Luke’s Languages #3


So, last week I promised you we’d try some do-it-yourself experiments with phonetics (the sounds of language). And I have good news: We will!

But I have to give you a disclaimer: it can be hard to predict people’s language background, so I have to be conservative and assume my audience speaks some level of Canadian English. Sorry for the inconvenience. (If worst comes to worst, get a friend and have them look silly doing the experiments!)

Ready? Here it goes!

First, see if you can pick out this accent. Say “ride” out loud; now, say “rad”, stretching out the “a”. Try this with all the “i” sounds in your speech: “lime” (laam), “try” (traa), and even “I” (aah). What accent is this? If you guessed southern U.S., you’ve got a good ear! (Now put it in a sentence.)

But let’s try to figure out why this is. See, the “i” sound is what we call a diphthong, or two vowels packed into one. Don’t believe me? Say the word “I” real, real slow. Sing it  for two bars if you have to. What do you notice? You’ll catch yourself slowly going from “aah” to “eee”, and if you really pay attention, you’ll feel your tongue creeping up. Like a creeper.

That’s all “i” is—just those two vowels really fast one after the other. So we see that down in the South, they don’t bother going to the “eee” part—they just hang out  at “aah” for twice as long.But what’s funny is that they also make diphthongs where there weren’t none. Say “cat”… good. Now say “cay-uht”. Keep going with “habitat” (habitay-uht) and “man” (may-uhn).  Funny how these get an extra syllable, no?

Science, right? So jokes.

Anyway, on to other sounds—and less explanation.

1. Say “Ben”. Now insert a “yuh”, so it’s like “byen”. Say it again, but stop before you say  the “n”—so, not “byeh”, but “byen” without the “n”. Say it slowly if  that helps. You’ve now said the French “bien” with a perfect accent. Très bien! (This is “nasalization”, and it’s easy to do. Say “nan”, but stop before you get to the “n”… and you’ve got yourself a very whiny “nah”! Say that instead of “no” for the rest of the day to annoy all your friends.)

2. Say the letter “d”; now hold your tongue where it goes to, right before you release it—remember that spot. Move the tip back from there, hugging the roof of your mouth, until you hit a major slope (your palate). Keep it just barely on the slope and say “d” again. This is about the position of the “d” and “t” in the languages of India—can you hear the trademark sound?

3. Say “button”. If you’re a native Canadian or American English speaker, you didn’t say those “t”s right there. You saw them, but you didn’t say them.  Admit it, you just kind of clenched your throat. No, I’m serious! Do it again! Feel that? It’s called a “glottal stop”. Okay, see if you can keep that sound, and now use it instead of the “t”s in “bottle”, “falsetto”, and… you guessed it… “British”! Or, more specifically, cockney.

Okay, we’ve dug into the down and dirty of a few famous sounds. (If you enjoyed the majority of that, consider taking phonetics!)

Tune in next time when we explore the other half of dialect: funny-sounding words!