So let’s talk about what’s commonplace.
Some things just happen all the time, and we take them for granted.
But what’s normal for us might be unusual for other people, and maybe we do something really rare, compared to the people over in the next town.
And it’s the same for language sounds. Some sounds just do things… a little differently
than others. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space. So when you look at all the possible sounds that
people can make with their mouths, some of them are really common for language, like
[u] or [s], and then some just never show up. Like (raspberry).
That may be easy to do, but it’s not a phoneme in any attested language.
In between, though, there are also sounds that do show up, but only rarely, and those
often depend on unusual ways of getting the sound out there. We’re going to take you on a tour of these,
but first, let’s just take a moment to think about how weird spoken language is.
We take in air from the environment, and then push it out of our bodies while we think about
what we want to tell other people. And then, without even doing it consciously,
our fleshy bits from our lungs to our lips start flapping and squeezing and moving around,
chopping the air stream into syllables that the human ear perceives as language. It’s
incredible! So there’s a few different ways we can make
sounds happen with our faces. The most common is by pushing air out of the
lungs, which we call pulmonic egressives: pulmonic because of the lungs, and egressive
because the air is going out. Our vowels like [a] or[ʌ] or [y] come out
of our vocal tract like this, free and easy. Most consonants are egressive too, but they
differ from vowels in that the airflow gets more or less blocked. For a fricative, like [v] or [ð], your articulators
get close together but not shut all the way, so the air going through gets noisy.
And for plosives, like [b], and [k], your mouth closes completely for a bit, before the
air bursts from inside you, free once more. These pulmonic egressives make up the sounds
that the International Phonetic Association put together on the consonant chart like,
and you can see there’s a lot of them. And this is the chart that you usually find,
and that we’ve talked about before. But if you think this is all there is, have we
got a surprise for you. Bam! Extra chart. Okay, so this is a
different kind of setup fromthe main IPA chart –
manner of articulation, or how you pronounce stuff, is listed across the top, and place
of articulation, or where you pronounce stuff, is listed in the columns next to the symbols.
Now, let’s unpack this, starting over here, with ejectives. An ejective is when you eject a sound from
your mouth with some extra venom and pop. You get that extra pressure from closing not
only the usual articulators in your mouth – like, moving your tongue up to your soft
palate to make a [k] – but also further down in your throat, where you shut your vocal
folds tight. Then you just raise your larynx up – your
whole voice box goes upwards! That makes the air inside your mouth, between
your tongue and your larynx, more pressurized than the air outside.
And so when you lower your tongue, and let go of the closure, basic physics just wants
these two now-connected air pockets to match their pressures as quickly as possible. So
the air goes out with a loud pop, as the pressure inside your mouth and in the world equalizes.
You put it all together, and it gives you something like this: [k’]. Ejectives may not be super common, but they do show up in about 20% of the world’s languages. And
in about 3/4 of those, they’re phonemic – so swapping the ejective version
for the regular un-pressurized pulmonic version causes a change in meaning.
Let’s take an example from Tzeltal, a language from the Chiapas region of Mexico. Tzeltal has the same three voiceless stops
as English, so [p], [t], and [k], but it also has ejective versions of each of those. And we can pretty easily find minimal pairs
for this: so like, /kúʃ/, or “he woke up,” is
different from /k’ùʃ/, or “painful.” So what kinds of things can you ejectivize?
It makes sense that you can do it with stops, because a complete closure of air flow
through your speech tube is exactly the kind of situation where it’s easy to
get the pressures to mismatch. But you can also do it with fricatives, where
the airflow through the mouth gets so constrained that it gets kind of hissy, or with affricates,
which are like a stop and a fricative that just fell in love at first sight.
Even if those sounds are leakier, they’re still constrained enough that your larynx
driving up at the back of your mouth can cause that poppy imbalance. So let’s go back to Tzeltal, which actually
has ejective affricates, along with its stops. For Tzeltal, the word for pimple is /tʃín/,
with a regular [tʃ], but the word for small is /tʃ’ín/.
In some languages, you can even get lateral ejectives that go out of the side
of the tongue, instead of through the front. Tlingit, a Native American language spoken
in southeast Alaska and western Canada, has this sound, like in its word for tongue. It’s got ejectives on both sides! So if you look at the different ejectives
we’ve talked about so far, you’ll notice they’re all voiceless and they’re all
oral. And that’s because you can’t have the other kinds. But why not?
Well, it all comes back to how ejectives are made. You need a complete closure
between your voice box and wherever your tongue or lips have stopped up the airflow, because you
need that high pressure system going on. But when you make a nasal sound, by definition
there’s air going out through your nose. And unlike with a fricative, your nose is
a clear, easy path to ethereal freedom. So there’s a mismatch there.
