How can you realistically imitate a French accent?

So, my main area on interest within linguistics is the study of the individual sound systems of different languages and the rules governing them. It may sound pretty dry, but it can lead to some pretty impressive party tricks. For example, by knowing about the sound systems of different languages you can emulate them. In other words, you can have a pretty convincing fake accent. In fact, accent coaches, who work with actors to create accents and other to reduce them, tend to have linguistic backgrounds with a focus on studying the sounds of language. So I thought with this post I’d go over how to imitate a French accent by looking at the individual sounds that are different between the two languages.

Just to be clear: I’m using English as a target language here because English is my native language and everyone who’s asked me about it has spoken English natively. I’m in no way implying that English is the “best” language, or that English speakers don’t have accents. (You should hear how I butcher Mandarin. It’s pretty atrocious.) If you have any other languages you’d like me to write posts for, let me know in the comments. 🙂

Marcel Marceau (square)
Marcel Marceau can’t help you on this one, sorry. Mostly because you’ll have a hard time finding examples of authentic French in his performances for some reason… 
I’m going to assume that you want to sound like you’re from Paris and not Quebec (Not that Quebec isn’t great! Man, now I’m jonesing for some President’s Choice snacks.). There are a couple sounds you’re going to have to learn:

  1. Instead of the English “r”, as in “rat”, you’re going to have to use what’s called the “gutteral r”. (Okay, it’s actually called the voiced uvular fricative, but that’s a little bit harder to say.) Basically, when you say the sound, you want to vibrate your uvula, that little punching-bag-looking thing  at the back of your throat. Try doing it in front of a well-lit mirror with your mouth open until you can figure out what it feels like.
  2. Instead of the English “ng”, as in “cling”, you can use a “ny”, as in “nyan cat“. No, seriously. This will be a little difficult, since  we only really use that sound at the end of words, but practice a bit and you should be able to pick it up. Or you can just go with go with a regular “n” sound.

Now the good news! There’s also a couple of sounds we have in English that don’t exist in French, and they’re the one’s that are slightly harder to say, so you can save yourself some time and trouble by switching them out.

  1. The “th” sound, like at the begining of “thin” or “the” is actually really rare in world languages. French speakers tend to replace it with “z”.
  2. The sounds at the beginning of “church” and “judge” are also not a thing in French. You can use the sound at the beginning of “sheep” for the sound at the beginning of “church” and the “s” in “vision” for the “j” in “judge”.
So that’s the consonants.
The vowels are significantly different than they are in English. You’ve got all sorts of things like nasalization and rounding in places where you, as an English speaker, are just not expecting it. And, frankly, unless you’ve got a really good ear, you’re going to have a hard time picking up on the differences. Long story short: I’m weaseling out of explaining the vowels entirely and using a Youtube video. (I’m also doing it so you can get some native speaker data, which I think you’ll find helpful.)

That does give me space to discuss intonation, however. Intonation is probably the single biggest difference in the way English and French sounds. In fact, intonation is one of the very first things that babies pick up, before they even start experimenting with individual sounds. Unfortunately, it’s also one of  the most difficult things to learn. Here’s a few pointers, though:

  • French intonation isn’t as concerned with individual syllables. Rather, you tend to get whole phrases (rather than individual words) in the same intonation pattern. This is what gives French its sort of smooth, musical quality.
  • Instead of a slow rise and slow fall, like we get in English, pitch in French tends to rise slowly until the very final syllable of a sentence, where it drops suddenly. It looks more like the graph of an absolute value than polynomial, in other words.

There’s a ton more to be said about French phonology, and a lot of it has already been said, but this should be enough to get you started on approximating a French accent. Good luck!

Why are tongue twisters tricky? (Part 1)

For me, the best part of the 2009 Star Trek movie was the scene where Kirk tries to pick up Uhara in a bar. After she  says he probably doesn’t know what Xenolinguistics is, he replies:

The study of alien languages. Morphology, phonology, syntax. Means you’ve got a talented tongue.

Well. Four out of five isn’t bad. Linguists know about language, not the languages themselves–so tongue talents are a skill that linguists only develop tangentially. (Although, of course, a lot of linguists do end up learning the languages they work on.) But knowing about tongues is still pretty useful. For example, it helps explain why tongue twisters are so hard.

