Yale phonologists present in Manchester

July 21, 2018

Research by Assistant Professor Jason Shaw, PhD candidate Chris Geissler, and graduate student Samuel Andersson was featured at the 26th Manchester Phonology Meeting, an annual conference focusing on phonetics and phonology. The three Yale presentations tackled questions about pronunciation by examining the fine details of our anatomy that make speech possible.

Jason’s project was conducted jointly with Lecturer Patrycja Strycharczuk of the University of Manchester and Senior Lecturer Donald Derrick of the University of Canterbury. Their presentation focused on a phenomenon called l-vocalization. In many languages around the world, the sound l at the end of a word or syllable may be pronounced like a u or w. For example, in Estuary English, a dialect spoken in South East England, the word milk is sometimes pronounced like miwk. Linguists traditionally believe that each speech sound can be described by a series of fundamental features. Two features that describe the sound l are that it is coronal—meaning that the tip of the tongue touches the top of the mouth—and that it is lateral, meaning that air flows out of the mouth through the sides of the tongue. When a dialect without l-vocalization adopts it, two features of the l sound change: it is no longer coronal, and it is no longer lateral. Because sounds often change one feature at a time, one might expect the process of adopting l-vocalization to consist of two stages: losing the coronal feature and losing the lateral feature. However, when the researchers measured the tongue movements of l-vocalizing speakers from New Zealand, they found that the reduction in laterality is linked to reduction in contact between the tongue tip and the top of the mouth. Thus, l-vocalization presents an instance in which two features of a sound are changing at once.

Samuel’s presentation identified two new consonants in some varieties of British English: kt and gd. These sounds are doubly-articulated consonants, meaning that they are produced by articulating two different consonants at the same time. For example, the g and the w in the name Gwendolyn may be doubly-articulated if the lips form a round shape (the w) before the g is pronounced. The kt and gd sounds that Samuel observed are found in words with a kl sound such as o’clock or cloths, which are then pronounced like o’ctlock and ctloths, respectively. Interestingly, the only other languages known to include the doubly-articulated kt and gd sounds are languages with clicks. These languages are spoken almost exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa, and no language without clicks has ever been known to adopt them over time. However, Samuel observed that the British English speakers using kt very occasionally form click-like sounds due to the shape the tongue forms when trying to produce the k and the t at the same time. While these weak clicks are still only a rare accent for these British English speakers, the fact that they exist at all may provide a clue about the mysterious origin of clicks.

Finally, Chris spoke about his dissertation work, which explains an anomaly regarding consonants in the Tibetan language. Many languages have a certain type of consonant known as stops, which come in two varieties. The aspirated stops—p as in pet, t as in toy, and k as in kite—are produced with a burst of air from the mouth. Their unaspirated counterparts—b as in big, d as in dog, and g as in go—lack this burst of air. Some languages, like English, distinguish between aspirated and unaspirated stops, while others do not. Tibetan, however, appears to have three types of stops: unaspirated (b, d, and g), long aspirated (p, t, and k), and middle aspirated (something in between). Based on his research in Kathmandu, Nepal, Chris shows that the two types of aspiration result from the way in which the tongue coordinates timing between tone and aspiration. It turns out that the long aspirated stops only exist in syllables with high tone, while the short aspirated stops only exist in syllables with low tones. Thus, the three types of stops in Tibetan can be understood as an interaction between two types of aspiration and two types of tone.

The Yale linguists were joined at the conference by former Yale linguists Gaja Jarosz and Kevin Tang. Gaja is now an Associate Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, while Kevin is an Assistant Professor at Zhejiang University.

The Manchester Phonology Meeting was held from May 24 to 26 at the University of Manchester in Manchester, United Kingdom. The abstracts are available on the conference website.

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