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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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steepholm steepholm
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Indiana Jones and the Uvular Approximant
I was watching a video the other day about the IPA consonant chart:

consonant chart

As you know, Robert, this chart has two axes: the horizontal one refers to positions in the mouth and vocal tract; the vertical to the various ways that air can be stopped or constricted to make sounds. Plosives, for example, which involve air being completely stopped and then released, can be made at various points in the mouth from the lips to the epiglottis, but the lips can also be used to make other kinds of sound (nasals, trills, etc.).

The shaded parts on the map represent "impossible" sounds - impossible because of the limitations of human anatomy. A sound that requires vibrating a loose flap of skin, for example, can't be made using a part of the mouth that has no such feature.

But it's the empty-yet-unshaded parts that are most interesting. These represent sounds that are physically possible but that have not yet been discovered in any known language. I suppose an obvious comparison is with gaps in the periodic table deliberately left by Mendeleev for others to fill after him. What could be more enticing? Who wouldn't want to be the person to find that element and get to name it? Who wouldn't want to be the first to identify a particular phonetic sound and add it to the IPA map?

I'm reminded also of the white spaces left in nineteenth-century maps of Africa: an enticement to young explorers to go off and 'discover' and name new countries. This isn't entirely coincidental. Some seekers after rare minerals must have been among those who donned pith helmets to go into the Amazonian or African jungles. Seekers after rare phonemes go there now. White space is catnip to imperialists, whatever their brand of imperialism.

Thank you. This is fascinating! I'd never come across this chart before.

I now picture experimental linguists in their laboratories trying to reproduce all these sounds...

That was an interesting paper, Professor, but wouldn't a postalveolar lateral fricative sound more like this...?

LOL

Well, that was pretty interesting! I went and tracked down what may have been the video you saw - it's a real rabbit-hole! (Diacritics on consonants hardly seems fair!)
So... just to make life simple: can you help me out by saying how many consonant sounds there are in English? And we don't do the diacritics, do we? (slight note of panic there.)

It was Tom Scott's latest. Is that what you saw?

That's an interesting question about numbers! Since there are so many varieties of English pronunciation it's hard to put a number on the sounds that people make when speaking it, but in terms of semantically significant sounds (i.e. phonemes), this chart suggests there are 24, which sounds about right.

Ah - 24! Thank you! :)
No, it was this one:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGYGDQgeh2c
which included the very confusing part about diacritics.

editing to add: and thank you for the link to the Tom Scott one, which I've just watched, and which was a lot clearer, and a lot more fun!

Edited at 2019-09-12 12:25 pm (UTC)