Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Rain in Espain Estays Mainly in the Plain

To answer my own question - my niece (not the youngest, Olivia; the second youngest, Calen) used to say tutumber instead of cucumber. and instead of saying Buffy she says Bussy. In fact I've noticed that she always switches the /f/ to /s/.

This switch from /k/ to /t/ and /f/ to /s/ seems almost random. but let's note the obvious methodology first. All these sounds are voiceless. The voiceless /k/ remains voiceless (the voiced /k/ would be /g/ the voiced /t/ would be /d/). The f remains likewise (voiced it would be /v/ and the /s/ would be /z/). The stop /k/ remains a stop. The fricative /f/ remains a fricative.

Here's the interesting similarity. /t/ and /s/ belong to a very powerful class of sounds: coronals. A coronal is articulated using the tip of the tongue. in our english language the coronals are /t/ /d/ /s/ /z/ /sh/ /zh/ /ch/ /j/ /n/ (and depending on your analysis /l/ /r/). These are powerful sounds because of the rules they seem to ignore. Basically coronals often occur where other sounds just like them - with the excepetion of coronality - would not. Such as before another consonant at the beginning of a word.

E.g. - in English we never begin a word /fk/. fkit is difficult to say and many would argue it's impossible to say it (it's not of course - it's just outside the bounds of English phonological grammar). But skit is perfectly acceptable. What is the difference between /f/ and /s/? All we need in order to explain this pattern the coronal distinction. /s/ is coronal and /f/ is labial.

Further evidence of the same characteristics: flip the letters around at the end of a word. Kicks is easy to say - kickf is not so natural (though not so difficult as fkit is it? - more on that in another post). Mixing the data around - rats: easy. ratf: not so easy. And let's look beyond /s/ and /f/.

act - pact/packed - stacked - tact/tacked: all these allow the /kt/ ending. Can anyone think of a word that ends /kp/? how about /kf/? I can't.

Simply put: in most languages coronals show up in a greater variety of places than other classes. Note: they don't have a complete pass. For instance Spanish does not allow the sp- st- sk- onsets like English does. That's why an accented speaker will often throw an e- before that cluster. So stop becomes estop.

But compare languages that have more flexibility than does English - German allows sht- very easily at the beginning of a word while there are only a few words in English that use the cluster - all recently borrowed; Russian allows fs- at the beginning of words - English does not. And the fascinating Imdlawn Tashlhiyt dialect of Berber (ITB) allows such odd words as txznt tmsxt and tftkt. All 2 syllable words. Why are examples like this so rare?

There is plenty of evidence that this has to do with a naturally articulate tongue tip in all humans. So while mama is a very common first word - dada is also common. And all this probably led to these neonatal phonetic hobbyhorses becoming our words for mothers and fathers - or grandmothers and grandfathers. These words - or very similar ones - are universally associated with these same concepts. And although the /m/ and /p/ sounds are so common in early speech they are not found as ubiquitously as these peregrine coronals.

Why? Probably because ease of articulation does not translate directly to flexibility of articulation. Babies can say mama and papa easily enough - but the lips don't move far. It's hard to imagine the lips moving up or down or forwards or backwards to fit easily alongside other sounds. But the tip of the tongue is as agile and nimble as a fingertip. People can curl their tongue - they can twist it - they can make a cloverleaf (my latest trick) - they can touch the front of their incisors and the back of their wisdom teeth.

I like to brag that i can even touch my uvula. I've been able to ever since I was in junior high.

Now try doing all that with the side or the back of your tongue. With your lips.

Try saying pkat.

1 comment:

  1. To celebrate your neice's mastery of coronals, I think I'll give her a Corona.

    Shame on me. "Ftisk. Ftisk."

    (I don't know. Nevermind. I always had a thing for labials.)


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