒki, unless they are among the few linguistic sophisticates who know it ought to be ˈnjɒki. There’s a phonotactic problem there, though, in that in a stressed syllable English Cj- is on the whole restricted to positions before the vowel or something derived from it.
When it comes to Spanish, I think most British people ignore the diacritic in piña colada piɲakoˈlaða and just say ˈpiːnə kəˈlɑːdə. But Americans know more Spanish, and say ˈpiːnjə. In the case of cañon, fortunately we decided to anglicize its spelling to canyon, so everyone says nj.
Few British people know any Portuguese, so piranha, BrPort piˈraɲa, is usually just pəˈrɑːnə.
Now you know what the picture is for.

Thursday 28 May 2009

word-initial ŋ

Robert Cuperus writes
My pet “phon-prob” concerns velar nasals: what makes them so special (and rare)? Why is it they are far more constrained than n and m, at least in most languages I know of? E.g., why doesn’t English have words like *ngail, *ngight, *ngine, *ngoon, etc. There must be a simple answer to this obvious question, but I can't understand why the combination of "velarity" and "nasality" is somehow exceptional, whereas velar stops are unproblematic.

I don’t know whether anyone has an answer that would satisfy Robert. I haven’t got one myself. The usual explanations in terms of markedness theory seem to me to be post hoc and circular (because X is rare, we say it’s marked; then it is the markedness of X that’s responsible for its rarity).
There are of course plenty of languages in the world that do have initial velar nasals. One must remember that the languages familiar to Europeans are by no means representative of the world's languages. Even in Europe, an initial velar nasal is quite common in Welsh, though only through mutation of an initial velar plosive: e.g. fy nghi ‘my dog’ və ŋhiː, from ci ‘dog’ kiː; and fy ngardd ‘my garden’ və ŋarð, from gardd ‘garden’ ɡarð. In colloquial spoken Welsh the fy bit can be dropped, leaving the velar nasal phrase-initial.
See the map and discussion in the World Atlas of Language Structures. Part of the map is reproduced in miniature here:You can see that initial velar nasals are found particularly in central Africa and in the southeast Asia – Pacific area.
Of those languages in the database that have a velar nasal as an independent phoneme (234), there are more that allow it in initial position (146) than that disallow it (88), which you may find surprising.

Wednesday 27 May 2009

New fonts from SIL

Dan Everett’s sponsor for his missionary life with the Pirahã (blog, 25 May) was SIL International (formerly the Summer Institute of Linguistics), the Christian organization devoted to studying lesser-known languages with a view to translating the gospel into them. Many phoneticians, however, know SIL as the provider of free phonetic fonts for computers: it is they who have given us various editions of the Charis and Doulos phonetic fonts, the most widely used alternatives to Lucida Sans Unicode and Lucida Grande.
Now SIL has announced newly revised versions of the Doulos SIL and Charis SIL fonts. They include a number of new symbols: mainly special Cyrillic letters for languages such as Abkhazian, Bashkir and Chuvash, but also improved versions of some of the ExtIPA diacritics.
You can also download fonts entitled Charis SIL Compact and Doulos SIL Compact. These are identical with the ordinary versions, except that they have a tighter line-spacing. This is a useful improvement, giving in my opinion a much better appearance to a page of text. SIL warns, though, that it may render multiple diacritics on the same base letter illegible on the computer screen (though still OK in the print output).

