2008.9.6 Some phonetics thoughts

This content is cross-posted and slightly revised from my WSO pages (since baleeted) — I wanted to get a new POIB post up but didn't want to take the effort to write all new material, as this is a busy weekend. These are some mostly notational issues I have with various areas of phonetics, an area of great interest for me, as shown by this clickable IPA chart that I made a few years ago and plan to expand. Most of the issues seem to have to do with dorsal sounds. If you have comments on any of this, please let me know; I am very interested to hear anyone's thoughts on these matters.

  1. English dark /l/ (as found at the ends of syllables in most accents) is uvularized, not velarized. If you articulate a coronal /l/ and then raise the back of your tongue towards the velum (carefully! toward /k/ position, not further back), the sound is not "dark" in the same way at all, but rather sounds more like a combo of light /l/ and a voiced velar approximant or fricative ([ɰ] or [ɣ]). Which, of course, makes sense. If, on the other hand, you say a dark /l/ and move the part of the back of your tongue where the constriction occurs even further back to the point of stoppage, your tongue will be against the uvula, and about as low down against the uvula as possible, no less.
  2. On a related note, it vexes me that velarization, uvularization, and pharyngealization are often all represented by "~" through a letter, because it implies that the distinction between these is unimportant. On the contrary, I think that the distinction is clear as day in terms of acoustics and that it should therefore be carefully considered whenever there's an instance of one of these secondary articulations. Adding each to light /l/, as done above with velarization and uvularization, is a good way to demonstrate this. The respective articulations give /l/ many of the acoustic qualities of the corresponding approximants. Try it out. Maybe I'll record some samples of this when I get the chance.
  3. More often than not, it seems, uvular fricatives are misrepresented as velar fricatives. C'mon everyone! If a dorsal fricative has any kind of periodic (trill-like) quality or is anything but smooth noise (except in the case of a lot of saliva in the area), it's uvular. I feel like that should be obvious, but this mistake — or intentional notational decision? — is made very frequently. Try making a real velar fricative by bringing your tongue close to /k/ position. It is a soft, diffuse sound, not a particularly "guttural" one. Greek is an example of a language with dorsal fricatives that really ARE velar. (Or palatal.) The German ach-laut, on the other hand, is generally a uvular fricative [χ] after low vowels, not velar, even though it is usually represented by [x].
  4. It's possible to produce a large range of acoustic results by making a constriction at different heights at the uvula. Try it out. At the top of the range, if you make a fricative constriction, you get a hissy strident; a little further down gets you the familiar ach-laut or a uvular trill; still further down (really far down, almost to the pharyngeal area) and it becomes pretty much impossible to trill anymore. This lower area is the domain of dark /l/. I think it would be useful to be able to put the distinction between high and low uvular sounds in written form.
  5. To that end, follow along with this little experiment. Make an open /o/ sound, either like the o of for or like the a of all. (Maybe those are the same for you; for me they're different.) If your lips are rounded for this vowel, make them unround while keeping your tongue in the same position. Now carefully tighten the constriction your tongue is making, i.e. move your tongue backward. When you get to an approximant constriction, you have vocalic dark /l/! That is, you are articulating a low-uvular central approximant. But what's the unround vowel corresponding to open /o/ (i.e. [ɔ])? It's [ʌ]. So vocalic dark /l/ could be represented by [ʌ̙] (the retraction symbol should be directly under the ʌ, but it may not display correctly). Coincidentally, ʌ looks like a small capital lambda, which is, of course, the ancestor of the letter L. For this reason, I think ʌ is a great candidate for indicating low-uvular secondary articulation as a superscript, e.g. [lʌ]. This usage would preferably be combined with the following.
  6. The sound of u in but should be represented [ɜ], not by [ʌ]. [ɜ] is an unround central mid-low vowel, just a little lower than [ə]. SAE and RP both pronounce the u in but much closer to this position than to back mid-low position, which is what [ʌ] is. To confirm this, articulate [ə] and then open your mouth just slightly wider to arrive at [ɜ]; it should sound like the u in but.
  7. English /ou/, at least as far as SAE goes, is usually transcribed phonetically as [ou]. But for almost all American English speakers, I think, the beginning of this diphthong is closer to central than back. Try saying a cardinal [ou] and you will hear that it is ridiculously different from the normal American pronunciation of /ou/ (and even further from many British pronunciations, some of which really front the entire diphthong quite a bit). Myself, I usually begin the diphthong with my lips unrounded. I think it's pretty much [ə] to start out with, although it can be somewhat further back. Anyway, I think [əu] is a much more honest way to transcribe /ou/ phonetically.