Tag Archives: sounds


Easy street. Mean streets. The sunny side of the street. I walk the streets alone. Down on Main Street. Boogie Street. Baker Street. Picabo Street. The streets with no name. On the street where you live.

The Wolf of Wall Street. 21 Jump Street. Miracle on 34th Street. A Nightmare on Elm Street. If Beale Street Could Talk.

Coronation Street. Hill Street Blues. Sesame Street. Street Legal.

Street fighter. Street performer. Street photographer. Street sweeper. Street walker.

What is this strait strand, this stretching string or streamer, on which we stroll and strut and stride and stray, and strain and stress and strive and strike and sometimes even strip and streak, so strong with its structures and struggles? Where we meet and greet so fleet of feet, and eat to the beat in the heat with the elite?

Lay this down: The street is associated with certain strata of life. It is the common place where the common people meet and pass. It is no road, but it is also not always an avenue or a boulevard. (In Manhattan, streets go crosswise and avenues up and down; in Calgary, city of my youngest years, it’s the opposite; but all avenues are also streets, while the only streets that are avenues are avenues.)

You may walk alone on narrow streets of cobblestone, or you may go where the streets are paved with gold, but streets are paved. It is an essential feature; if you find a street that is gravel or dirt you have some basis for protest. Etymology is no guide to current meaning, of course, but it has not really changed over the years that a street is a via strata, a paved road, where strata means ‘paved’ or more generally ‘laid down’, past participle of sternere ‘lay down’.

That Latin strata has shown up in other European languages: for a few, Dutch straat; German Strasse; Icelandic stræti; Yiddish שטראָז‎ (shtroz); Irish sráid (also seen in sráidbhaile, ‘village’, literally ‘street town’); Greek στράτα, taken from Latin rather than (as so often) the other way; Spanish estrada, which (when preceded by Erik) can also mean ‘hunky actor’; Italian strada, which (as in the movie La Strada) can also mean ‘road’… which has also been true in English: a main road across much of England over the centuries was Watling Street; Toronto’s Yonge Street goes from Lake Ontario north through the city and continues a long, long way into the countryside. But for most of us most of the time, street means a place where people pass, and not a rural road.

When you’re little, you either play in the street or don’t play in the street, depending. When you’re older, you develop different attitudes towards the streets according to your experiences of them. If you live on a side street, you may find Main Street (or, in England, High Street) too busy or your own street too quiet. If you live on a country road, you may be leery of streets altogether. If you live in a high-rise, as I do, you take the elevator down and step out onto the street and are in the heart of it all, ready to take in the street scene, be it busy or deserted.

I am not strongly disposed towards crowds, but I do love some peoplewatching and moving through busy scenes from time to time. When a street is given over to people walking and wandering and talking and dancing and stopping and sitting, it shows who really makes up the city. The building floodgates are opened and the dusty pavement is irrigated with humanity. Some say the street is closed, but when you have hundreds of people walking and talking and meeting and besporting, that is truly much more open than a few dozen in cold two-ton metal boxes.

And so, even though it makes a bit of a mess for the streetcars (which fit many more people than private vehicles), I welcome the occasional closure of King Street or Queen Street here in Toronto for a festival, and even more so of streets less important to transportation. Walk down King Street during the street fair for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and in six minutes from Peter Street to University Avenue hear all the city breathe and play around you – here, listen to all the layers of life:

I also welcome the occasional late evening walk on mostly empty streets to go buy something I’d run out of. And the regular walks on daytime streets to go work and shop and all of that. This is nothing against walks on trails and roads. But streets are where the people are.

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


Different sounds that we think are the same sound (but others don’t)

My latest article for The Week is on sound distinctions that other languages make but we don’t. Some of these are things that even linguistics students don’t notice until they’re pointed out. It includes a video!

The subtle sounds that English speakers have trouble catching


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.