Rolled tongue flikr
Tongue rolling is actually probably not controlled genetically. That’s right, your introductory biology textbook lied to you.
Basically, your tongue is a muscle like any other muscle, and it has certain limits. For example, there’s just a certain upper limit to how fast you can type, knit or eat, you can only produce recognizable words so fast. In addition to speed, however, there are certain motions that are difficult to make. Linguists often refer to correctly producing a given sound as “hitting an articulatory target”, and that’s a useful metaphor. For each sound in your repertoire, your tongue (and other parts of your articulatory system) have to be in certain positions.

Exercise time! Try saying “s sh s sh s sh” and “t k t k t k”. In the first, the tip of your tongue should move from that little ridge in your mouth (just behind your front teeth) to behind that ridge. In the second, the “t” sound should be made with the tip of your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and the “k” with the very back of your tongue. (I’m assuming that you have the “sh” sound in your native language, otherwise this exercise might have been a little fruitless for you. Sorry.)

You might have noticed that it was a little easier to make the “t k” sound than it was the “s sh” sound. That’s because you’re using two different parts of your tongue to make the “t k” pair, so while one is making a sound, the other is preparing to and vice versa. On the other hand, if your only using the very tip of your tongue, you have to finish one task before you can move onto the next, so your rate of making sounds is much lower. It’s the same reason that assembly lines are so much faster–you don’t have the additional time it takes to switch tasks. (BTW, that’s why, if you play a wind instrument, you can tongue faster with “t k t k” than “t t t t”.)

Ok, so we have two pressures working against your ability to produce tongue twisters. The first is that your tongue can only move so fast. You can train it to move faster, but eventually you will (barring cybernetic implants) reach the limits of the human body. Secondly, you have limited resources to make sounds, and when sounds that draw on the same resources are produced too close together, they both become more difficult to produce, and the speed at which you can produce them is reduced even further.

And that wraps it up for tongues, because the dirty secret of tongue twisters is that they’re mainly actually brain twisters. But I’ll cover that in part two. That’s right: brraaaaaaains.

Seeing noise?

Some of you may be familiar with synesthesia, a neurological condition where you perceive sensory input from one sense as if it were another sense–with synesthesia the color yellow might taste like root beer, or the sound of a bassoon may feel like bread dough. Even without synesthesia, however, linguists (particularly phoneticians and phonologists) see sound all the time. What does it look like? Something like this:

Auuuugh what is this? It looks so boring and spiky! My eyes!

These, boys and girls and others, are what your speech sounds look like. Spectrograms are one of the most useful tools in the speech scientist’s tool shed. Heck, they’re pretty much a Swiss army shovel. You can spend your entire career basically only looking at data in this one form.

Why? Well, there’s a lot of data in a spectrogram. Big things, like whether a sound’s a ‘b’ or a ‘p’ (there’s a big black bar on the bottom if it’s a ‘b’, but not if it’s a ‘p’), but also really small things that we as humans have have a really hard time hearing. Like, remember what I said earlier about your ears lying to you? Turns out it’s a lot easier to sort out the truth if you can see what you’re hearing. Plus, by looking at spectrogram we can quantify things like average vowel frequencies really quickly and easily. (Turns out, by the way, that you can [maybe, kinda, if you squint just right and have just the right voice sample] judge how tall someone is based on their vowel frequencies.)

But spectrograms aren’t just a serious scientific tool; they’re also pretty fun. Aphex Twin, an ambient musician (I mean, he makes music in the ambient genre, not that he provide background music at canape parties. Sheesh.) uses spectrograms as an art form. This song, for example, has a picture of his face encoded in it’s spectrogram. Give it a listen and see if you can find it!

On a more general note, the study of images made with sound is known as cymatics. I’m just going to leave this video here for the more physics-minded among you:


Wug’s up?

Wait, you may be asking, what’a wug? The short answer is that a wug’s not a thing. Literally. It was chosen as a good, possible English word that didn’t have a meaning associated with it. The long answer is that a wug’s one of the ways that we know phonology is real.

These are wugs, from Jean Berko Gleason's work on child morphemic acquisition "The acquisition and dissolution of the English inflectional system", published in 1978. Sorry, nothing really funny to say about them. They are pretty cute, though.

