ejective

Eject is a word that may fairly easily raise a slight smile due to the roughness, hazardousness, or indignity of its most frequent referents – a fighter pilot may eject from the cockpit, a boisterous drunk may be ejected from a bar, a skier whose tips jam into something suddenly may do a double eject from his bindings… The most genteel sense I can think of is the eject button on various media players, from cassette recorders to DVD players. The overtones of ejaculate and the derisive flavour of reject add to its rather improper flavour. And fair enough: it’s from Latin for “throw out” – e “out” plus jacere “throw”.

So ejective would be “able to eject” or “pertaining to ejection”, yes? Yes, but in particular it has a linguistic sense: it’s a kind of consonant. Now, it’s possible that you’ve never spoken an ejective consonant in your life, because English doesn’t have them and neither do any other European languages I can think of, but I rather think, given the way children – and to a perhaps lesser extent adults – play with sounds, that at some time in your life you’ve made the sound. I do think it’s quite likely you’ve heard ejective consonants. I say this because I think it’s quite likely that you’ve seen the movie Avatar.

James Cameron, director of Avatar, wanted the indigenes of the planet Pandora to have a developed language, one that would sound alien to audiences but at the same time be pleasing to listen to and not prohibitive for his actors to speak. He hired Paul Frommer, a trained linguist and business-school professor, who presented some options, and what was chosen was a phonemic set with noticeable use of ejectives.

So what are these ejectives? One stand-out word from the movie is sk’awng or, as it’s spelled in the standardized Na’vi orthography in the Latin alphabet, skxawng. It means “idiot” and is used several times. The ejective k’ gives the word a feel of some cartoon character being hit in the head with a hammer and his head ringing like a gong. You may remember it.

In the real world, ejectives are found in many languages, including a goodly number of African and American languages – Hausa and Lakhota, for instance. They are also present in Georgian (what they speak in the republic of Georgia in the Caucasus), and when I sang in Darbazi, a choir that sang music from the ancient polyphonic tradition of Georgia, what our conductor, Alan Gasser, told us to do was basically to say the consonant very emphatically. And then he demonstrated.

A demonstration goes a long way, but I can’t actually give you one here. But it’s important to know, first of all, that an ejective consonant is not just any forcefully produced consonant. It has to be a stop or affricate – the airstream has to be stopped for a moment – and the glottis has to close. Ejectives are not sternutatory – they’re not like sneezing. There is no force from your lungs. The force comes entirely from a buildup of air pressure in the space between your closed glottis and where your tongue has stopped up your mouth (I’m put in mind of a piston in a diesel engine). So an ejective is a stop coarticulated with a glottal stop, with a buildup of pressure and the glottal stop releasing after the stop.

That’s probably confusing to most of those reading this. So let’s do this: start with the word uh-uh, as in “no” (rather than uh-huh, as in “yes”). Say it. Now say it again, but build up some pressure in the stop between the uh and the uh as if you’re lifting something; make sure to be actually holding your breath and adding a bit of tension in there: uh-…-uh. Now say the word okay in the same way: ok…kay. Now try it with the the /k/ released with a sort of pop outward a half second before you actually release your breath: ok…k’…ay. You should be able to produce the same piston-pop effect with “p”, “t”, “ts”, and “ch”.

So an ejective ejects the air that has built up pressure between your glottis and your tongue. But of course in ordinary speech it’s not quite so emphatic. I’ve found a video that teaches some words in Adyghe (Circassian), a language of the Caucasus, and in some of them you can see how ejectives come out in normal speech and how they’re different from ordinary stops. Just look for the p’, t’, or k’ – the other places you see will have it just as a glottal stop, as in uh-uh.

And why, if we don’t have them in English and you’re unlikely to learn a language that has them, should you care? Well, you like the taste and feel of words and their sounds, don’t you? There is much to be learned from the various things your mouth can do that you don’t use it for. (I mean sounds it can make. Of course.) And we do occasionally make these kinds of sounds when speaking English, just for effect. So why throw them out?

3 responses to “ejective

  1. Here in Edmonton, Alberta, and I imagine elsewhere (for newsreaders are seldom anything other than imitative) we hear ejectives every time a person on the TV news mentions ‘billions of dollars’ — for emphasis, they linger on the [b] and produce a slight ejective. . . . I think I know how to recognize them — ejectives, that is; knowing newsreaders takes no skill — because I both taught phonetics for three decades, and spoke Swahili (which also has ejectives) as a child.

    • Interesting. Typically (as you probably know) voiced stops are more likely to be implosives (there’s another one I need to cover), but I’m sure you’re right that the newsreaders are saying ejectives. It’s a good way to make the /b/ clearly not a /m/, whereas an implosive (which would also make it clear) risks sounding goofy.

      Implosives and ejectives, despite their opposing natures (the piston is going down rather than up for an implosive, one may say) are generally in complementary distribution and are sometimes used interchangeably (you might know this; I’m tossing it in for other readers). I definitely should get to implosive soon…

  2. Pingback: qvevri | Sesquiotica

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