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

8 odd sounds from other languages you could never make except you probably already have

My latest article for TheWeek.com has been posted today:

8 bizarre sounds you’ve probably made without knowing it
And their prevalence in several foreign languages


(Please note that I don’t make up the captions for the photos. Where it says an uvular trill I would recommend reading a uvular trill.)

Watch a video of me reading it and making the sounds:

A Word Taster’s Companion: The world speaks in harmony

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

The world speaks in harmony

It’s our ability to parse the flow of sound into separate sounds that makes language work. We have a conceptual understanding of the different sounds we make – ideal sounds, targets that we aim for and come variously close to when we actually speak. When the sounds are strung together, we still think of them as independent units. It’s like handwriting: the letters may flow together so you can’t say exactly where one ends and the next one starts, but you can see the different letters.

Now, when we hear someone talking, how do we know what different movements their mouth is making, what targets they’re shooting for? It’s all to do with the harmonics.

When you make a vocalization, your vocal cords are vibrating at a certain frequency – which, if you’re singing, is the note you’re singing – but they’re also echoing in your vocal tract at various frequencies that are multiples of the base frequency (two, three, four or more waves for every one of the base frequency). If you sing an A at 440 Hertz (vibrations per second), there are also echoes of that at, for instance, 880 Hertz and 1760 Hertz, among others.

Now, which harmonics sound louder and which sound quieter will be determined by the shape of the resonating space in your mouth. There’s a resonating space at the back of your mouth, from your larynx to the top of your tongue, and the higher your tongue is, the longer that space and the lower the frequency of the harmonics that stand out. There’s also a space between the front of your mouth and the closest point your tongue comes to your palate, and the smaller that space is, the higher the resonance. The stand-out harmonics those spaces engender are called formants: the one at the back is the first formant, and the one at the front is the second formant. (There are third and fourth formants that play smaller roles.)

Thus, [u] – “oo” as in “boot” – is heard as it is because it has lower harmonics coming out in both formants: the back of the tongue is high, making a big space between it and the larynx, and it’s also far back, making a big space between it and the front of the mouth. On the other hand, [æ] – “a” as in “cat” – is heard as it is because both formants are higher; the tongue is low and towards the front. And [i] – “ee” as in “beet” – has low resonances in the first set, and higher ones in the second set. The second set are always at least a little higher than the first, even when saying the low back vowel [a], as in “bother.”

We also recognize consonants this way. If they’re consonants that stop the flow of air, we recognize them by what the tongue is doing immediately before and after. If they let just a little air through, we also get the sound of the air as it hisses or buzzes. I’ll go into close-up details of the vowels and consonants in coming chapters.

So we hear these sounds, and we have a sense of where in the mouth they’re coming from, and we also have an idea of what sound could come next in any given word – by the time you’re a couple of sounds into a word, the possibilities are narrowed down quite a bit. We can also hear the effect of the tongue moving and changing the shape of the resonating space in the mouth. And we have learned a repertory of different sounds that we recognize as distinct speech sounds (I won’t say “letters”; those are what we write to represent the sounds). The actual sounds won’t always be exactly identical, but as long as they’re close enough to a target, an identifiable known speech sound, they will be identified as it, especially if the sounds around it lead us to expect it.

These target sounds – sounds that we recognize as separate speech sounds – are called phonemes. If you meet someone who speaks another language who can’t manage to differentiate “bit” from “beat,” that’s because their native language doesn’t have a distinction between those two vowel sounds, so they’re not used to making the distinction when speaking. They may even believe they can’t. They might have a heck of a hard time telling them apart when listening, too, because they both land close enough to the same target in the set of sounds they’re used to. It’s the same with English speakers hearing and making sounds from some other languages: we may not be able to tell apart sounds that, to the language’s native speakers, are obviously different. After all, learning language is also a process of unlearning: in order to have separate sounds, you not only have to treat similar sounds as completely different; you also have to forget that some sounds are different because you need to treat them as the same in order for your language to make sense.

Next: Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes