Saturday, June 8, 2013

rare sounds


People love the weird and the unusual. When it comes to languages of the world, both ancient and living, there is no shortage of odd features that make every language unique and bizarre. Consider polysynthetic languages like Yupik that can say in a single massive word that which would take us an entire sentence: tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq "he had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer." In the exact opposite spectrum are analytic languages like English and Chinese which make statements out of many words and few morphemes. A word like dog (singular) in English has only one other morphological manifestation, dogs (plural thanks to the morpheme -s), while polysynthetic languages can start going nuts with that word.

Today's post looks at sound. More accurately, we are going to take a look at rarest sounds among world languages. These are sounds that linguists almost never encounter.

1. The [ɧ]
This sound occurs only in Swedish and arguably the Kölsch dialect of German. It's a voiceless palatal-velar fricative sometimes described as a cross between English 'sh' and 'h,' and it's pretty difficult for English speakers to distinguish it from just a regular 'h' sound. Listen to it here.

2. Clicks
All of the click consonants are extremely rare. In fact, only 1.8% of all languages utilize clicks at all (Maddieson). One of the langauges is Damin, in Australia, while all the others are in southern and eastern Africa. Something peculiar to mention is that no language ends a word on a click, and only a very small selection of them can begin words with a click. Clicks are almost always inside words.

3. Labial-velar consonants
These are "double" sounds where your mouth is positioned to pronounce one sound in the back of the mouth while moving the lips as if producing a different sound. For that reason, labial-velar consonants get two phonetic symbols with an arch indicating the connection. Take the sound [k͡p] for example. To make the sound, try to say cove. Now say Poe, as in Edgar Allan Poe. Now try to say cove while forcing your lips to move in the way you said Poe. These sounds are found in central Africa and New Guinea. Listen to [k͡p] here.

4. The 'th,' otherwise known as [θ] and [ð]
Among many of the European languages are the 'th' sounds. Though they are common in Europe, they are extremely rare in the rest of the globe. English is one of the few languages lucky enough to have both [θ] and [ð], both written as 'th.' One is voiced and the other is voiceless. What that means is that for the first 'th' [θ] you do not use your vocal chords while for the second 'th' [ð] the chords vibrate. To illustrate, put your hand around the top of your neck and just give a nice "ahhhh" for all of us. Continue until your hand can feel your throat vibrate. Now say "thy thigh." If we were to substitute the IPA for the 'th,' we could write it "ðy θigh." Notice how the first 'th' vibrated while the second did not begin to vibrate until you got to the -igh? It may be interesting to note that some historical linguists believe that the prevalence of the 'th' sounds in Europe is because of prehistoric languages. The theory goes that invading Indo-European languages (like Germanic and Celtic and Latin) were learned by indigenous tribes with their own tongues, tongues that were heavy on the 'th.' While the local tribes learned the Indo-European languages, they never lost their own accents.

5. The [t̪͡ʙ̥]
This is a bilabial trilled stop. English does not use it for speech, but we do make the sound when we motorboat. It occurs in about ~5 languages, though the exact number is disputed. The most famous of these is probably Pirahã, publicized by Daniel Everett. It is largely limited to South American Native American languages.

Anyway, these are just five examples of a great swathe of rare sounds. We didn't even get to /ʄ̥/ (found in the Serer language). Such a shame. Well, until next time, language lovers.

For more reading, see Ian Maddieson's fun but woefully short article here. Thanks to Reddit for for pointing out a few of them.

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