And it’s the same for voiced ejectives. Remember, voicing is made by having your vocal
folds vibrate rapidly. And how do you make them vibrate? By blowing
air through them while they try to stay shut. But for an ejective, the vocal folds actually have
to be shut. They can’t be vibrating as air goes through. They have to be straight-up
closed. So a voiced ejective would require your vocal folds do be doing two different
things at the same time. And unless you’re a literal five-headed dragon, that’d be pretty
unlikely. So you can come up with some pretty interesting ways to push the air out of your
lungs. But if you think about it, you can also suck
air in in a noisy way. These are called ingressive sounds, because the airflow goes inwards. Many people have this kind of noise as a not-quite-linguistic sound, like (tsk tsk) or (gasp). Some languages do have that ingressive mechanism
as part of their meaningful bits, though. Like the word for “yeah” in Swedish is
an ingressive “ja”. There’s even some dialects of English that pull air in to say
yes, like in Scotland! And you know plosives, like [p] and [b] or
[t] and [d]? Well, you could make those towards the inside too, and then they become implosives.
Not to be confused with explosives, which we suggest you should keep out of your mouth.
Anyway, you can kind of think of implosives as the opposite of ejectives.
You do the same steps: you seal the vocal folds and make a complete closure somewhere
in the mouth. But this time, you lower your larynx, instead
of raising it. This means that now, the pressure in your mouth is less than the outside world.
And when you open up the front of your mouth mouth again, the air does its equalizing thing,
but this time, inside your head. It rushes into you, giving implosives like [ɓ] or [ɠ]
their characteristic gulping sound. Implosives are a little bit less common than
ejectives, showing up in about 13% of the world’s languages. You mostly find them
in sub-Saharan Africa, and in southern Asia. But they can be just as phonemic as ejectives.
Take, for example, this pair of words from Sindhi, a language spoken in India and Pakistan.
In Sindhi, the word for “door” is [d̪əru], but the word for “fear” is [ɗəru]. The
only difference between fear and a door is just gulping. Like ejectives, implosives can’t have nasal
versions. But unlike ejectives, they’re limited to just stops. Tales of implosive
fricatives and affricates exist, but they’re extremely rare, and possibly just illusory. And this
makes sense: to get a fricative, you can’t have a complete closure.
For an ejective, that’s not so bad: you can still get a good amount of pressure inside
your mouth behind that hissy fricative. But for an implosive, you’d need to change the
pressure of the entire world outside… which isn’t really likely. But what about voicing? You might have noticed
that implosives are the opposite of ejectives ejectives here: implosives are all voiced, instead of
voiceless. You can have voiceless implosives, though – they’re just really rare. But you
get them in languages like Serer or Igbo. Implosives are sort of like ultra-voiced sounds
– they usually come from voiced stops that got more aggressively voiced over time. So
getting them on voiceless sounds is really peculiar. There’s one more class of ingressive consonants,
and they’re my favorite type of sounds: clicks. These sounds are super cool and super
uncommon: it’s almost just one language family in southern Africa that has them.
You make them by pushing the body of your tongue to the soft palate, and also making another closure further front in the mouth, like your lips or teeth. Then, you slide your tongue
body further back along the soft palate. By making the space inside your mouth bigger,
the pressure in it goes down and creates suction. Then you release the closure at the front,
and pop! You can make clicks at a lot of the same places of articulation as other
consonant sounds. Like the bilabial click, [ʘ]. Or the dental, [|]. But you can’t
make them at the soft palate or further back, like at the uvula, because that’d require
some kind of weird anti-space that defies regular physics. Not a good choice. And different clicks can contrast with each
other, too. Khoekhoe, one of the national languages of
Namibia, has 20 different click phonemes, depending where you pronounce them and how
you release them – so like, plain, nasalized, with a puff of air, lots of choices.
But to give you a taste, the plain dental click in [ kǀoa], or “put into,” contrasts
with the plain alveolar click, like in [kǃoas], or “hollow.” So the variety of language sounds humans make
is more diverse than most of us realize. We gulp air in and pop it out and click our tongues
with meaning. We’ve used almost every way we could come up with to broadcast our ideas
to our neighbours. How’s that for commonplace. So, we’ve reached the end of The Ling Space
for this week. If you kept the explosives out of your mouth, you learned that there
are more types of consonants in human language than just the ones made by pushing air out
of your lungs; that ejectives involve pressurizing our vocal tracts and then popping out some
consonants; and that ingressive sounds are made by sucking air in, and include clicks
and implosives. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our editor
is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music is by Shane
Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you
can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we’ll have some extra material
on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding
your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And we’ll see you next Wednesday. ||ám