Thursday 6 September 2012

VPM 101

Commenting privately to me about my recent posting about taps, a correspondent ventured
If I may ask, how would one go about making an alveolar tap voiceless as opposed to voiced?

What can I say in reply, except that you switch off the voicing as you make the tap? But for some people perhaps that is easier said than done.

One of the first things I teach any beginners’ phonetics class is basic consonant classification: Voicing, Place, Manner, and how to detect and control each of these. I usually start with hearing and making the difference between voiced and voiceless sounds.

I would demonstrate each point myself, before asking everyone in the class to perform likewise. Everyone has to join in making what might seem to be silly noises.

First, make a vowel sound, for example [ɑː]. Feel the vibration of your vocal folds by putting your thumb and fingers on your Adam’s apple (the outside of the larynx). Then make a voiceless sound, for example [sss], and feel the larynx again. Notice the difference.

More dramatically, cover your ears with your hands. Say [ɑː] again and notice how the buzzing fills your head. Do this again with [sss] — no buzzing.

Then alternate a pair of sounds such as sss — zzz or fff — vvv. (These pairs are fine if you’re a speaker of English. If not, or if your language doesn’t have these sounds, we may have to use other ones.) Do this as you cover your ears, and note the difference inside your head.

Then make mmm. Is it voiced or voiceless? Is there buzzing in your head as you say it? (Yes, there is, It must be voiced.) What about lll? and ʃʃʃ?

Then make the same sound mmm, but without the voicing. Just breathe out through the nose, with the lips firmly together. You’re doing m̥m̥m̥. Alternate mmm — m̥m̥m̥.

Do the same with nn̥n̥n̥. If you had a cleft palate you might pronounce six as n̥ɪʔn̥. Do it!

Try ɑpɑ ɑpɑ ɑbɑ ɑbɑ. It may be more difficult to detect voicing or voicelessness here, because the consonantal articulation is much quicker: we just bring the lips together for a moment, then release them. (In m, on the other hand, we hold the articulatory position for a longer time.) Do ɑkɑ. Is the k voiced or voiceless?

You can try other experiments. Any consonant you can make voiceless you ought to be able to make voiced, and vice versa. What is the voiced counterpart of k? What is the voiceless counterpart of ð?

If you can make a voiceless velar fricative, xxx, then simply add voicing to get the voiced counterpart, ɣɣɣ.

Say ˈɣala (Greek for ‘milk’), and ˈlweɣo (Spanish for ‘then’).

Similarly for every voiced sound you can make: just switch off voicing to get the voiceless equivalent. Try a voiceless [] Do ɑlɑ — ɑl̥ɑ. The only special difficulty with the voiceless tap ɾ̥ is that the sound is extremely short. As d is to ɾ, so t is to ɾ̥.

I don’t think you can usefully discuss phonetic classification unless you have mastered this sort of thing: not just intellectually, but practically.


  1. I tried your suggested ɑl̥ɑ, and at first it kept coming out as ɑɬɑ. With a fair bit of effort, I can now just about make the difference between these, but I wouldn't like to have to speak any language that contrasted them. By comparison, ɑlɑ versus ɑɮɑ seems a straightforward distinction to produce. It seems to be because of having to make the contrast at the same time as also switching the voicing off and on, as when whispering I have no trouble with ɑ̥l̥ɑ̥ versus ɑ̥ɬɑ̥.

    1. On thinking about this some more, I am getting confused, because I'm pretty sure that even when whispering I can make the distinction between pairs which I thought differed only in voicing, e.g. lice and lies. What am I missing here? Thanks.

    2. When you whisper those words, you still make the diphthong in "lice" relatively short and the final [s] strong and long, whereas in "lies" the diphthong is long and the final consonant is very weak and short, though voiceless. So by whispering them you still maintain all the differences between final [s] and [z] except that of "voice".
      In any case, I understand that final [z] is usually voiceless, at least in its final phase (I forget the name of that phase).
      I hope this is not much nonsense.

    3. If anyone's still reading, I think Emilio is right in his explanation. The English contrast between /s/ and /z/ is not simply between voiced and voiceless sounds. In final /z/ as in "lies", the voicing is not maintained in the final phase, so it would be difficult to distinguish between "lice" and "lies" based on the voicing alone, but there are other cues like diphthong length and articulatory strength to help us.

      When you whisper, you can still distinguish pairs like "lice"/"lies" and "sue"/"zoo", even if the /z/ is phonetically a voiceless [s], because it is still weaker than /s/. It may be convenient to use the terms fortis and lenis in such cases.

      The Korean /s/ (as in "Seoul") is lenis voiceless, so for English speakers a good way to imitate this is as a whispered /z/. A simple English /s/ would be heard as Korean /ss/, the fortis counterpart (as in "Ssangyong").

  2. Also re "as d is to ɾ, so t is to ɾ̥": true, but for English speakers, producing an unaspirated [t] is effort in itself.

  3. @Alan: Or, for that matter, a fully voiced d.

  4. Sorry, I've been thinking about it all morning -What does VPM 101 mean???
    Voice Primary Movement (Voice Punching Mechanism; Very Provocative Molestation) on-off-on?

    1. Voicing, Place, Manner. In American universities basic introductory courses are typically numbered 101.

    2. I should have known. Thank you, John.

  5. I've never found it difficult to switch voicing. Unfortunately, I can't hear much of the voiceless consonants, as I have progressive hearing loss.

  6. This is an excellent posting. I can produce all of those without effort; n̥ɪʔn̥ was quite interesting. What though is the difference (if any) between and ɬ?

    1. Presumably you mean the difference between a voiceless and ɬ. The former is supposed to be an approximant and the latter is a fricative. Although, I was under the (perhaps wrong) impression that voiceless approximants are inaudible.

      Jason Reid

    2. Welsh offers an example of the difference. Pla 'plague' has a voiceless lateral approximant [l̥], which is distinct from the well-known voiceless lateral fricative [ɬ] of llaw 'hand'.

    3. PS It's a matter of 'cavity friction' versus 'local friction'.

    4. To me simply sounds shorter than ɬ.

  7. But as I understand Welsh does not really differentiate [l̥] and [ɬ]; [l̥] is just allophonic with [l]...

    BTW. it raises yet another interesting question, how is it with consonant clusters with mixed voicing, typically these are very hard to pronounce. But is it the same with voiceless approximants, nasals? Is it somehow less weird for language to distinguish, let's say, [vl] and [vl̥]?

    Jan Rzymkowski

    1. I believe that Welsh can contrast voiced and unvoiced nasals at the start of a cluster:

      və ŋloː (fy nglo, my coal)
      və ŋ̊loː (fy nghlo, my lock)
      və ˈnrəsɔr (fy nryswr, my doorkeeper)
      və ˈn̥rəsɔr (fy nhryswr, my treasure)
      və mlaːs (fy mlas, my taste)
      və m̥laːs (fy mhlas, my palace)

      These occur in a grammatical context that calls for nasal mutation of the initial consonant (the base words being glo, clo, dryswr, tryswr, blas and plas respectively).

      Incidentally, if the usual rules of consonant mutation are strictly applied, it also seems possible that the following exotic sequence of nasals could occur (though not contrasting with anything in particular):

      əŋ ŋ̊nɛˈwəɬɨn ... (yng nghnewyllyn yr atom, "in the nucleus of the atom")

      though I have a sneaking suspicion that this would be avoided somehow or other.

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