A Word Taster’s Companion: Sushi thief!

Today: the tenth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Sushi thief!

Fricative. Say sushi thief!

Congratulations. You’ve just made all four voiceless fricatives we have in English.

What’s a fricative? It may sound like a name for some fried and sauced meat dish, but the resemblance ends at the hissing and sizzling sound. A fricative is a consonant made by tightly constricting the air stream at some point in the mouth. There are four places where we make fricatives in English, and three of them aren’t places where we make stops or nasals. Two of these places, in fact, involve the teeth, which we don’t use for any other kind of sound.

So: sushi thief. The consonants in this phrase are /s/, /ʃ/, /θ/, and /f/. An equivalent phrase is harder to make for the voiced ones, especially since the voiced partner of the one we normally write sh – /ʃ/ – is relatively new and uncommon in the English phonemic set. None of the voiced ones, in fact, were separate phonemes in Old English. They were all just variants (allophones) of the voiceless ones, just as the tongue tap is a variant of /t/ and /d/ between vowels. But that was then and this is now. Your four voiced fricatives show up in the beige visor, along with /b/ and /r/: /ð/, /ʒ/, /v/, and /z/.

So we can match the consonants we’ve looked at so far by place, voice, and manner:

Bilabials: voiceless stop /p/, voiced stop /b/, nasal /m/

Labiodentals: voiceless fricative /f/, voiced fricative /v/

Dentals (i.e., with tongue): vls fric /θ/, vd fric /ð/

Alveolars: vls stop /t/, vd stop /d/, tap /ɾ/, nasal /n/, vls fric /s/, vd fric /z/

Palatoalveolars (or alveopalatals or postalveolars – there’s a terminology fight ongoing over this): vls fric /ʃ/, vd fric /ʒ/

Velars: vls stop /k/, vd stop /g/, nasal /ŋ/

You will see there are some gaps. We have fricatives where we don’t have other sounds and vice versa. Why is that?

We match the labiodental fricatives to the bilabial stops and nasal, since the teeth are better at letting the air through. Some languages do have bilabial fricatives, but they’re so similar to the labiodental ones, you’ll have either one or the other.

Some languages have stops behind the teeth as well as on the alveolar ridge. We don’t. Many languages don’t have those dental fricatives. We do. So it goes. Not all places in the mouth are equally well suited to all manners of sound; the tips of your teeth don’t make for good stops. But languages can be quite capricious in the sets of sounds they use.

We used to have velar fricatives in English. German still has a voiceless one, as in ach. Some languages (Greek is one) have a voiced velar fricative. We used to as well. Why did they disappear? Probably under the influence of French, which was the language of the ruling class for a while in England and had a huge effect on our vocabulary and pronunciation. It may have taken away, but it also gave – distinct phonemes for the voiced fricatives. In the final reckoning of phonemes we came out ahead, and we didn’t lose our dentals.

Where else can we stick a fricative? You’d be surprised. Welsh has one in the same location as [l]. You can have them farther back than [k], too: back to the back of your throat, even down into it. Some classifications call /h/ a fricative too. It does produce sound in something of the same way, but not really through constriction. And /h/ doesn’t pattern with fricatives in English. For example, you can put a voiceless fricative before [t] at the end of a word – laughed, last, lashed, frothed – but you can’t put /h/ there. (In some languages, yes; in Old English, even, yes; but not in modern English.) What makes a phoneme what it is has a lot to do with how we use it, how we think of it, not just how we make it.

What do fricatives feel and sound like to say? Although they share the hissing sound, the voiceless ones easily divide into two pairs. The ones with the teeth are soft, whiffling like corduroys, but because of their location they tend to be associated with spitting and similar acts (and /f/ is forever associated with a well-known vulgarity, but that’s another level we have yet to get to). The ones by the alveolar ridge are louder, more strident (that’s even the linguistic term), and their carrying power – like steam escaping – has long lent to their use for attention-getting and denunciation: Sssssst! Sssshhhh!

As to the voiced ones, they have a common buzz that can tickle the tongue or lip, and they seem suggestive of motors and motion – or insects, or zippers. They’re soft but can be a bit racy, especially given the things we may encounter that sound like them.

But does it seem to you that there’s something missing in this set of sounds? Oh, quite a few things still. But one kind of sound we haven’t touched on yet is very similar to a fricative. It’s the consonant equivalent of a diphthong…

2 responses to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Sushi thief!

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: The nose knows | Sesquiotica

  2. Thank You! This was the richest taste of phonetics I have enjoyed since completing the Summer Institute of Linguistics phonetics course in the University of Oklahoma in Norman many decades ago!

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