May 30, 2018

Blog Update

I have some exciting personal news - I am now a full-time student studying programming! I'm very excited to be on this career path, not least because I've spent years messing around with HTML and CSS and being interested in programming but convinced that it was "too late" for me to start. (Note: it is not too late to learn programming; you don't have to be a 12-year-old genius to learn new things.) Part of the course involves HTML and CSS and I am already planning on using that to spruce up the site.

Now the flipside to this new knowledge is that the update schedule is going to be affected. Normally I posted Wednesdays, but recently I've been having some problems being able to post exactly on Wednesdays. Since my schedule is pretty intense now, I will have to be more flexible with the schedule. This means that I might post on Thursdays or Fridays instead of Wednesdays, or may end up taking more than a week to post and end up posting on Monday instead. If it's been too long, I will post an update to let you know that yes, this blog is alive and kicking.

I look forward to continuing with you all into this second half of the year and further developing this blog into a space for linguistics enthusiasts online.

- Karen

May 23, 2018

The Alveolar Trill

The alveolar trill, also known as the "rolled r," is a very recognizable sound. It is common in the languages of the world, but not present in American or British English.

The alveolar trill is a tricky sound to make. It is typically one of the later sounds children learn when speaking a language. To make an alveolar trill, you must hold your tongue near your alveolar ridge. Then you need to phonate. If the body of the tongue is stiff but the tip is loose enough, the movement of the air will cause the tongue tip to make contact with the alveolar ridge, bounce off, and then hit it again. These multiple contacts are what characterize trills. Trills require a good amount of muscle control of the tongue, which is why they are difficult to learn for children and adults alike. Some conditions, such as ankyloglossia (a "tongue-tie"), can make it exceptionally hard to produce an alveolar trill (Kummer, 2013). Surgery may help in these cases.

The alveolar trill and the alveolar tap have a special relationship - in Indo-European languages one can usually substitute for the other without changing the meaning of the word (Quiles, 2009). In Russian, it does not matter if you say 'para' with a tapped 'r' or a trilled 'r'. Both are acceptable. There are some languages, however, where this actually makes a difference in the meaning of the word. In Spanish, 'r' and 'rr' are different sounds: 'caro' versus 'carro.' This is only in the middle of a word. If you are starting a word, you use the trill, and if it's at the end of a syllable, you may use either. Basque and Armenian also make this distinction between 'r' and 'rr'.

There are varieties of English with alveolar trills. Historically, English used to have an alveolar trill, which appears to have turned into an approximant around middle English (source). Old varieties of Irish English and Scottish English have a trilled r.

Alveolar trills are used in music for non-phonemic purposes. For example, in English-language songs alveolar trills can evoke Spanish. Songs by English speakers in a Latin genre can have exaggerated alveolar trills as an exotic sound.

Some varieties of languages don't really use alveolar trills in everyday spoken language, but use alveolar trills in elevated speech like political rhetoric, theatre, or song. For example, Standard German uses a uvular fricative for its 'r' sound. But in Stage German or Bühnendeutsch, the 'r's are trilled instead (Mangold, 2005). In English Received Pronunciation, 'r's can occasionally be trilled (Jones, 2011). More generally in English-language classical music, singers may use a trilled 'r' instead of an alveolar r (Journal of Singing).

Alveolar trills can be used for aesthetic reason or emphasis. In some languages, they also have interesting associations. Alveolar trills in Japanese are associated with aggressive speech and violent characters.

Alveolar trills are hard to make, but certainly fun to perform. if you've seen any interesting or unusual instances of an alveolar trill out and about, post in the comments!


  • Kummer, Ann W. (2013). Cleft Palate & Craniofacial Anomalies: Effects on Speech and Resonance, p 237.
  • Quiles, Carlos (2009). A Grammar of Modern Indo-European
  • Mangold, Max (2005), Das Aussprachewörterbuch
  • Journal of Singing: The Official Journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, Volume 62, Issues 1-2. p.67 "The three allophones of /r/ are included because all are employed in singing: [r], [ɾ], and [ɹ]."
  • Jones, Daniel (2011). Cambridge English Pronouncing Dictionary

May 9, 2018

Yanks Posing as Brits

I always find it jarring when an American artist suddenly adopts a British pronunciation in their songs. Since the General American accent is almost the neutral standard of pop music, purposefully switching to a non-neutral and non-American accent accent stands out.

