Tag Archives: phonology

The man who can talk backwards

Just a few days ago I saw an amazing video about Kurt Quinn, a man who can talk backwards. When I say backwards, I don’t mean that he reverses the order of the words in a sentence, but he actually reverses the order of the sounds. He’s got a YouTube channel where you can see this in action, and I would recommend this video by Smarter Every Day which tests the limits of Quinn’s skill.

The Smarter Every Day (SED) video not only demonstrates Quinn’s skill, but also offers up a little bit of phonetic science to explain how it works. While I deeply appreciate SED’s attempt to describe phonetics, there are a few things missing from the explanation that I want to go over here. This should not be taken as a criticism of SED at all. What Quinn can do is highly unusual, and highly interesting, and I want to explore it further. Continue reading

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The IPA: Non-pulmonic consonants

nonpulmonic cons

The main consonant chart of the IPA was covered in two earlier parts (you can see the whole series up here). In this post, I’ll cover the smaller box below the main one. This is the one labelled “non-pulmonic consonants”.

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It’s OK if you can’t pronounce foreign words

Early in September, Vanessa Ruiz, a news anchor at 12News Arizona, caused a mini-controversy with the way she pronounces Spanish words on air. Ruiz is a native speaker of Spanish, and viewers were getting upset that she rolled her “r” when saying words of Spanish origin. She defended herself by claiming that she was only pronouncing the words “the way they were meant to be said”, although not everyone appreciated this response.
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Comparing the complexity of languages

Which language do you think is the most complex? There are a lot of different answers that people will give to this question. Some people are sure that whatever language they struggled with in high school is the most complex. Others are certain that highly influential cultures must have complex languages, so they choose Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, or Chinese. Language buffs might break out a rare one like Tlingit or Lardil. Many people insist it is their own native language that’s the most complex, though oddly, I’ve found that just as many people seem willing to say their own language is terribly simple.

But ask a linguist, and you get a really wet blanket answer: no language is any more complex than any other. Or, put another way, all languages are equally complex. That answer tends to stop conversation dead in the tracks and no one is really satisfied by it, so I’m going to spend some time in this post explaining this answer and making it more interesting (maybe).

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The IPA: The Vowel Chart

This is part of a series on the International Phonetic Alphabet. The series so far is over here. You can get your copy of the IPA here. You’ll probably want one to follow along.

In this post, I’ll cover the vowel chart. The IPA divides up sounds based on their articulations, and vowels and consonants have fundamentally different kinds of articulation. In particular, consonants are sounds produced with obstruction in the vocal tract, while vowels are sound produced without any obstruction.
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How many words could English have?

How many words are there in English? A popular method for counting words in a language is to use the total number in a dictionary (or some other corpus). But counting words this way doesn’t tell us anything very interesting about “English”, because not every speaker of English knows every word in the dictionary.

For example, you might know the word beech refers to a tree, but not know how to identify one in the woods. You might know that some governments are jingoistic, but not know which ones or why. Maybe you confuse yams and sweet potatoes all the time.

So does beech count as “part of English” if not every speaker of English knows it, uses it, or understands it? The words you know depend on things like education, job, dialect, how much you read, where you grew up, your hobbies, how much you’ve traveled and so on.
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The IPA: Consonants Part II – Manner of Articulation

This is part of a series. The other posts are here. You can get your copy of the IPA here. It is helpful for following along.

In the last post I covered voicing and place of articulation for consonants. In this one, I’ll go over the other major feature: manner of articulation.
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