Category Archives: Phonology

Friday, December 2 @ 3:30 PM: Jacob Phillips (UChicago)

Please join LVC this Friday, December 2 at 3:30 PM in Rosenwald 301. It will be our last meeting of the quarter and our speaker is our own Jacob Phillips. Hope you can make it!

Retraction in Action: Examining phonological and prosodic effects on /s/-retraction in the laboratory”
Jacob Phillips
University of Chicago

An ongoing sound change in American English is /s/-retraction, the process by which /s/ is articulated approaching /ʃ/ in the context of /r/. Speakers vary significantly in the degree of retraction observed, with all individuals exhibiting coarticulatory effects of /r/ in /sCr/ clusters and some individuals displaying an apparent sound change, with /s/ reanalyzed as /ʃ/ in /str/ clusters (Mielke et al., 2010; Baker et al., 2011). The present study uses experimental methods seeks to better understand the actuation of this sound change through a phonological and prosodic lens. College-aged students from across the United States read a series of sentences manipulating the phonological and prosodic environments of these sibilant. The results of this study demonstrate a retracted /s/ in the context of /r/ and phrase-intitially. While there was not a significant group-level effect for the interaction of prosodic position and phonological environment, the inclusion of by-subject random slopes for that interaction, which significantly improves model likelihood, suggests that individuals vary with respect to the effects of prosodic conditioning of /s/-retraction in different phonological contexts. These findings suggest a possible role of prosodic position in the actuation of sound change, both in production and possible effects in perception.


Betsy Pillion, Sarah Kopper & Lenore Grenoble @ LVC on Friday, February 12th

Friday, February 12th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 015

“Is ‘huh’ really a universal word? Clicks, kisses & whistles in Cameroon”

Betsy Pillion, Sarah Kopper & Lenore Grenoble
University of Chicago, MSU, University of Chicago

Cameroon, a linguistically diverse country of more than 240 languages, is host to a set of cross- linguistic communicative signals that are ubiquitous in the common space.

In this work, we describe a system of extra-grammatical sounds in use in a variety of speech communities in southern Cameroon attested in four Bantu languages, with three Narrow Bantu varieties: Basaa (A40), closely related Bakoko (A40), and Bulu (A70), all spoken in the Littoral, Central and South regions, and one Grasslands language, Ngoshie, spoken in the Northwest (classification from Hammerstöm et al. 2015). Although not integrated into a morphosyntactic frame, these sounds are meaningful units with specific discourse functions. We identify these sounds as members of a larger class of what we call verbal gestures, defined by a set of functional and structural characteristics. Such sounds are often found in exclamations, animal calls and borrowed words; some may be considered as constituting a secondary phonemic system (Fries & Pike 1949; Harris 1951). Although they are extragrammatical, some have clear lexical meaning and serve as lexical substitutes, while others are more gesture-like in conveying pragmatic, but not lexico-semantic, meaning. Some are segmental and others extra-segmental.

Our data point to a complex system of these verbal gestures. In this paper we describe five that are highly salient across multiple languages:

Table 1: Verbal gestures

form function linguistic communities
(stop-)sibilant attention getting Bulu, Ngoshie, Bakoko, Basaa
whistle calling Bakoko, Basaa
bilabial-lateral click negative affect Bulu, Ngoshie, Bakoko, Basaa
lateral click back channel Ngoshie, Basaa
bilabial click dog call/“wolf whistle” Bulu, Ngoshie, Bakoko, Basaa

The clicks form a special subclass of verbal gestures referred to as tʃámlà in Basaa. In addition, a highly salient use of F0 contours occurs in gestures for calling across distances. These gestures have wide recognition across a large area of the country even though consultants self-identify as speaking different first languages. Thus they exhibit a high degree of salience across speech communities while simultaneously displaying variation, individual variation as well as across speakers and languages. For example, the attention-getting gesture, a hiss, is sometimes uttered with a consonantal onset (e.g. [kss], [dss], [pss]), or as an elongated [s:]. The extent to which this is due to differences in speech communities has not yet been determined.

The identification of the category of verbal gestures has cross-linguistic implications. Their use is universal and can account for claims such as Dingemanse et al. (2013) that ‘huh’ is a universal “word.” In our theory, it is a verbal gesture, with differences in phonetics and discourse functions attributable to language differences. Furthermore, our classification expands the study of non-phonemic clicks in the languages of Africa and provides more details about the actual use of the so-called paralinguistic clicks described by Gil (2011), with some (albeit tentative) support of his hypothesis that the extra- grammatical use of clicks may have spread from Africa.

Data for this study was collected from fieldwork conducted in Yaoundé, Édéa, and Buea, Cameroon in summer 2015.