Sometimes Americans will use a British pronunciation for rhyme. Notice how Lana has a three-part half rhyme with cinnamon, livin' in, and vitamin... which wouldn't work with american vie-tamin. The British pronunciation of it, however, uses a short 'i', so you'd get 'vit-tamin', which fits the rhyme.
Lana Del Rey: Radio
"Now my life is sweet like cinnamon [sɪnəmɪn]
Like a f-ckin' dream I'm living in [lɪvɪn ɪn]
[...] Pick me up and take me like a vit-tamin ['vɪ.tə.mɪn]
Cuz my body's sweet like sugar venom"
Taylor Swift uses the British pronunciation of "Jaguar," which has three syllables, to fit the stress scheme of her song "King of my Heart." The stress falls on "exPENsive CARS" and then we have "the JAG-u-ARS." The American pronunciation has only two syllables (jag-war) and would not fit. Bonus - the song appears to be about her English boyfriend Joe Alwyn, so it's a subtle hint at who she's talking about.
Taylor Swift: King of my Heart
"All the boys, and their exPEN-sive CARS
The Range Rovers and the JA-gu-ARS ['dʒæ.gju.ɑrz]"
Sometimes it seems to be for aesthetic reasons entirely. "Salvatore" is about loving an Italian man, but Lana briefly uses an English broad-A pronunciation of "cahn't" in the bridge:
Lana Del Rey: Salvatore
"Can't [kɑnt] you see, you're meant for me"
Emilie Autumn's concept album "Fight Like A Girl" is partially set in Victorian England, and she affects a very posh English accent for some of the characters. One nameless character is given an outrageous Cockney accent.
Emilie Autumn: Girls! Girls! Girls!
"How big is a lady's brain [ bræɪn]?"
Sometimes American singers don't really understand how English accents work, such as when Emilie rhymes "thought" and "not" in "The Key." In Received Pronunciation, "thought" and "not" do not rhyme.
Emilie Autumn: The Key
"Retreat they do at once, without a second thought [tɑt]
They only know that we were free and now we're not [nɑt]"
Do you have examples of singers pronouncing words in an accent that's not their own for the sake of rhyme/stress or mood?

May 3, 2018

Pre-Velar Raising

One of the tenets of phonetics is that sounds don't happen in a vacuum - the sounds that come before them and after them influence them. We can see a clear example of this in English with velars.

First off, velars are sounds made with the back of the tongue making contact with the soft palate (back part of the roof of your mouth). In English these sounds are 'k', 'g', and 'ng.' When you make these sounds, the back of your tongue moves up. There is a phenomenon called "velar pinch" which means that as your tongue approaches the back of the mouth, the formants (resonances in your voice) change. Formants are basically the identity of a vowel - you can tell vowels apart by looking at the formants. The process of moving the tongue up and back changes the formant to something like 'i'.

Making the 'ng' sound.

This has an effect on some English dialects. For example, let's look at the word 'rang.' In many dialects of english, this is [ræng]. But in some dialects it's [ræɪng] or even [reɪng], so that it almost sounds like 'rain.' It seems these dialects have been affected by the velar pinch. Some examples of this can be seen in rhymes:

And like a stallion racing the rain
You rode on the back of my bike
I knew from the song that you sang
- American Money, - Børns

In dialects where this velar pinching doesn't happen, this half-rhyme doesn't work. They do, however, have other rhymes available to them. In the below meme, you'll see a pun is made based on 'mango' and 'man go.' In Indian English, they are both [maŋgo]. In my dialect, 'mango' is [mŋgoʊ] (may-n-go) and 'man go' is [mŋgoʊ] (meh-an-go), so this pun doesn't work.

An Indian actress is eating a mango while surrounded by mangoes. Text: 'It's mango season, babes! If he's sexist, racist, queerphobic, casteist, cableist, classist, OR fatphobic, you better let that MAN GO'

Another example is words ending in 'ing', such as 'king.' Traditionally these words use a short 'i' like in 'kin' [kɪn], but a large amount of American English speakers diphthongize it to [ɪi], and Western American English speakers may even turn it to [i] entirely, so that 'king' sounds like 'keen' as opposed to 'kin.' The difference is subtle, so I recommend saying 'kin' + ng and 'keen' + ng to notice the difference between your tongue and how they sound.

Now these two prior examples are before nasals. Nasals complicate things and tend to change vowels as well. How do we know it's not the nasal that's causing it? Partly because you don't see this before other nasals. Americans can say [ræn] for 'ran', or they may 'break' the vowel into [rɛən], but they won't say 'rein' for 'ran.'

More proof that the velar element is to blame can be found in looking at velar consonants... specifically our friend, 'g'. Now 'g' is actually a bit of a difficult consonant to pronounce because it requires a pretty precise coordination of the vocal cords, tongue, and soft palate to be executed well. Many languages do not even have a 'g' and just have 'k', which is easier to say. We can see similar shenanigans happening before 'g' in Western American dialects, which may pronounce 'rag' /ræg/ as [ræɪg] or even [reɪg], famously rhyming it with 'vague' [veɪg]. This also happens with words with an E sound, like egg [ɛɪg] and leg [lɛɪg].

An astute reader may notice that not all vowels seem susceptible to the velar pinch. All the vowels we've looked at: /æ/, /ɪ/, /ɛ/, are front vowels. /æ/ and /ɛ/ are specifically low front vowels. They are made with the tongue pushed to the front of the mouth. This means when you go to make that 'g' or 'ng' sound, the sound has to travel a greater distance to reach the soft palate. This means there's more of an opportunity for shenanigans to happen... like a phantom [ɪ] sneaking into your pronunciations.

Why are only some dialects affected by this velar raising? It probably has to do with microdetails like the exact type of 'g' and 'æ' used by these dialects, as well as their other vowels, vowel length... but we could not have predicted that this would have started happening. Indeed, most dialects of English do not have this raising. Trying to figure out which change is going to happen, stick, and spread is, in the words of John McWhorter, like trying to predict where bubbles are going to appear in your soup. If we could do it well, we could chart out the course of the future English language! But we don't quite have that level of understanding. What we do know is there are changes happening now and they're happening in a pattern. It's a great example of how sounds are affected by their neighbors and the time it takes to reach them.