An Important Update

I'll keep this simple: I took a couple of weeks off Language Rush to try and get my shit together, and I've come to the conclusion I need even more time, unencumbered by deadlines and schedules, to do that.

I don't know when Language Rush will be back. It might be three months, it might be six months, it might be longer — but it will be back.

Right now I'm keeping in touch with readers through the Language Rush Facebook page, but that's not a reliable way to get updates about the blog or the YouTube channel, especially after a long hiatus.

Here's my solution: I've set up a mailing list for Language Rush. If you'd like to hear from the blog once I'm ready to start posting again, add yourself to the mailing list:

Video: Alexander Hamilton in IPA

I love musicals, and no musical has loomed larger in popular consciousness in recent years than Hamilton. We don’t have to discuss all the ways in which it’s groundbreaking, but one of the things that’s significant is how Lin-Manuel Miranda has brought a hip-hop sensibility to Broadway in In The Heights and now Hamilton. One of the most prominent ways he’s done that is through his use of rhythm and rhyme.

Inspired by the Wall Street Journal’s analysis of some of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rhymes, and by Stephen Malinowski’s musical visualisations, I’ve had the puppets do a cover of Alexander Hamilton. In this video, the lyrics of Alexander Hamilton, written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), scroll by in time with the music.

How I made this video

I recorded the audio using ProTools, using the cast recording as a scratch track and timing the audio to that. Yes, both voices are me. Yes, those are the puppets' voices; any claim that they are controlled and voiced by a human being is fake news. My sister Felicia played the piano track that you hear, which I then laid under the vocal tracks.

The next step was to write out the song in IPA. For the most part, this was fairly straightfoward, but there were points where the pronunciation heard on the cast album is not the canonical General American pronunciation, and I had to make a decision as to how to transcribe it.

 Props to Lin-Manuel Miranda for writing a song that I still want to listen to after I've transcribed it.

Props to Lin-Manuel Miranda for writing a song that I still want to listen to after I've transcribed it.

Some broad guidelines I adhered to:

  • If I heard rhotacisation, I transcribed it. If in doubt, I transcribed it. I only transcribed non-rhotic vowels if I was sure I didn’t hear any rhotacisation.
    • e.g. /ə/ instead of /ɚ/ in “bastard”, line 1.
  • If I heard /ɹ/, I transcribed it. If in doubt, I usually transcribed it. I only left it out if:
    • I’m sure I didn’t hear it
      • e.g. “smarter” /smɑɾə/ in verse 2
    • I’m not sure if I heard it AND it fits the rime not to have /ɹ/ in the syllable coda.
  • /æ/ is left un-raised, for my sanity’s sake. I personally don’t have /æ̝/, and I’m not comfortable making judgements on whether /æ/ is raised or not, especially when there is no contrast involved.
  • Unstressed syllables tend to be transcribed /ə/ or /ɪ/, but the vowel in “and” is often /æ/, and the vowel in "to" is often /u/. This one was a bit of a judgement call.
  • I transcribed //t// sometimes as /t/, sometimes as /ʔ/, sometimes as /ɾ/, and sometimes as null.
  • Syllabification is based purely on phonotactic rules. This means that sometimes syllable boundaries do not correspond to morpheme boundaries:
    • e.g. “start-er”: /stɑ.ɾə/
    • e.g. “with-out”: /wɪ.ðaʊt/
    • e.g. “drip-pin’”: /dɹɪ.pɪn/

Halfway through the transcription, I realised I was a chump for doing this by hand, and I used an IPA transcriber instead. Of course, like any good student taking shortcuts, I checked every syllable of the transcription, and changed it to fit the pronunciation on the cast album where necessary.

The next step took some time to figure out. I love Stephen Malinowski’s work and I wanted my video to create the same sort of visual impression, but with a rigorous theoretical framework undergirding it. I had visions of creating some sort of graphical featural system, with perhaps a colour for each place of articulation, with the colours on a spectrum, so that places of articulation adjacent to each other would have complementary colours. Manners of articulation would be represented by shapes, with voiceless stops having the sharpest corners and approximants having the gentlest (in line with the bouba/kiki effect). As for the vowels, I imagined some use of the colour wheel to reflect vowel height and backness, so that vowels closer in the vowel space would be closer in colour, and vowels further apart would have contrasting colours.

I ran out of colours.

Wit aside, the simple fact is that music is a discipline built on repeating mathematical patterns, which allows Stephen Malinowski to take advantage of colour in his videos. On the other hand, linguistics does not rest on a primarily mathematical framework, and articulatory phonetics is especially subject to the limitations imposed by human anatomy. If all of music theory flows from mathematics, all of articulatory phonetics flows from anatomy. Consequently, it’s difficult to build a notation that tries to fit consonants and vowels into some kind of colour-based visual system.

Speaking of visual representations of consonants and vowels: yes, I tried creating a kiddie version of a spectrogram that would show the acoustic relationship between similar consonants and similar vowels. It’s really unintuitive to non-linguists. It’s also really, really ugly:

 No. Just no. (The above abomination is supposed to represent "how does a...")

No. Just no. (The above abomination is supposed to represent "how does a...")

