Daily Archives: March 6, 2013

A Word Taster’s Companion: Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

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

Huh. Is that all? Uh-uh.

What’s left? Is that it? Not even close. There are many sounds that people use in language that we haven’t touched. Most of them can be figured out by using new places with the same manners, or new manners with the same places, and a few require even more inventiveness. But while many of them are occasional allophones in English, almost none of them are English phonemes.

Almost none. We do have a couple of sounds left, one of which is definitely a phoneme but is hard to pin down as to its features, and the other of which is easier to pin down for features but may or may not be a phoneme (but is definitely a well-used allophone).

What are they? They are the difference between uh-huh and uh-uh.

That’s a nice minimal pair, as linguists would say. The difference between two opposite things – yes and no – lies in just one sound. The vowels are the same, front and back. To give a thumbs-up, let the air flow through your throat, /ʌhʌ/; to give a thumbs-down, stop it momentarily, /ʌʔʌ/. (You can also say it [ʔʌʔʌ].)

OK, what’s that thing, [ʔ]? It’s a glottal stop. You know the sound well enough. You probably make it in place of the /t/ in button. If you’re a certain kind of British speaker, you make it as an allophone of /t/ in between vowels: [mæʔɜ] for matter, for instance. It stands in for stops in quite a lot of places, in fact; you might even say it for /p/ in yup. You might even use it in something if you say it casually as [sʌʔm] (“supm”). And in some dialects you might use it in place of [h], as in ’Enry.

But is the glottal stop a phoneme – a distinct sound? Or is it just in uh-uh to keep the two vowels as distinct syllables? It’s probably safest to say that [ʔʌ] is an allophone of /ʌ/. But that glottal stop is certainly a sound we use in English!

And how about /h/? It is often called a glottal fricative. The problem is that it doesn’t normally actually involve greater constriction of the airway. And, in English, it doesn’t act like a fricative. English voiceless fricatives can come between a vowel and a stop (mask, raft, wished) and all English fricatives can come at the end of a word (give, biz, rouge), neither of which /h/ can do in modern English (except in special cases like huh and hah, which sometimes end with [h]). In Old English, yes – but that was a thousand years ago. In some other languages it can as well, and for them it’s reasonable enough to treat it as a fricative. But in English it’s its own little special thing, available only by itself at the beginning of syllables (and, in some dialects, often not there). It also has a tendency to be reduced in some circumstances of casual speech to nothing or near nothing. It’s a phoneme, no mistake: you know the difference between an eel on a heel and a heel on an eel. And it’s a consonant – you say a heel, not an heel. But it’s its own special kind of consonant in modern English.

These two sounds, [h] and [ʔ], are a pair notable for their absence not only from the rest of the classification but from actually being heard. Yes, /h/ is audible, but barely, and sometimes not really at all except as a gap in the sound. The glottal stop is simply a break in the flow of the sound: it’s the ultimate absence. There’s not even any enunciatory cue into or out of it – the tongue and lips don’t need to move for it to be made.

It goes without saying that we don’t have voiced variants of these. The surprise is that some languages do have a voiced equivalent for /h/. How is that possible? What it is, in fact, is really a breathy voicing added to the end of the preceding vowel or the beginning of the next. Make a low, lewd laugh – huhuhuhuhuh – and you will likely be alternating between /h/ and breathy voicing.

What do [h] and [ʔ] feel like to say? Exact opposites: /h/ is a perceptible free flow of breath, whereas the glottal stop is a perceptible lack of flow of breath. It does not usually produce a sense of asphyxiation, though it may leave you with extra breath to expel at word’s end. It simply gives a little catch or hiccup in the flow, and there are a variety of flavours that can have. The breath of /h/ will naturally be associated with all things expressed by breathing out: exhaustion, exasperation, excitement, or even ease. It’s so often so gentle as to be just like a brush of a feather – but it always expels extra air, leaving you a little closer to winded.

Next: syllables