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May 28, 2024

Good linguists trust their ears - IPA isn't perfect!

The IPA is a pretty good invention, allowing us to transcribe languages with as much precision as we feel is necessary. It's especially useful for language learners, as each IPA character's name is basically an instruction on how to pronounce it. However, you should be careful when it comes to the IPA, because a transcription is not always reality!

To start with a trivial example, consider that the General American English rhotic sound is represented as /r/ in most transcriptions, even though it is not an alveolar trill in any variant. This is for reasons of tradition, convenience ('r' is easier to type than 'ɻ'), and generalization ([ɻ] is not the only realization of the American rhotic, and 'r' is a suitable enough symbol for the rhotic). I doubt anyone has been misled to believe that American English uses an alveolar trill, but it serves as an example of this disconnect between map and territory.

All this to say, if you are trying to learn a new language, it is not enough to just read IPA transcriptions. Practice listening closely to the language.

For example, most IPA transcriptions of Russian /o/ are [o]. If you try to learn Russian pronunciation by referencing a table like this (as I know many autodidacts on the internet do), you may think that Russian has a monophthongal [o] sound, much like Spanish.

Vowel phonemes
Front Central Back
Close i (ɨ) u
Mid e o
Open a

(Table from Wikipedia page on Russian phonology)

It is true that Russian [o] may be monophthongal, but Russian [o] is also often diphthongized! I had noticed this for years in listening to Russian, but it was only by looking up 'Russian o diphthong' and talking to Russian-speaking linguists that I found any sources on it. You'll definitely not find anything on it in beginner textbooks on Russian.

The /o/ vowel is a diphthongoid, with a closer lip rounding at the beginning of the vowel that gets progressively weaker [ᶷo] or even [ᶷɔᶺ], particularly when occurring word-initially or word-finally under the stress, e.g. očen' [ˈᶷoˑt͡ʃjɪn̠ʲ] ‘very’, okna [ˈᶷɔᶺkn̪ə] ‘windows’, moloko [məɫ̪ʌˈkᶷɔᶺ] ‘milk’.
(2015) "Illustrations of the IPA", Yanushevskaya and Bunčić. h/t to prikaz_da

The Swedish sj-sound is a drastic case of IPA misleading. If you have ever heard that the sj-sound is a 'coarticulation of [ʃ] and [x]', you may be entitled to financial compensation! Or at least, linguistic compensation, because it is not actually a coarticulation of [ʃ] and [x]. It's often something much simpler - a voiceless 'wh' [ʍ] (like in Southern American English), a labialized [xʷ], a [ʃ] or [ɕ]. Lindblad even offers up a velarized and labialized labiodental [fˠʷ] as a more likely pronunciation. The video below demonstrates:

I was never able to 'coarticulate' [ʃ] and [x], but a Swedish native speaker once told me that I had a pretty good approximation of 'sj'-sound. My approximation was based not off reading IPA descriptions but off listening to Swedish. I ended up doing something like [çʷ] or [xʷ], because that was what I heard.

This does not mean you shouldn't ever use the IPA a guide. Don't take broad IPA transcriptions as the final word, especially if you are just seeing a table of phonemes. If you notice that you hear something that does not seem to be in the standard IPA transcription, trust your ears! Look for articles on the phonetics of that sound if you can. Many descriptions of languages are old, or put together by someone on Wikipedia, and while there are many great Wikipedia editors, they may make mistakes or omit information for brevity's sake.

I'll finish with a quote from one of my phonetics professors - "write what you heard, not what you think you heard." What are some examples of pronunciations you've noticed that don't match common descriptions of the language?

April 30, 2024

The intonation contour of a list

We all know when someone is listing something in a speech, but what is it about the intonation that tells us a list is happening? I had always thought there was a particular intonation contour associated with lists. Some researchers of intonation have argued this as well, suggesting there are particular intonation contours for particular lists:

They are likely to have one of the following patterns, depending on whether they are complete or incomplete:
Complete
(i) ́ ́ ́ `
(ii) ` ` ́ `
(iii) ` ` ` `
(i) there are hundreds of RÚSSian // CÚBan // and East German [SPÈCialists] and adVÌSors //
(ii) the horses were NÈIGHing; the oxen were BÈLlowing; the cows were LÓWing; and the pigs were GRÙNTing (Schubiger 1958: 72)
(iii) and they're about to die // M ̄Utilated // and B ̄URNED // and HÙRT [...]

Incomplete
(iv) ́ ́ ́ ́ ́
(v) ` ` ` ` ` (Schubiger 1958: 72f.)
(iv) if you ask people to speak about their LÁWyers // or their WÁSHer repairman // or their CÁR mechanic
(v) it's like FL ̄Uoride // it's like [C ̄APital] PÙnNishment // it's ̄ONE"
(Couper-Kuhlen 1986: 150)

A complete list is one that includes all members of a relevant category, and an incomplete list is one that does not. If you are making a list and you find yourself starting it with "for example" or ending it with "and so on," it is an incomplete list.

Margaret Selting argues that:

...it is not so much the particular intonation contour that is constitutive of lists, but a variety of similar contours plus the repetition of the chosen contour for at least some or even all of the list items. (Selting, 2003: 51).

In other words, list prosody isn’t a particular contour, but involves repeating a contour over and over again. You can have more than one contour so long as it is repeated for some of the items in the list.

In the following examples, you'll hear two lists with different intonation contours.

For example, here is an example from Jhett, where a rising intonation contour is used. Notice that before he starts listing the items, he was already ending his sentences with a rising intonation (list in bold):

  • “Your favorite Gamecube game is Shadow the hedgehog?↑ Do you know how many good gamecube games there are?↑
    You could have said, Wind Waker↑, Metroid Prime↑, Super Smash Bros Melee↑, but your favorite is the one where Shadow the Hedgehog has a gun↑? I mean what is wrong↑ with you↓, I don't even...”

This is similar to the intonation contour (iv), where every list member has a high tone. In this example, we can hear that it's not just that there is a high tone, but that each list member ends with a rising intonation, unlike the example that Couper-Kuhlen gave for (iv).

In contrast, in this video from Bill Wurtz (at 4:38), we hear a falling intonation contour at the end of each list item:

  • “People started to study European science from books they bought from the Dutch↓. We’re talking geography↓, skeletons↓, physics↓, chemistry↓, astronomy↓, and maybe even electricity↓.

This one is similar to both complete (iii) and incomplete (v), since every member has a falling contour. It's not clear to me whether the list is complete or incomplete (there could possibly be more subjects that were studied?).

Though each intonation contour is different, it’s clear from the intonation alone that items are being listed. The choice of intonation contour appears to be reflected by the context of the wider sentence. In the first one, the speaker is confused and taken aback by the addressee’s favorite video game, and is embedding the list in the context of an accusatory question. In the second one, the speaker is making a non-emotional declarative sentence about what Japanese people at the time were studying, and the sentence ends in a falling contour.

March 26, 2024

March Update, plus a book

Things are, hopefully, looking a little better. Some lessons learned from the past year are to not take on very large projects, as cool as they would be.

I recently began reading "Language vs Reality" by Nick Enfield. The subtitle - "Why Languaeg is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists" - should give you a hint as to the topic matter. I've only just begun, so no review yet, but the thesis is that language is much better at managing social relations than describing reality. It is, in fact, not that great at describing reality.

I've mostly been reading non-linguistics books, so that's about all for now.

- Karen