Dingemanse, Mark, Francisco Torreira, N.J. Enfield. 2013. Is “huh” a universal word? Conver- sational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78273. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078273

Fries, Charles C. & Kenneth L. Pike. 1949. Coexistent phonemic systems. Language 25: 29-50.

Gil, David. 2011. Para-linguistic usages of clicks. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Munich: Max Planck Digital Library, chapter 142. Available online at Accessed on 2015-11-09

Hammarström, Harald, Rober Forkel, Martin Haspelmath & Sebastian Bank. 2015. Glottolog 2.6. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. (, Accessed on 2015-11-09.)

Harris, Zellig S. 1951. Methods in structural linguistics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

McNeill, David. 1992. Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kathryn Franich @ LVC on Friday, November 6th!

Friday, November 6th @ 3:00PM in Rosenwald 301

Intrinsic and Contextual Cues to Tone Perception In Medʉmba
(or: A How-To Guide for Doing Phonetics Experiments in the Field)

Kathryn Franich
University of Chicago

In this talk, I discuss results of experimental work on tone perception in Medʉmba, a Grassfields Bantu language spoken in Cameroon. The following research questions were investigated:

1) What kinds of acoustic cues are relevant to the perception of tones in this language?
2) Is tone perception sensitive to pitch information from the surrounding context? And if so, is perception sensitive to contextual information from non-speech sounds as well as speech sounds?

Results indicate that both F0 and duration are important cues to tone perception, but that the influence of duration was strongest where target F0 values were low. This finding is in-line with previous cross-linguistic work showing interactions between duration perception and tone and is thought to arise through a compensatory mechanism on the part of speakers to normalize for F0-related perceptual or articulatory biases (Yu 2011, Gussenhoven & Zhou 2013).

Results also indicate that perception of tones on target syllables was influenced by the tone of the syllable in the previous trial within the experimental block. Interestingly, preceding non-speech tones did not influence perception, suggesting that the observed contextual effect was specific to linguistic stimuli, rather than attributable to domain-general auditory processing effects, as has been suggested by Huang & Holt (2009; 2011).

In describing the experiment, I provide a play-by-play of its design and execution to highlight ways in which typical laboratory setups can be adapted for a fieldwork setting. In particular, I focus on subject recruitment, stimuli creation and presentation, pilot-testing, and the use of computers for data collection in contexts where subjects are not accustomed to them.

14 April: Tony Woodbury (UT Austin)

Monday, April 18th @ 3:00 PM, Pick 016

The Emergence from Tone of Vowel Register and Graded Nasalization in the Eastern Chatino of San Miguel Panixtlahuaca

(based on joint work with John Kingston, University of Massachusetts, Amherst)

The Chatino languages (Otomanguean; Oaxaca, Mexico) generally retain the conservative Proto-Chatino vowel inventory: */a, e, i, o, u/, with nasalized counterparts */ą, ę, į, ǫ/. Pride & Pride’s 2004 dictionary of San Miguel Panixtlahuaca Eastern Chatino (PAN) indicates the same for that variety. But work by our group (Cruz et al. 2012) tells a quite different story. We find that PAN departed from the system by developing a more elaborate vowel system: /a, ɛ, e, i, ɔ, o, u/ (Cruz et al. 2012), as well as a contrast between ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ nasalized vowel sets: /ą, ę, ǫ/ vs.  /ąŋ, ęŋ, įŋ, ǫŋ/.

We argue that the main triggers for the expansion of this inventory was tonal: A mora-linked low or falling tone followed by a floating tone *L-(T) in Proto Eastern Chatino (pEC). In its (etymological) presence, the historical vowel system was rendered as /a, ɛ, e, ɔ, o/ and /ą, ę, ę, ǫ/ (merging *ę with *į); while in its absence the system was rendered as /ɔ, e, i, o u/ and /ąŋ, ęŋ, įŋ, ǫŋ/. We call the two renditions the low (and light-nasal) register vs. the high (and heavy-nasal) register, where ‘low’ and ‘high’ refer to the overall effect on Proto-EC vowel quality.


After giving general background on the Chatino languages, we describe the development from pEC of the PAN vowel system, justifying the claim that it is an innovation; we then use comparative evidence from other Eastern Chatino varieties to reconstruct the likely phonological and phonetic content of the *L-(T) tonal trigger (based on Campbell & Woodbury 2010). We then show that the tonal reflexes of the tonal trigger in the modern PAN tonal are virtually merged with non-*L-(T) tones for some speakers, and entirely merged for others, leaving a system in which the expanded vowel system has phonemic status while the tonal distinctions, if present, are residual.


