August 2008 Archives

Chicken Intonation


This is a Powerpoint parody in which the speaker (Doug Zongkers) makes his case using only the word chicken. That means that the only communicative element left is intonation (changes in pitch over the course of the speech) - and surprisingly that can be a lot of information.

The highlight for me is at the end when the speaker takes questions. Despite using only the word chicken the intonation alone makes you feel that the two speakers are having a very dynamic dialogue with an great exchange of ideas. Really interesting demonstration of the role of intonation. Now I'm really interested in learning more about chickens.

Peking University and not Beijing University?


Interesting usage note from NBC Olympics coverage

To paraphrase George H.W. Bush, the last time he was in China, the capital of China was Peking and not Beijing. over the past few decades, the Chinese have been gently nudging Westerners towards a more accurate pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese including Nanjing and Beijing for older Anglicized Peking and Nanking. As you can imagine, NBC has been very current in their pronunciation, hence we are definitively at the Beijing Games.

In the women's marathon, which ran through different parts of Beijing, I was startled to realize that one part of the course ran through Peking University and not Beijing University. It's not a NBC glitch either, but the official Anglicized name as seen on the English homepage for Peking University. For some reason this institution has maintained the older Peking nomenclature, at least in English. According to Wikipedia, Peking U is called Běijīng Dàxué or Beida in Mandarin Chinese.

Why Peking University?

Why is it still Peking University? I can't find a quick explanation on the Web, but if I had to speculate, I would say it's to emphasize the vintage of the University. It was founded in 1898 and was the leading university in China, even before Mao's revolution (in fact Mao is an alumnus). The older name may be a way to emphasize that the university has a historic pedigree and is one the top universities in China.

On the other hand, Beijing University might seem newer and more involved with various movements of the People's Republic of China - if one can be so impolite as to mention these issues. Perhaps, Peking University is the best old name for a new and improved type of Chinese university.

From Beijing to Peking

How do you get Peking /pikɪŋ/ from Beijing /bejʒɪŋ/ or [peitʃɪŋ]? There's a detailed explanation Bill Poser at Language Log , but there are three processes involved.

  1. The vowel "e" was probably misprounced by English speakers following English spelling convention where "e" = /i/, instead of European convention (e.g. Spanish "e" = /e/)
  2. The "B" of "Beijing" is actually an unaspirated /p/ (vs. English aspirated p or [pʰ]). If an English speaker hears a non-aspirated p at the beginning of a word, he or she may confuse it for a /b/).
  3. The most interesting element is the /k/ - Once it really was Beiking [pejkɪŋ], but in Mandarin Chinese, the [k] changed to [tʃ] before /i/ (similar to Latin to Italian). So the /k/ of Peking is either an old pronunciation or more likely, a Cantonese pronunciation (think Hong Kong), where the /k/ was preserved. This also accounts for the Nangking ~ Nanjing pair. It's an example of an archaic pronuciation being preserved in a foreign language.

It's amazing what you can learn from one little NBC pronunciation.

Is Counting Innate in Australia?


A new study by Brian Butterworth and others finds that indigenous Australian children can count even if the language does not gramatically have the same range of number words as other languages. This is an interesting counterclaim to the notion that members of the Amazonian Pirahã tribe not only lack number words, but can't learn to count. The experiment in Australia was conducted by asking children to put up the number of objects matching the number of beats on two drumsticks.

This experiment was interesting in that younger children were used. The use of children is interesting because, as far as I know, the Pirahã subjects were adult men. But since Pirahã children who learn Portuguese also learn to count in Portuguese, there may be a critical period element of some sort (or not). In any case it would be interesting to replicate both experiments in the other region (assuming the Pirahã parents would agree to it of course).

The other thing that would be interesting to track is how the Australian language number systems were structured. As far as I can tell, the Pirahã "number" words aren't numbers at all, but estimates of small vs. large quantities. The Australian number system may be more limited, but some words like "one, two, three" may refer to exact quantities which is a key conceptual difference.

The study is in the Aug 18 issue of PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United Stated of America). This article did not seem to be available yet.

Syllabic Consonants: How do you pronounce "FTCAP" and "wff"?


Abbreviations are always interesting. Some like HTML prounounced letter by letter as in /eč ti ɛm ɛl/, but others are prounced as a "new word" as in NASA or /næsə/. This pattern is fairly random – for instance I have heard the database query language SQL as both "S-Q-L" and "sequel".

