A Word Taster’s Companion: Stop! What are you doing?

Today: the eighth installment of my how-to guide for word tasting, A Word Taster’s Companion.

Stop! What are you doing?

Stop. No, that’s not an order, that’s a manner. If no air can get through the mouth or nose at all until you release the consonant, that consonant is a stop. All the consonants in decapitate are stops, for instance. Our English stops are voiceless /p/, /t/, /k/ and “voiced” /b/, /d/, /g/. Why did I just stick scare quotes on “voiced”? Because you don’t really keep your voice going during the time your mouth is stopped up. Not usually, anyway. Try it with holding a /b/, /d/, or /g/ and trying to make a voiced sound. Sounds like you’re stifling a sneeze – or something worse. No, the usual difference is actually in how close before the stop the voice stops and how soon after releasing the stop the voice starts again. (Linguists call this voice offset time and voice onset time.) We also tell the stops apart by how long the vowel is before them, as I mentioned in “The vowel circle.” The differences are small, but they’re enough to notice.

Now, let’s get some exercise.

Say picket, kaput, tip-top; doggèd, bagged; debit, batted. Pay attention to your tongue as you say them. Emphasize them. Get a feel for the sound.

If you’ve read “Horseshoes, hand grenades… and phonemes,” you know about the aspiration on the first sounds of picket, kaput, and tip-top. (If you haven’t read it, why not? Give yourself one demerit point and go back and read it. Honestly, how do you expect to be an expert if you skip things?) I’m talking about the difference between the /p/ in spit and the /p/ in pit. Also between the voiceless stops in still and skill and the ones in till and kill. Put your hand in front of your mouth while you say them if you want to refresh your memory. Don’t do it in public; people might think you’re checking your breath. Actually, you are, but not that way.

OK, now say a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket, a picket… Come on, faster!

Now say gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be, gotta be… come on, pick it up!

You may have noticed something in picket a and gotta. Most North American English speakers will, in relaxed speech, turn [t] and [d] between vowels into a tap or flap of the tongue – so the dd in madder and the tt in matter tend to be indistinguishable much of the time (thank goodness for context). The IPA symbol for this sound is [ɾ]. The voice never actually cuts out on a tap, which is why people often think it’s just changing the [t] to a [d] – the tap is more like a [d], but it’s not one; it’s as much like a quick British “r,” which is why the symbol is the shape it is, [ɾ] (and why some North Americans think some Brits say “veddy” for very). But you may nonetheless say madder slightly differently from matter. This will be a subtle difference in the voicing length on the [æ], as I’ve mentioned: a vowel is shorter before a voiceless stop. But the difference can often be too subtle to be reliable.

What do stops feel like to say? They’re percussive, but the exact quality varies according to place and voicing. Listen to them as you say them: [p] is lower in tone than [k], which is lower than [t]. This is because of the size and shape of the resonating cavities when you release the stops. This makes [t] the lightest and most fragile-seeming of the bunch. That’s helped by its being on the tip of the tongue, which feels less substantial than the back of the tongue, which kicks with [k], or the lips, which pop with [p]. But the tip is also the most agile part.

Add voicing now – in other words, reduce the voice onset time after release. They’re [b], [d], [g]. They’re blunter, stickier. But they still have the same kind of differentiations as their voiceless counterparts.

But it’s not as though there’s some absolute intrinsic taste to each of them. It varies from word to word, and from speaker to speaker. Say them all several times and decide for yourself how they seem to you: pat kid bag, tap dig back, top dog buck, put big cod… Yes, part of it is in how they play with other sounds. And the meanings and other associations of the words, of course. Oh, we’ll get to that!

Next: The nose knows

One response to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Stop! What are you doing?

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Lovely, lyrical liquids | Sesquiotica

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