This set of changes is significant as: (a) a relatively rare case of  relationship between vowel height and tone that is not mediated by voice quality (as discussed by Denning 1989; but cf. Becker & Jurgec 2008, who demonstrate a relationship between vowel height and tone in Slovenian); (b) an (unprecedented?) case of a relationship between nasal grading and tone); (c) a case involving tone where the crucial conditioning factor in a series of historical changes is synchronically barely detectable or undetectable, leaving room for alternative synchronic analyses; and (d) a demonstration of the value of comparative and historically-informed field work as a method for discovery and description, and as a source of insight for phonological and phonetic investigation.

10 February: William Cotter (University of Essex) and Uri Horesh (Northwestern University)

Monday, February 10th @ 4:30 PM, Harper 150

Language variation and change in two Palestinian Arabic varieties: Gaza and Jaffa

While research in Arabic sociolinguistics has been on the rise in recent years, a number of regions are still under-investigated. Most varieties of Palestinian Arabic, though described by dialectologists in the traditional sense over the years, have not received much attention from a variationist perspective. This presentation will shed light on two urban varieties of Palestinian Arabic and discuss future directions in the research of the region as a whole, concentrating on the shared history between Gaza and Jaffa, the two cities in which we have done our fieldwork.

Our presentation will focus on two variables, one from each of these Palestinian cities:

1. The phonological variable (ʕ) in Jaffa
2. The morphophonological variable (ah) in Gaza

Each of these speech communities has its unique characteristics: Jaffa speakers tend to be bilingual—their L2 being Modern Hebrew—and the variation observed is assumed to be contact-induced. This hypothesis is tested, and for the most part confirmed, through quantitative analysis. The community in Gaza has been living under military occupation an physical siege, which has isolated them from the rest of the Palestinian population for quite some time, rendering their dialect quite distinct from most other varieties of Arabic in the region, in addition to its predisposition as a sort of bridge dialect between the Levant and Egypt, given its geographical location. Many speakers in Gaza are in fact refugees from Jaffa, and we will discuss the significance of this fact both in the context of work already carried out and for work in progress for future publication.

13 May: Joshua Katz (Princeton)

Monday, May 13th @ 3 PM, Wieboldt 408

What are they?: Some Hidden Forms of the Copula in Old Irish

It is uncontroversial that Proto-Indo-European *-nti# regularly becomes -t /d/ in Old Irish, as in beraitberat ‘(they) carry’ (< *bheronti).  Nevertheless, my principal claim in this talk is that just in the copula, and under certain specifiable conditions, the same sequence results instead in -n.  In the course of using this new phonological rule to uncover a couple of hitherto unnoticed copular forms, I also comment on morpho-phonological curiosities in the paradigm of the Old Irish copula more generally.

6 May: Galen Sibanda (Michigan State)

Monday, May 6th @ 3 PM, Wieboldt 408

An Overview of Nguni Verbal Reduplication with Special Reference to Ndebele

Previous works on verbal reduplication in Nguni (isiNdebele, siSwati, isiXhosa and isiZulu) such as Downing (1996, 1997a) and Sibanda (2004) have not paid much attention to possible verbal morphology inaccuracies but have been concerned mainly with theoretical aspects of reduplication from a phonological, morpho-phonological or morpho-syntactic perspective. The assumption has been that the morphological analyses in, for example, Doke (1931 (and later editions)) and Ziervogel (1952) are correct. In this presentation I begin by questioning the morphological analyses themselves taking into account results from diachronic studies, specifically Proto-Bantu reconstructions. I focus on verbs with vowel initial stems and those with sub-minimal -C- roots. For example, the reduplicated form of the stem -dla ‘eat’ has previously been assumed to have the morphological structure -dla-yi+dla but I argue, drawing from historical evidence, that this should be -dla+yidla. A morphological reanalysis of the data could potential pose problems for any theory. However, using mainly isiNdebele examples, I show that the Morphological Doubling Theory (Inkelas and Zoll 2005) which places less emphasis on Base-RED phonological identity still handles the Nguni data well in spite of the morphological changes suggested.

29 April: Amanda Miller (Ohio State)

Monday, April 29th @ 3 PM, Wieboldt 408

What Can We Do with High Frame Rate Ultrasound: Investigating the Phonetic Basis of the Back Vowel Constraint in Mangetti Dune !Xung

Previously, the main articulatory field method used to investigate place of articulation was static palatography/ linguography. This method is invasive, and contact patterns are smeared over an entire syllable. Portable ultrasound can be used to find the place of articulation of consonants in field work settings, and it is safe and non-invasive. Standard ultrasound has made great gains in our understanding of sounds with relatively stable gestures: vowels, fricatives and liquids. High FR ultrasound allows us to view stop shutting and release gestures, the dynamics of diphthongs, clicks, labial-velars, and affricates, and C-V and V-V coarticulation.