An interesting class are abbreviations with no vowels that are still pronounced like words. Whenever you have a word, the phonological component has to "organize" it into syllables. For most, languages the rule is generally to cluster consonants around a vowel where each vowel (or diphthong) is the nucleus (or backbone if you will) of a syllable. To take the NASA case again, you can generalize that it has two syllables because it has two vowels. some languages (like American English), you can form syllables around other sounds such as /l,r,n/. If you're not sure what vowel is in the final syllable of words like table, prism, butter, button and others, it's because they're not phonetically not a vowel but syllabic consonants. You may see these transcribed as /n̩,r̩,m̩/ (n,r,l,m, etc with dashes beneath)

The consonant-free abbreviations shows that English can go pretty far. For instance I have heard the term VRML become /vr̩ml ̩/ or "vrmle". But even more interesting case is the Penn State first year counseling process called FTCAP or more fondly [fɪtkæp] or "fit-cap." Although a vowel has been inserted, it's not the usual epenthetic schwa /ə/ (vowels inserted to break up unwieldy consonant clusters (as in the Maryland river Potapsco /pətæpsko/ becoming [ptæpəsko] or "Potapsaco" in some parts of Maryland).

One analysis would be to posit the vowel /ɪ/ as the epenthetic vowel in particular situations (when syllable is stressed?). However, I'm going out on a limb here, and say it's almost as if the /t/ in FTCAP has become a syllabic /t/. It is definitely the case that a high front like /ɪ/ allows the tongue to remain in /t/ position until the /k/ is pronounced. It would be interesting to compare spectrograms on some of these words.

I should note that are some derviations from the pattern. SQL becomes "sequel" [sikwl ̩] and not "sickle" [sɪkwl ̩]]. And the one that inspired this blog post is wff (well-formed formulation) which becomes not "wiff" [wɪf] but "woof" [wʊf]. Is this a case where speakers are using /ʊ/ as the closes vowel to /w/ or a chance to make an interesting pun from an acronym?

Interesting Jeopardy Phonetics Question


Some time last week, Jeopardy had a "Phonetics", and we know it's an obscure topic for most of the educated world because it was in a Double Jeopardy round for a Tournament of Champions (prelim round).

The most interesting question was something like this

Question: The word agency contains the most common sound in the English language. What is this sound?

I admit I missed this one, because the answer was supposed to be schwa /ə/ (say what?). Pondering, this I think I found a quirk in my dialect

First, where did the Jeopardy schwa come from? Probably from actual pronuciatiion. In many dialects of English (certainly U.S. English) many unstressed vowels are changed to schwa. Hence a word like piña kolada which is pronounced as /piña kolada/ in Spanish usually emerges as something like [piñə kəladə] in English (with 3 schwas). This is why schwa is probably the most common vowel. Even in my dialect agency is something like [ejǰɛnsi] or [ejǰɨnsi]

But why did I miss it? Here's my phonemic transcription of agency - /eiǰɛnsi/. You'll note that there is no schwa in there because in my mental dictionary, I don't think of this "e" vowel as a schwa, but as the same vowel as in sense /sɛns/.

Similarly I think that agent rhymes with gent /ǰɛnt/ (or at least pretty close). On the other hand, I don't think agent rhymes with hunt /hʌnt/ or /hənt/. So even though I know about the proliferation of schwas, I really didn't think it was in this word. For me, it's not the same status as the schwa in the [ðə] or a [ə]

However, I may be the quirky one here.

For instance, I did find that the Oxford English Dictionary transcribes agency as [eiǰənsi] with the schwa [ə]. I also found one rhyming dictionary ( which does identify agent and hunt as rhymes.

On the other hand, WikiRhymer is matching agent with magenta (definitely a /ɛ/ in the second syllable), so maybe it's not just me. Since none of the contestants detected the schwa, I am wondering if they had the same computational problem I did.

Thinking about my dialect, I suspect that my difference in perception partly because because I can distinguish [ə] (first vowel of Alissa) from [ɨ] (first vowel of Ilisa). As far as I can tell though, this happens only in a narrow band in the urban northeast, and other speakers have only [ə]. And the Jeopardy writers are working in California (heavy schwa territory).

Fortunately, descriptive linguistics, unlike Jeopardy, doesn't always have to have one right answer.

ILAT Listverv - Indegenous Languages and Technology


If you are interested in effors at preserving indigenous languages (especially in the Americas), you may want to subscribe to the ILAT Listserv at

It is a fairly comprehensive list of the latest news in this field including a recent decision by New Mexico to standardize on one textbook for Navajo language classes in the school system.