Ok, so answer the question in the picture above. If you’re a native speaker of English, you probably said something like “There are two wugz.” Of course, you would write it “wugs”, but you’d say it with a final ‘z’. I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth repeating:

In English, there are two ways to make a word plural. You can add -z to the end, and you can add -s to the end. They’re actually very similar sounds, but with a slight difference. When you’re making a -s sound, you don’t vibrate your vocal folds, so there’s no sort of louder buzzing noise (linguists call that voicing), but when you make a -z sound, you do voice it. When that happens is determined by the sound in front of the plural marking. If it’s voiced, the voicing is sort of smeared over into  the -s on the end, mainly because it’s easier to say.

Now, this is a rule that you know and  can apply without even thinking about it. But children have to learn it somehow, and we didn’t really know when this happened developmentally. Which is what the wug test was designed to find out. If children have learned the rule, then they’ll say “wug-z” instead of “wug-s”. It turns out that four- and five-year-olds have usually got this rule down cold. Which tells us something useful about how we acquire language. And, you know, watching four-year-olds trying to stay on task is adorable.

And, as a special bonus, here’s a video interview with Jean Berko Gleason. She’s super awesome and a real live linguist. 🙂

Your ears are lying to you.

So, as a person who looks mainly at the sounds of language, I tend to put a lot of faith in my ability to hear things. And you know what? Sometimes that faith is completely misplaced. My ears lie to me, and yours do too.

Of course your butt looks great in that dress!
 Well, it’s more accurate to say that your brain lies to you. I mean, your ears are simply there to receive the speech signal, like the antennas on an old TV. You still need a tuner to translate those signals into something meaningful, and in this really over-extended metaphor, the tuner is your brain.

And, sometimes, your brain will lie to you. There’s this thing called Phonemic Restoration that’s studied extensively by Makio Kashino, among other people. Basically, what happens is that even when a speech sound is missing you’ll think you heard it. Here, try this:

Isn’t that just the freakiest thing? And it gets even better. Not only can you gain sounds that were never there to begin with at all, you can also lose sounds that should have been perfectly intelligible. I was at a conference this weekend and one of presentations, by Chris Heffner, was on how you adapt to changes in speaking rate. Basically, if you’re listening to a bit of slow speech and then encounter a segment or set of words that’s produced much faster, your brain can’t handle it very well, so it’ll just skip right over parts of it, even if it leaves you with something that’s less than grammatical.

So why does this matter? Well, first off, it’s super cool. Secondly, knowing when and how your brain lies to you can tell us more about how your brain processes language. And, really, that’s not something we know a whole lot about. Linguistics as a field is littered with unsolved problems, like rocks waiting to destroy a perfectly good tiller. By learning more about what goes on between the antenna and the television screen, though, we can keep working to solve those problems.

Flap that!

Imagine you’re walking down a sunny street in Chicago and pass by a construction site. Someone yells out, “Adam, the ladder, pick it up!” Congratulations, you’ve just found the elusive wild flap in its natural environment! And not just once, but three times.  Where was it? “Adam, the ladder, pick it up!” Try saying it aloud. If you’re a native speaker of American English, you’ll say all three of the underlined sounds the same way.

Construction worker at Westlake Center, 1988
Come on, Adam, Lulu's having to pick up your slack!

Unless you’re already pretty familiar with linguistics, you’ve probably never heard of the flap (or tap, as some linguists call it), but that doesn’t mean that you’re not already acquainted. In fact, the flap is one of most common sounds of the English language, especially American English. It’s produced by a very quick movement of the tongue against the little ridge of bone just behind your teeth. This video will give you an idea of just how quick:

It’s a little difficult to see, but did you notice that bit in the middle where the tongue suddenly jumped? That was the flap. It’s so fast that it makes the production of most other sounds seem like the proverbial tortoise. A flap takes an average of 20 milliseconds to produce; by contrast, the schwa vowel (it’s an ‘uh’ sound, the most common in the English Language) lasts an average of 64 milliseconds.  You can see why the flap is such a favorite; it’s a huge time saver.

