With Sound From Africa, the Phonetic Alphabet Expands

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Sun Dec 25 17:22:14 UTC 2005

>>From the NYTimes, Published: December 13, 2005


With Sound From Africa, the Phonetic Alphabet Expands
By MICHAEL ERARD (NYT) 711 words

For the first time in 12 years, the International Phonetic Association is
amending its official alphabet. A sound called the labiodental flap will
be granted its own letter, one that looks something like a v with a hook.
The sound, a buzz sometimes capped by a faint pop, is present in more than
70 African languages. It is produced by the lower lip moving back and
forward, flapping on the inside of the upper teeth.''The labiodental flap
sound is as important as any other sound to speakers of languages that use
it,'' said Peter Ladefoged, emeritus professor of linguistics at the
University of California, Los Angeles.  ''Think how Americans would
protest if there were no way of transcribing the vowel in 'bird,' which in
the usual U.S. pronunciation is almost as rare among the sounds of the
world's languages as the labiodental flap.''

Until now, linguists have recorded the sound with made-up symbols, usually
the letter v modified by accents. The venerable phonetic alphabet was
established in 1886, and now, after slow increments of change, includes 28
symbols for vowels, 86 for consonants and 75 other marks for tone, stress,
aspiration and other phonetic details. One of the most recent sounds to
win a symbol was the bilabial click, used in two African languages. The
labiodental flap is much more widely used but took longer to be

One reason, said Dr. Ladefoged, is that clicks, often considered to be the
most exotic of speech sounds, have been noticed by Europeans since the
17th century. They also occur in politically important languages like Zulu
and Xhosa. ''None of this is true about labiodental flaps,'' Dr. Ladefoged
said in an e-mail message. ''Even now, some people think they are a minor
effect in a few words in a few languages.'' Last spring, he encouraged
Kenneth S. Olson, a linguist at SIL International who has studied the
extensive use of the labiodental flap in Africa, to propose officially
that the sound, first observed in 1907, have its own symbol.

SIL International is a Christian organization based in Dallas that
studies, documents and helps in developing lesser-known languages. Dr.
Olson encountered the sound while conducting research in Congo and had
performed extensive acoustic analysis to determine that the sound was, in
fact, a flap, not a fricative consonant like the ''f'' of English. Nor did
it involve a sharp intake of air like the clicks.

The new symbol had been recommended by a fellow linguist, Geoff Pullum,
who described it ''as if a fishhook R had been slammed leftward into a
lowercase v so hard its vertical had merged with the right leg of the v,
and the dangly bit had been left hanging there like the drain pipe out of
an upstairs toilet in a partially demolished building.'' In June, Dr.
Olson received a note from the association, informing him that the
proposal had been voted on and accepted. Mono speakers are pleased, Dr.
Olson said. ''The idea of an I.P.A. symbol would offer some prestige to
the language, that this oddity is valued by people around the world.''

Other language oddities wait for their moment. There is a bilabial trill
in two Brazilian languages, Oro Win and Wari'
(phonetics.ucla.edu/appendix/languages/orowin/orowin.html) and what Dr.
Ladefoged called ''hissing-hushing fricatives'' of Ubykh, once spoken in
Turkey (phonetics.ucla.edu/appendix/languages/ubykh/ubykh.html). Dr. Olson
plans to visit the Philippines to study a sound that speakers produce by
sticking their tongues out of their mouths, a sound that outsiders

Dr. Olson says an official symbol might raise the status of the sound and
the people who pronounce it, though perhaps not with the symbol from rock
'n' roll marketing he jokingly proposed -- the Rolling Stones' lips.


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