A Word Taster’s Companion: Lovely, lyrical liquids

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

Lovely, lyrical liquids

Liquid. Say rarely rural, really, Larry. Oh, come now, you can do it! Why would such flowing sounds cause any trouble?

And they are flowing sounds. English has two phonemes of the type called liquids: /r/ and /l/. Mind you, they do each have more than one allophone.

Liquids are consonants that involve contact or near-contact of the tongue with the palate but allow ample air to pass around – more than for a fricative. They produce no buzz or hiss. You could actually almost drink some kind of liquid (water, beer, wine) while holding your tongue in the position to say a liquid, but the swallowing would cause you to say a nasal instead.

Liquids are lovely, lush, lyrical. You can sing them, though your voice teacher will probably tell you to sing vowels instead. The singability of these sounds means that they can be syllables, and often are. Say burble, turtle, gurgle. If you’re like most Canadians and Americans, your first syllable of each word has not a vowel per se but simply a sustained /r/ with the tongue not really moving during it. And while you may or may not slip in a little vowel – a short schwa – before the /l/ in burble and gurgle, you almost certainly don’t in turtle, where the tongue can maintain the tip contact and simply release the sides to go from the /t/ to the /l/, making the peak of the syllable not a vowel but the liquid /l/.

So why aren’t liquids considered vowels? In the case of /l/, the tongue tip touches the roof of the mouth, so that rules it out. But in both cases, even though they can be peaks of syllables (meaning you can use them where you would use vowels in words like turtle and gurgle), they don’t behave like vowels anywhere else. We use them where we use consonants, at the beginnings and ends of syllables. And liquids aren’t the only consonants that can be the peaks of syllables: we also do it with nasals (like the syllabic /n/ we usually say in button).

We don’t have unvoiced versions of these sounds in English, though they do exist in other languages – Welsh, for instance. Well, let me make a small correction here: we don’t have separate unvoiced phoneme pairs for these. But we do sometimes say unvoiced versions of them, thanks mainly to our habit of aspirating voiceless stops at the beginnings of stressed syllables (remember that from “Stop! What are you doing”? Don’t make me explain it all over again!). If the stop is followed by a liquid rather than a vowel, the aspiration makes at least part of the liquid voiceless. Say play and pray. If you pay attention, you will find that your voice doesn’t really start up again until the ay part – the /l/ and /r/ are said mostly or entirely voiceless.

There are some other allophones of liquids as well. You’re probably used to saying /r/ with your tongue humped up in the middle but not touching (except at the sides). But you’re surely also used to hearing trilled versions, from languages such as Spanish and Italian but also from Scots English and some other kinds. Trills are actually not liquids. They’re functionally similar to liquids and tend to be used in the same ways and places, but the difference between a trill and a liquid is like the difference between dribbling a basketball (trill) and just picking it up and running with it (liquid). Except that you don’t get whistled out for saying a liquid.

A further effect of this is that /r/ can be said in some dialects as tap – rather than a trill, which is multiple bounces, you say just one bounce. This is why some British accents can sound to North Americans like they’re saying “veddy” when they say very: we only use a tap for /d/ and /t/, not for /r/. But it goes both ways: a Yorkshire accent can sound to someone from southern England like it’s saying “gor any” rather than “got any” because they, like North Americans, tap /t/ in that position, while in the standard southern British accent only a /r/ would tap in that position.

To add to the fun, in English we have two kinds of /l/, a “bright” one and a “dark” one. The difference is that the “bright” /l/, which is used at the beginnings of syllables, has the tip up but the back fairly low, whereas the “dark” /l/ has the back well up, and sometimes the tip doesn’t quite touch, especially if it’s before another consonant. Compare la la la la la with all all all all all. And then say elk elk elk elk elk and see how the /l/ is reduced to something almost like /u/ without lip-rounding.

Oh, and speaking of lip-rounding, you will notice, if you observe for a bit, that we normally round our lips to some extent when saying /r/. This makes the sound more distinctive. Stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself say ring. Say it slowly and clearly. Maybe take a little cell phone video of yourself doing it. You will see that your lips are rounded. Now say wring. When you say that, you think of your lips being rounded. And they are. But they’re just as rounded when you say ring.

Liquids are certainly mellifluous sounds, though holding them too long can have a sort of “low class” sound to them, just due to established norms in speaking English. Say “haaaaaaard” and then say “harrrrrrrd.” The latter sounds like what? A pirate, perhaps? Now say “faaaaaaaall” and then say “falllllllllll.” Does it sound like a dog, or like someone’s choking you? The effect is much less, however, at the starts of words: “rrrrrright” and “llllllllush” probably sound simply emphatic, and perhaps even a little upper-class – again, due entirely to association with who is heard to say them when.

What do liquids feel like to say? Well, in theory you can sustain them indefinitely, but in practice you will find that your tongue tires out sooner than you might expect because it’s being held in a tensed position. This is especially true of the “dark” /l/, which can feel a bit like choking. Ultimately, in their fluidity, liquids are rather like the fish in the stream of your speech. They’re slick and smooth and wet, and as lovely as they are to look at you probably won’t enjoy holding them for all that long.

Liquids are called approximants by linguists. But they’re not the only approximants out there. Along with these consonants that can behave like vowels, there are sounds that are vowels behaving like consonants…

2 responses to “A Word Taster’s Companion: Lovely, lyrical liquids

  1. Pingback: A Word Taster’s Companion: Ah, frick it | Sesquiotica

  2. What, no mention of Rural Juror from 30 Rock?

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