Friday 24 August 2012


The August 2012 issue of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association contains, as usual, several interesting and informative items.

The lead article, by Christina Esposito and Sameer ud Dowla Khan, concerns contrastive breathiness in consonants and vowels. Various languages have contrastive breathiness on voiced obstruents, as in the case of Hindi etc.; some have contrastive breathiness on semivowels or vowels, as in Zulu j̤e̤ɓo ‘yes’ (my example, not the authors’). A very few languages have both contrastive breathy-voiced vowels and breathy-voiced aspirated consonants, including the Gujarati and White Hmong that the authors here analyse. Since both involve breathy voicing during the vowel, the crucial question is, how is the CʰV type distinguished from the CV̤ type?

The authors studied Gujarati minimal triplets such as ba̤ɾ ‘outside’, bʰar ‘burden’, baɾ ‘twelve’, and White Hmong triplets such as da̤ ‘lie, fool’, dʰa ‘separate’, da ‘yellow’ (these are also tonally distinct). They found that in both languages consonantal breathiness is initially breathier than vowel breathiness. The timing of the breathiness also differs, being later for vowel breathiness than for consonant breathiness. (I summarize.)


  1. Native Bengali speaker here, with some knowledge of Hindi-Urdu, and I readily contrast breathy voiced consonants to other types of consonants as in plosives (plain voiceless /p, k, &c./ vs. voiceless aspirated /pʰ, kʰ, &c./ vs. voiced /b, g, &c./ vs. breathy voiced /bʱ, gʱ, &c./), taps (ɽ vs. ɽʱ), &c. But, I fail to produce breathy vowels and Gujarati words like બહાર /ba̤ɾ/ sound to my ears as simply /baɦr/. Note that Gujarati બહાર has a cognate in Hindi-Urdu as बहार /bəɦäːɾ/, meaning the same thing, which probably illustrates the origin of breathy vowels in the language.

  2. Even after listening to recordings and descriptions, I still can't figure out how to produce the breathy voiced obstruents needed for Indian languages. Sometimes I try to follow /b/, /d/, /g/ with a voiced pharyngeal or velar fricative (I saw that Russian treats "dharma" as "дхарма") but I don't think it sounds very close. So what's the best approach for someone who wants to speak Hindi but just cannot pronounce [bʱ] - to merge it with [b], to merge it with [pʰ], to try some kind of [bʕ], or something else?

    1. The breathy-voiced plosives are the hardest aspect of producing Hindi, in my opinion. Two things that have helped me are:

      1. First practice the voiced glottal fricative [ɦ] in isolation by repeating nonsense syllables such as [ɦə]

      2. Once you're comfortable with [ɦ], then combine it with [b]. I like to imagine that the front half of my vocal tract is producing a [b] while the rear half is simultaneously producing [ɦ]. While this is obviously not an accurate physical description of what happens, it helps put me in the right mental state to produce the desired breathy plosive.

    2. Lazar Taxon, my suggestion to you, as a native speaker of breathy stops, is to pronounce a consonant cluster with [ɦ], as in [bɦ]. Such clusters do not contrast with the breathy voiced stops, except at word boundaries in most Indo-Aryan languages, and I find it a good approximation. Even to a native speaker, these clusters sound extremely similar to the breathy stops. Honestly, I find descriptions such as, vibrate the vocal cords placed apart, etc. very useless - no one's got eyes in their throats anyway.

      So what's the best approach for someone who wants to speak Hindi but just cannot pronounce [bʱ] - to merge it with [b], to merge it with [pʰ], to try some kind of [bʕ], or something else?

      [b] is probably a better option if you find the consonant clusters intimidating as well. Even some of us natives, frequently merge the 2 in fast speech (in unstressed syllables and word endings) anyway.

      Note that Bengali allows [v] as a replacement for [bʱ] (bhāt [bʱät] is sometimes [vät] or even [bät] for me), but not Hindi-Urdu as /ʋ/ (its allophone [v]) is a separate phoneme in Hindi-Urdu and most other Indo-Aryan languages.

    3. According to a linguistics textbook of mine, breathy voice is a combination of voice and whisper. More interestingly, though, it says that it is used in "sexy voices" and that it is used by female pop singers as a special effect. It gives Marylin Monroe as an example of someone who uses it. I don't know if any of this is helpful for you, but I just wanted to add something to the conversation.

      I also have a question which is sort of similar to one which someone asked on this blog a few days ago: is it unusual for a language to have breathy-voiced plosives but not ɦ? Both Hindi and Bengali have ɦ according to Wikipedia.

    4. I think Bengali predominantly has /h/ as a phoneme, just like English, with [ɦ] as a common allophone. Some eastern accents (Bangladeshi) and the closely related language Assamese have acquired /h/ (and [x]) from other sources as well. However /ɦ/ is a phoneme in Gujarati and Hindi-Urdu (and probably other languages as well) which of course doesn't contrast with [h] (unlike the ancestral Sanskrit, which had such an opposition, though the distribution of /h/ was limited).

  3. For some reason, this post appears interchangeably either as written in Lucida Sans Unicode or Segoe UI.

    Anyway, occasionally I try to predict what's the next post going to be about and I always miss. Today I thought it was either going to be about the book on the sounds on German reviewed in the Journal or about the way Benedict Cumberbatch pronounces Tietjens in Parade's End (ˈtiːʒəns [I thought it was either ˈtiːtʃənz or ˈtiːtjənz]).

  4. Hello, Mr. John Wells.

    I'm a mexican english student. I'm very interested in the subject of phonetics. For the last couple of months I have been trying to figure out something about the alveolar flap or tap. I'm not sure of whether the spanish r as in words like "pero", "cero", "caro" and the like is the same as the english sound in words and phrases like "matter", "natalie", "order", "water", "how to" "about a" and the like. At first I thought the sounds were the same. But then I started to do some research and began doubting whether or not they were the same sounds. I began leaning towards them not being the same. But right now I'm in doubt again. I think they might be the same, but I'm still not sure.

    Being as you have great knowledge on the subject, could you please tell me if there is any articulatory difference between the two sounds or not?

    Thank you so much in advance.

    1. Pronouncing the t/d that way in those words is an American feature, one of the differences between British and American English.

    2. I think there is a subtle difference between the two; as best I can tell, the Spanish "r" is what's called a tap, while the American "t/d" is what's called a flap. (Luciano Canepari agrees with this, although his approach to phonetics is a bit unorthodox.) For the Spanish "r", the front of the tongue seems to be more pointed, while for the American "t/d" it's more widely spread. The "r" that I use for Spanish, or even for a Scottish accent, feels like a rhotic consonant in a way that my native American "t/d" does not.

    3. Some people say it has to do with the vibration of the consonant. But I'm not so sure what that means. I'm exhausted, I really want to get the sounds down. I know I can do it. Could you help me out?

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