It’s a little difficult to spot a flap  within specialized training because it doesn’t have its own letter, or make any minimal pairs. (A minimal pair is a pair of words that differ by only one sound, like “cat” and “cap”. Because you need to be able to tell the sounds apart in order to tell the words apart, you’re really good at distinguishing the sounds that make minimal pairs, at least in your native language[s]). Usually, it replaces the ‘t’ or ‘d’ sound in the middle of a word, but when you start speaking more quickly, more and more of your ‘t’s and ‘d’s end up coming out as flaps. And that makes sense. When you’re speaking more quickly, you want to be understood, but you just  don’t have as much time to articulate quickly. Since most people will hear the flap as a ‘t’ or a ‘d’, switching one for the other is just easier for everyone.

So that’s the flap, a shy, unassuming sound that you often mistake for one of its more glamorous siblings. Now that you’ve been introduced, though, try to keep an eye out for the little guy. You just might be surprised how often it pops up!

What words are easy to say?

Ok, so in the last couple posts I’ve been throwing around terms like “easy to say” without giving a whole lot of explanation. And that’s a pity, because the study of what words are “easy” and what words are “hard” is, in my opinion, one of the greatest sub-disciplines in linguistics: phonotactics.

Imperial Russian soldier with phone
No, that's phone tactics, not phonotactics. They're completely different.
Phonotactics is like your great-aunt who always arranges the seating at family reunions becuase she remembers who fought with whom twenty years ago and knows not to sit them together. Basically, some sounds really like to be next to others. Like vowels. Vowels like to be next to everyone. In Japanese, for example, with a couple of exceptions, most syllables have to be made of a consonant plus a vowel. (In ling speak, this is known as “CV”. C for consonant, V for vowel. Yeah, unlike physicists, we like to keep things simple.) What’s even more amazing is that within six months of birth, Japanese infants prefer sounds that are CVCV to those that are CVCCV or CVCVC.

Polish, on the other hand, notoriously plays fast and loose with syllable structure. You can have consonant clusters up to five sounds long in Polish that, most weirdly, don’t follow the same sorts of rules that other languages do. Like English. English can have pretty big consonant clusters… but they’ll only get really big if the first or last sound in the word is ‘s’. (Protip: That’s why ‘s’ is such a great letter in scrabble; there’s a bunch of things you can slap it on to piggyback of someone else’s word, even outside of its morpheme status.) If you’ve ever stumbled over a Polish last name, there’s a sound linguistic reason you found it hard.

Why is this useful? Well, besides its obvious use in language teaching and being great cocktail party conversation material,  if you want to make a plausibly difficult-to-pronounce alien language, screw up your phonotactics and you’ll leave audio book readers in tears.

Laziness vs. Niceness

So, I like to say that there are two forces at work in linguistics change: laziness and niceness. Well, that’s a little vague. When I say linguistic change, I really mean phonological change. Phonological change is whenever one sound or set of sounds is replaced by another, and it happens all the time.

1544 Championship 40
The guy with his legs in the air is laziness, the guy bending over backwards is niceness and the stamp is, uh, your mouth.
Let’s take an example. How about the glottal stop in English? Here, read this and then come back. I’ll wait.

We splash glottal stops around in our speech because they’re easy and quick to say. So that’s laziness; it doesn’t hurt anyone, it just makes the speaker’s life a little easier. But wait! Let’s say that you move to Egypt and start using Egyptian Arabic. In fact, let’s say that a whole bunch of English speakers move to Egypt, so many that there starts to be a really large native English speaker population in Cairo… but a population that still has to learn and use Egyptian Arabic just to get around during the day.

Now, in Egyptian Arabic, if you slosh glottal stops around like mop water on a dirty floor, you’re going to run into problems. Why? Because the glottal stop is a separate sound. It would be like if I used “b” and “p” interchangeably. There’s a big different between “Hand me the robe” and “Hand me the rope” (particularly if you’re a cultist). It’s confusing. And confusing people isn’t nice.

So, if you’re nice, you’ll use glottal stops only when you’re supposed to in English and Arabic, and use the other sounds where they belong. The downside? It’s more work for a speaker to make a full k-sound than just a glottal stop.

So you’ve got this tension between laziness and niceness, and in different languages and different situations, a different pressure will win out. Or,  you know, at least be something that you worry about more.

The Brothers Grimm and Their Phonology Habit

You’ve probably heard of the Brothers Grimm in conjunction with fairy tales. They were four-handedly responsible for popularizing most of the ones we know and love today. Well, popularizing them for those of us who live outside of the German countryside. If you’ve ever read or watched Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Cinderella, Rapunzel or Rumpelstiltskin, you’ve got them to thank.