Tuesday 26 May 2009

PLTC 2009

UCL and the University of Westminster will jointly be organizing another Phonetics Teaching and Learning Conference this summer. It will run from the 6th to the 9th of August at UCL in central London.
You can read about it here.
It is held every two years, and this year's topics will be
• general phonetics
• phonetics for speech therapy and audiology
• phonetics for the performing arts
• phonetics for language teaching
• forensic phonetics
• the use of IT and distance learning in phonetics.
The organizers have done me the honour of inviting me to give the keynote address, which I have decided to call Dear Professor Wells. I will discuss some of the emails I have received over the past few months (mainly concerning LPD) and how I have answered them. This gives an insight into the points in English phonetics that I have evidently not explained clearly enough in the dictionary or elsewhere.
Some of the questions people ask are extremely sophisticated. Others are anything but. Fortunately not all emails I receive are as laconic and unanswerable as one that reached me recently from an address in Saudi Arabia:
hi.. i'm from ksa
i want to teach english
by: [name]

Another, laconic but easily answered, read
Are you a man?
—to which the answer is yes.

Monday 25 May 2009

Pirahã phonetics

I have been reading Dan Everett’s fascinating account of life and language in the Amazonian jungle, Don’t sleep, there are snakes. He went as a missionary to the Pirahã, to learn their language with the intention of translating the New Testament into it. Rather than his converting them, however, it was they who ultimately undermined his Christian beliefs. He has now written a number of learned articles about their language, as well as this excellent popular account of the years he spent living with them.
The Pirahã language, according to Everett, has no numerals, no way of counting, and no quantifiers. More dramatically for Chomsky’s ideas about linguistic universals, he claims it has no grammatical recursion. He makes an excellent case for this claim, as far as I can judge, but Chomsky’s reaction was reportedly to denounce him as a charlatan.
Phonetically, Pirahã is remarkable for having very few phonemes: just eight consonants for men, /p b t k g ʔ s h/, and three vowels, /i a o/. Women have one consonant fewer, since they replace /s/ by /h/. There is some striking allophonic variation: /b/ is [m] when initial and a trill [ʙ] between the vowels i and o; /g/ is [n] when initial, and between i and o can be a kind of linguolabial lateral (the ExtIPA symbol for this is ).
There’s a sound file of the spoken language here.
In Pirahã orthography it has been decided to use the letter x to represent the glottal stop, which is of frequent occurrence in the language. Unfortunately on the page of phonetic explanation the printers of Everett’s book have got the IPA symbol wrong: Oh no, it isn’t: it’s ʔ.
A small matter, but somehow typical of non-specialist printers and publishers. Moral: when proof-reading, always check phonetic symbols particularly carefully.

Sunday 24 May 2009

An unwritten possessive

In Montserrat in the West Indies (where I have just been) there is a village whose name is shown on the map as Frith. Yet everyone pronounces it frɪts. Why should this be? It certainly surprises outsiders.
Many place names in Montserrat are taken from the names of former sugar estates identified by the surname of the erstwhile owner: Blakes, Brades, Brodericks, Delvins, Drummonds, Dyers, Farrells, Gages, Geralds, Lees, Nixons, O’Garros, Trants, Tuitts, Webbs, Whites. The names of these villages obviously consist of the surname plus the possessive -’s ending. Occasionally they are written with an apostrophe, though more often not. The name of the village of Molyneux ˈmɒlɪnjuːz conforms to the same pattern.
Some names pronounced like possessives are nevertheless written without the -s ending. The village shown on maps as Farm is actually pronounced faːmz. Streatham is ˈstratəmz [sic]. Omitting the possessive ending in writing is particularly usual in the case of stems ending in a sibilant. There are (or rather there were, before the volcano disaster of 1997) villages called Harris and Weekes. But they are/were generally pronounced ˈharɪsɪz, ˈwiːksɪz.

The estate formerly belonging to Mr Frith should therefore be Frith(’)s. However in popular Caribbean English there is no θ: the fricative of BrE and AmE is replaced by a plosive t. So frɪθ becomes frɪt. Add the possessive ending, and we have the actual pronunciation frɪts.

Spoken Caribbean creoles are generally pretty cavalier about the possessive ending: you often hear things like Mary mother for standard Mary’s mother. But anyone who has been to school knows that you mustn’t omit the ending in writing. So it is all the more surprising that in these names people pronounce the ending but don’t write it.