A Word Taster’s Companion: Ah, frick it

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

Ah, frick it

Affricate. I do like this word, affricate, though it actually doesn’t contain the sound it names. “Affricate” is not “African” said with a cold and laryngitis, nor is it an expression of dismay or frustration (“I forget!” “Ah, frick it!”). Well, some affricates may be expressions of dismay – [ts] gets used for this at times – but it’s not essential to their nature. An affricate is a stop that releases to a fricative: a single gesture of the tongue, thought of by the speaker as a single sound, but made of two parts: the tongue moves, making a sort of breaking sound. It’s a consonant equivalent of a diphthong. Judge for yourself: Say “judge” and listen to the consonants in the word – is there more to them than in “dud” or “shush”

We don’t have a lot of affricates in English. If you look at the consonant list in “Sushi thief!” you’ll see a reason why: an affricate requires a stop and a fricative in the same place, and we don’t have that many pairs like that. Actually, we have even fewer than we could. Our only affricate phonemes in English are /tʃ/ and /dʒ/: “ch” and “j.”

We may occasionally say the available other stop-fricative combinations – [ts] and [dz] – and sometimes we may even say them so they’re not across syllable boundaries (as what’s up sometimes becomes ’tsup, for instance). But we don’t think of them as single sounds. In fact, many people will have a resistance to saying them where we can say /tʃ/ and /dʒ/, or will even think they can’t say them because we don’t start syllables with a stop followed by a fricative. Many English speakers have problems saying something like “tsump” and “dzump” – or tsar, or tsunami. But we have no problem saying “chump” and “jump,” or “char” (or “chunami,” if that were a word), even though they’re also a stop plus a fricative in a very similar place in the mouth. This is because we see them – and perform them – as one gesture. You’re saying char, not tshar. It’s the difference between courtship and core chip, for instance. To show in phonetic transcriptions that they’re a single phoneme, sometimes a joining line is written under the two letters. But that’s not supported by many character sets, so you don’t see it all the time.

We also say affricates as versions of stops. For instance, say choo-choo train. You may have noticed that you make the t is as the same sound as the ch. You’ll find the same thing, but voiced, in juju drain. In many places where [t] and [d] release with the tongue flexing towards the palate – nature, gradual, dread – the gesture results in affrication: as you release the stop you make a fricative on the way to the next sound. So our target phoneme is /t/ or /d/ and we have it in mind to say that sound and we hear it as a version of that sound, but it actually comes out as  [tʃ] and [dʒ].

But those aren’t quite the only affricates we have as allophones. Say cute. Now say it with emphasis, especially on the start – draw it out: Cute! Notice how the hump of your tongue is actually fairly far forward in your mouth when you say the [k]? And how air escapes past it as it releases to the vowel? Congratulations. You’ve just made an affricate that most Anglophones can hardly even conceive of existing – even though they make it: a voiceless palatal affricate. (The International Phonetic Alphabet way of writing it is [cç].)

It’s the further progress of that movement, by the way, that led Latin c, originally [k] in all positions, to become [tʃ] before [e] and [i], as it is in Italian and as one hears it in church music. It’s very easy to move [cç] forward just a little more to [tʃ]. (The process was a little different with [sk]: it dropped the stop as it softened up and it became [ʃ] without passing through [stʃ] – which is why excelsis is “ek-shell-cease” and not “ex-chell-cease,” and prosciutto is “pro-shoot-toe” and not “pros-choo-toe.”) That movement, from [k] to [tʃ], is also one way English came to have these affricates; cheap, for instance, is related to words and roots in other Germanic languages that start with [k] – German kauf, for instance.

It also goes in the other direction: the “y” sound as in yes and yellow – written as [j] in IPA – can be made so narrow that it touches the palate and makes an affricate. You can hear this in some dialects of Spanish: llave, [jave], has moved to [dʒave] in some South American versions, and the same accent can cause its speakers to pronounce English with the same effect: for instance, your sounding like jor. This same process is in fact a way that Latin words with j, which was really i in Latin, came to be said with [dʒ] in English.

What do affricates feel and sound like to say? [tʃ] can have a kind of mechanical or metallic crispness, which shows up in chug, cha-ching, and similar words. It sounds like bells, small change, machines… That effect is softened when you add voice, but there can still be a certain sturdiness, as for instance in Jack and jug. I’d say this also draws on the effect produced by a sense of jutting jaw and meeting teeth, which can be a movement you make when you say these sounds. On the other hand, the crispness of the release and the involvement of the most delicate of our stops, [t] and [d], can make these seem light and pretty in the right context, for instance Chelsea and Jennifer.

Consider the different sound effects between guy and chap, or coffee and java. Try swapping in affricates for stops, or vice versa: choffee? Gava, dava? Does it make it feel sturdier or more delicate, or something else entirely? One thing’s sure: that extra little break does add a little more richness to the flavour.

Next: Lovely, lyrical liquids

One response to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Ah, frick it

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Sushi thief! | Sesquiotica

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