Walter Crane12
Oh, you're a prince? Sorry, I'm holding out for a linguist.
But this is a linguistics blog, not a folklore blog, so why am I going on and on about these guys? Because they were also pretty awesome linguists. They were like the Galileo of linguistics, way ahead of their time and brilliant. They were so brilliant, they discovered something called Grimm’s law. Well, really it was Jacob who discovered it (hence the apostrophe placement) and it wasn’t called Grimm’s law at the time. It was just something that no one had ever thought to look for.

What was it?

Grimm’s law is the very first time we see a set of rules governing linguistic change. And that may sound kind of boring, but it was just as monumental as the discovery of calculus. (Was calculus more of a discovery or a development? Mhh, whatever.) It fundamentally changed the way that linguistics was done.

Basically, Jacob determined that, historically, certain sounds in Germanic languages (including German and English) had changed. And they hadn’t changed randomly. A had changed to B had changed to C across a set of languages, and all across the language. It would be like if three or four different countries, without talking about it, decide that purple was better color for stop signs than red or bright green, and changed out all their stop signs. And then, when they were done, they decided that they really liked pink better and all changed to that.

Why was this exciting? Well, unlike theories like “This word is fun to say becuase I think it is“, Grimm’s law is testable. You can go out and take a picture of some non-pink stop signs and use that evidence to argue against a law that ends with all stop signs being now pink. We have a theory (and phonological theory!) that we can use empirical data to prove or disprove. It obviously took some time to be accepted as the standard practice, and for a long time, all anybody wanted to talk about was historical sound change and written texts. But, hey, once phonology was born, it was only a matter of time before it started saving the world.

Talkin’ ’bout my generativity

Quick, who’s this guy:

I dunno... could be the front half of an old centaur?
Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, click for link to source.

If you answered “Einstein’s less famous brother, Einbert?” you wouldn’t actually be too far from the truth. It’s Noam Chomsky. He’s so famous his name comes pre-installed in Microsoft Word’s spell checker. (Did you mean “chomp sky?”)

If you’ve got a good history or government background, you may be thinking, “Oh yeah, the anarchy guy.” He may be, but his greatest intellectual achievement has nothing to do with anarchy and everything to do with linguistics. That achievement would be generativity.

Gen-er-a-tiv-i-ty. Write it down, it will be on the test.

Generativity was a game-changer for linguistics. Before that point, linguistics was basically phrenology, which I’ve mentioned before. Phrenology is to modern linguistics what naturalism is to modern biology. Phrenologists collected knowledge about languages haphazardly, without a whole lot of underlying theoretical structure. I mean, there was some, (I’ll talk about what the brother’s Grimm did on their weekends off later) but it was pretty confined. And a lot of it, let’s be honest, was about proving that Europe was best. The monumental Oxford English Dictionary is a good example of that mindset. They wanted to collect every single word in English language and pin it neatly to the page with a little series of notes about it and a list of sightings in the wild. It was, and remains, a grand undertaking and a staggering achievement… but modern linguists aren’t collectors anymore.

That’s because the end goal of modern linguistics is to solve language. The field is working to put together a series of rules that will actually describe and predict all human language. Not in the mind reader, fortune teller sense of predict. I mean that, with the right rules, we should be able to generate all possible sentences. In a generative way. By using generativity.

So why is this important?

Lots of reasons! Here, let me list them, because lists are fun to read.

  • This turned linguistics from an interesting hobby for rich people into a science. If you have rules, you can make predictions about what those rules will produce and then test those predictions. Testing predictions is also known as science. It’s also something that linguistics as a whole has been a little… hesitant to adopt, but that’s another story.
  • Suddenly computers! Computer programming is, at its most basic level, a series of rules. Linguistics is now dedicated to producing a series of rules. Bada-bing, bada-boom, universal translator. (It doesn’t work  that way, but, in theory, it eventually can.)
  • Now we have a framework that we can use to figure out how to ask questions. We have a goal. Things are organized.

Now for the promised test.

What term is used to describe the current goal of linguistics; i.e. to generate a set of rules that can accurately describe and predict language usage? (Seriously, I’m not going to give you the answer. Just scroll up.)