Tag Archives: phonetics

Who “r” you?

My latest article for the BBC is on “r” – that sound we make in many different ways, and sometimes not at all, depending on who we are and where we’re from. It has a very interesting history, and not just in English!

What a single sound says about you


Phonological aspirations

Do you wish you could have an easier time with non-English sound distinctions? Do you have a sense there are sounds that sound the same to you but are heard as different in other languages? Give this a listen – it’s the podcast version of my article on subtle sounds English speakers have a hard time telling apart.

5 subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching

Wah-wah in podcast

The Week has a section of podcasts – audio versions of some of its articles. We’ve made one of my most recent article, on wah-wah pedals and acoustic phonetics. Now you can hear me narrating it and listen to the examples mentioned all in one easy six-and-a-half-minute shot. It’s at theweek.com/article/index/254186/the-science-of-making-a-guitar-sound-like-a-human-voice or soundcloud.com/theweek/the-science-of-making-a-guitar.

Why the clicks?

Imagine if someone, instead of saying your name, replaced the first consonant of it with “tsk!” – for instance, “Tsk! ames” for “James.” Now imagine that that was somehow more polite than just saying your name. Now imagine that English started adding clicks to its words just for that sort of reason. Well, it’s already happened in Zulu and Xhosa – it’s how they got their clicks. Find out more in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

A brief history of African click words

Maybe don’t make these sounds too much

I have heard from various people that certain speech and quasi-speech sounds can be quite irritating. Now, some of them are normal enough when used just a little here and there – it’s just their overuse or overly obtrusive use that’s the issue. Some are simple matters of taste and don’t bother some people at all. Some are probably best left undone altogether. But, just to make the point in an in-your-face and just slightly tongue-in-cheek way, I’ve titled my latest article for TheWeek.com

10 annoying sounds you need to stop making

Phonological analysis of beatbox sounds

My latest article for TheWeek.com is in response to a suggestion made in a comment on my article on noises teenagers make. Someone asked for an analysis of the sounds beatboxers make. That’s a pretty tall order, but there are few little things that stand out, and I cover them:

A phonological description of beatbox noises

A night out with some different accents

My latest article for TheWeek.com was published today, and it comes with another video. This time it’s a quick look at sound change, specifically as expressed in the sounds in the words night out:

A linguistic tour of a ‘night out’ around the world

And how to tell if it’s a Canadian or an Australian asking you out

You can get far by acting immature

That article I wrote for TheWeek.com about teenage noises, and its accompanying video, have grown slightly longer legs yet. It’s been reposted and featured on several sites, including PopSci.com and even in a column on Australia’s Crikey.com.au. The Huffington Post presented the video with a write-up.

And today listeners of National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Saturday heard Scott Simon interview me about it – listen to it on their website. The segment is 3 minutes long, which means I still have 12 minutes of fame coming to me. I hope it’s not for something humiliating.


Look at all the ascenders in this word: three tall l’s, a b, two dots on i’s – like a tongue reaching up in the mouth, perhaps. And just one descender, on the g. It has those three liquids on tongue tip; in between them you have the tongue touching at the back once, and the lips meeting once. It has a nice balance: six consonants and six vowel letters – you might say the uo is really a diphthong, though you probably won’t say ai as a diphthong. And it’s three of each for each half of the word. What’s more, the two morphemes that make this word meet at exactly the halfway point. It’s like a sound that’s, say, half tongue and half lip.

Which is what linguolabial refers to. The labial refers to the lips, as you likely know. The linguo refers to the tongue – it’s a root that gets around: linguistics is the study of languages, and even language traces back to that tongue root. It is not your vocal cords or even your lips that make the speech, nor is it in this presentation your brain; it is your tongue, that most lithe and lively little muscle, that is the heart and soul of language.

But how often does tongue meet lips? In speech in English and many other languages, while we require the lips to set the boundary of the resonating space in the mouth and the tongue to configure the resonances within that space, we keep them working indpendently, like distant colleagues in separate offices. But a few languages (some in the Pacific islands and some in Africa, for instance) bring them together, in close contact, to make consonants.

Say “mmmm.” Your lips are closed and your tongue is relaxed. Now say “nnnn.” Your lips are open and your tongue is touching the roof of your mouth. Now put your tongue against your upper lip, all the way across, and say whatever version of “mmmm” or “nnnn” it will allow. And what version is that? What is that sound? Even the International Phonetic Alphabet has two ways of writing it. The symbol for “linguolabial” is a little double-humped thing, like a pair of wings or a top lip, that is put below the consonant symbol. But which consonant? Is what you’ve just made a linguolabial [m] or [n]? Well, yes. Both and neither. So either may be used, with the linguolabial diacritic (the symbol I just mentioned). The same goes for voiced and voiceless stops and fricatives and liquids.

I’m actually not sure if any language uses a linguolabial liquid, which would be [l] with the tongue against the upper lip rather than the roof of the mouth. But you can make one: just lick your tongue across your upper lip and, when it’s in the middle, stop and just make a sound with your voice.

Of course, even speakers of languages that don’t have linguolabials do put their tongues to their lips – just not for making sounds that go into words. The colleagues from different offices (tongue and lip) may not work directly together for their jobs, but they get together recreationally.

But speaking of getting together recreationally, here’s a thing to try if you have the opportunity. The sounds we make are affected by the shape of the articulatory space as determined by the tongue position. Wouldn’t you like to know what difference it would make if the tongue were coming from the opposite angle? Find someone with whom you are on kissing-on-the-lips terms, or are about to be. You know what a linguolabial sounds like when you make it with your tongue and lip. See what sound you get if you use your tongue on the other person’s lip, or vice versa. You won’t be able to do a stop or a nasal, because you can’t block the other person’s airflow (with bilabial-bilabial you can, but that’s not in the IPA because it requires two-person articulation and what language would require that?). But you can try a liquid, that linguolabial [l]. Try it a few times. What do you hear?

Annoying teenage noises

Annoying teenage noises

My latest article for TheWeek.com looks at annoying noises that callow adolescents make. I give a detailed phonological analysis of each of them – and I reproduce all of them in a video.

A linguistic dissection of 7 annoying teenage sounds