I present a case study designed to investigate the phonetics basis of the Back Vowel Constraint (BVC), found in many non-Bantu and non-Cushitic click languages. The BVC is a C-V co-occurrence constraint found between alveolar and lateral clicks and the uvular fricative, with [i]. I present four experiments that investigate the phonetic basis of the BVC, by looking at the production of the four clicks, [k] and [ᵪ], in Mangetti Dune !Xung. The first two experiments investigate the production of the clicks using high FR ultrasound collected using the CHAUSA method (Miller and Finch 2011). TD and TR constriction locations prior to the anterior release are measured. The second experiment investigates the TD and TR locations over the first half of the vowel. The third experiment investigates F1 and F2 patterns in the vowel following the clicks. Regression analyses of the vowel data shows that the F2 patterns are statistically related to the TD/TR constriction locations in the alveolar and lateral clicks, while the F2 patterns in the dental and palatal clicks are best predicted by the TT constriction location. I attribute the TRR in the vowel to muscular constraints on click-vowel sequences that are similar to those found in English [r] variants.

8 April: Erin Franklin (UChicago)

Monday, April 8th @ 3 PM, Wieboldt 408

Backchanneling in Russian:  Form, Function and Occurrence

Backchannels, otherwise known as listener response tokens, have been shown to occur quite frequently in the course of interactions between two speakers and they are considered to occur universally.  However as shown by Tottie, there is some evidence for backchanneling being a culturally specific phenomenon, as in her study British and American English speakers backchanneled in a significantly different manner, using both different backchannels at different frequencies (Tottie 1991).  However the exploration of this aspect of backchanneling is currently non-existent, with the vast majority of existing research focusing on varieties of English and only a handful of studies have been done on any aspect of backchanneling in any other language.  This paper is intended to be a first step in filling this gap in regards to the occurrence of backchannels in the Russian language.

The first part of the paper discusses the extent to which the current work on backchanneling can be applied to Russian data. Particular focus is paid to the particular forms that these tokens take in Russian and their functions as well as the relationship between these things.

The second part of the paper discusses a rough frequency of backchanneling in Russian and attempts to determine whether the occurrence of these tokens is prosodically or syntactically governed.  To this end, this paper analyzes a radio program “Obložka-1” hosted by Exo Moskvy, which is approximately 57 minutes long and consists of a single interview with one interviewee, two interviewers and one program host.  The backchannel rates of each of the participants are compared to each other in order to determine a potential frequency range for the phenomenon specifically in relation to English language data. The backchannels of all the participants are also analyzed in terms of the location of their occurrence in relation to the prosodic and syntactic structure of the co-occurring speech which leads to the conclusion that prosody rather than syntax is the more probably determining factor.

Finally this paper will discuss the limitations of the data as gathered and suggest possible areas for further research.

11 February: Chris Corcoran (UChicago)

Monday, February 11th @ 12:30 PM, Social Sciences 302

The authentication of Sierra Leonean refugees

Competing ideologies of the acoustic characteristics of voice During the Sierra Leone civil war, 1991–2002, many European countries granted asylum to Sierra Leonean refugees. Those without documentation were given an opportunity to participate in a language analysis interview. There are many problems with the authentication process employed in these types of interviews (e.g., Eades 2010, Corcoran 2004). However, this paper focuses on the particular issue of competing ideologies associated with voice quality and prosody: relative breathiness, pitch, loudness, and tempo. From 2000­–2010, I contributed to assessments or counter-assessments in nearly fifty cases. European interviewers frequently admonished applicants to “speak up” in order to properly represent themselves. Applicants who spoke slowly using a lowered quiet breathy voice were identified as having something to hide or, at best, as rubes who did not understand how recording devices worked. In contrast to these Western assessments, I argue there are pan West African ideologies that associate these features with “good speech” (Obeng 2003: vii; Irvine 1973: 160­–­64, 1974; Yankah 1995) and, in particular for Sierra Leoneans, with positions of full Sierra Leonean citizenship in opposition to categories such as “stranger” (Dorjahn and Fyfe 1962). Supplementing previous work with current fieldwork with Sierra Leoneans living in the US, this paper presents acoustic analyses and ethnographic observation to contrast Sierra Leonean and Western ideologies concerning these characteristics of speech. Using Silverstein’s (1981) explication of the limits of awareness, I discuss how these ways of speaking have been taken up in naturalizing discourses and confound our ability to identify them as sites for potential misunderstanding.