 The grown-up spectrogram of "how does a..."

The grown-up spectrogram of "how does a..."

Eventually, I came back to just using IPA. English speakers don’t need a linguistics background to figure out which sound each symbol represents. The visual and phonetic relationship between two syllables that have the same nucleus is immediate and obvious: you know at once that /bɹeɪn/ and /peɪn/ rhyme, even if you don’t know the featural specifications of the vowel or diphthong in the syllable nucleus.

While it would have been nice to highlight, say, sibilant fricatives or /s/ + voiceless stop sequences (which frequently fall on the same beat of consecutive bars), I figured that was too much information to try to visually represent or highlight in a video.

It’s a rap! What matters is rhythm and rhyme. I knew how to represent the rhythm; I just needed to focus on the rhyme. So, I did the logical thing: the syllables in this video are coloured according to their nucleus. That is all there is to it.

 This is how the sausage is made.

This is how the sausage is made.

The rest of it was just mechanics: conditional formatting, stitching screenshots into a long image, displacing each column by the correct number of pixels, sticking the image in Final Cut, calibrating the timing of the scrolling to match up with the timing of the recording, overlaying the puppets…

Two separate videos were recorded, one with each puppet, against a fluorescent green piece of card. They were recorded separately because even though I have two hands, I lack the coordination to control two puppets at the same time. I put the puppets together in post-production, which is pretty obvious if you know what to look out for.

That’s how I arrived at the video you see here. I actually finished making this video a few months ago, but I wanted to wait till the Articulatory Phonetics series was done before publishing it, so that if anyone was curious about the IPA symbols, they could look up the theory behind the phonetics.

If I had the chance, there might be a couple of things I might change — but for what is almost a one-person job (once again, shoutout to my sister Felicia for playing the piano part), it’s not too shabby.

I’m happy to take questions about the transcription, the creative process, or the production process. Enjoy.

The Nasal Ingressive Voiceless Velar Fricative Explained

The Speculative Grammarian (SpecGram) is the “premier scholarly journal featuring research in the neglected field of satirical linguistics.” That’s a joke that’s not funny if I have to explain it.

The Speculative Grammarian, however, is full of jokes that are funny only to linguists, satirical or otherwise. As part of Language Rush’s efforts to demystify the world of linguistics, I will attempt a quixotic quest: I will try to make a SpecGram joke funnier by explaining it.

For years now, SpecGram has been campaigning for the inclusion of the double-dot wide O, representing the nasal ingressive voiceless velar fricative, in the International Phonetics Alphabet chart:

 Double-dot wide O (credit to the Speculative Grammarian)

Double-dot wide O (credit to the Speculative Grammarian)

What is the nasal ingressive voiceless velar fricative?

Let’s break this down: remember that consonant sounds are defined by six features: voicing/phonation, place of articulation, manner of articulation, nasality, laterality, and airstream mechanism.

  • voicing: voiceless
  • place of articulation: velar
  • manner of articulation: fricative
  • nasality: not specified
  • laterality: not specified
  • airstream mechanism: nasal ingressive

The nasal ingressive airstream mechanism

Remember from the airstream mechanism post that there are four attested airstream mechanisms:

  • pulmonic egressive
  • glottalic egressive
  • glottalic ingressive
  • lingual/velaric ingressive

Err. What about the nasal ingressive system?

Airstream mechanisms are specified by what initiates or triggers the airstream (the lungs, the glottis or the tongue), and the direction of the airstream (out of the vocal tract, or into it).

In the nasal ingressive airstream mechanism, air goes into the nose to create a sound. Simple.

Implications for other consonantal features

You’ll notice that two of the six features of consonants aren’t specified.

Remember that the consonant features we’ve looked at in the Articulatory Phonetics 101 series are a model, and reality does not fit perfectly into models. The map is not the territory. The nasal ingressive airstream mechanism fits our existing model imperfectly, and some of the features aren’t as relevant when the nasal ingressive airstream mechanism is employed:

  • Since air goes through the nasal cavity, a nasal ingressive consonant is nasal by default.
  • Since air doesn’t flow over the tongue in a nasal ingressive consonant, the central/lateral distinction is not applicable.

How do I produce this consonant?

The nasal ingressive voiceless velar fricative, then, is a consonant in which air is drawn into the nose and creates a frication at the velum, with no vibration of the vocal folds.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to producing this sound:

  • Open your mouth for airflow. We don’t want a vacuum forming in your oral cavity when the velum vibrates.
  • Breathe in sharply, through your nose only. Do this a few times to get the hang of it.
  • While breathing in, open your mouth and raise the velum slightly. This constricts the airstream in the pharynx, fricating the airstream slightly.

Here’s a video of Jelly performing the nasal ingressive velar fricative (Jelly’s particular version includes a considerable uvular trill, which SpecGram argues is a different sound). Check it to see if you’ve done it right:

And that, my friends, is how linguists describe a pig snort.

Support the addition of the double-dot wide O to the IPA chart by buying some Speculative Grammarian merchandise! No, I'm not being sponsored or getting a commission from them. I just appreciate good geeky humour.