Is the Portuguese version of the passage ‘The North Wind and the Sun’ phonetically balanced?

IPA May 2015Blog post written by Luís Jesus based on an article in Journal of the International Phonetic Association

Those who have worked over the years on Portuguese have often wondered if there was a standard phonetically balanced text that could be used for research. There is no easy answer to this, and one is not able to find any consensus.

We had been wondering for a while if (perhaps with some luck) the Portuguese version of “The North Wind and the Sun” passage would be phonetically balanced (sometimes the solution is just around the corner…).

The same concerns about other languages, not least English, have also been raised and discussed for a long time. This discussion has recently been revitalised by Martin Ball at wordpress.com (2012/2013).

A phonetically balanced text covers all phones in a target language (with a frequency as close as possible to the natural language), presentsexamples of all phonotactic rules, based on a small number of words in current use. Portuguese is spoken by over 244 million people in nine countries, but there is no standard phonetically balanced passage for research and clinical practice.

This paper aims to determine if the short text “The North Wind and the Sun” (NWS passage – a text used as part of the illustrations of the International Phonetic Alphabet, over the last 100 years) is phonetically balanced for European Portuguese (EP) and Brazilian Portuguese (BP).

Two phonetic transcriptions of the text based on specific grapheme-phone transcription algorithms for EP and BP are presented. The frequency of phonemes in the NWS phonetic transcriptions are compared with the phoneme frequency information contained in the most recent and largest EP and BP databases. Statistical analysis revealed that there were significant differences between the frequency of phonemes in the BP NWS transcription and the frequency of phonemes in the BP databases. Additionally, the BP version of the NWS does not cover all BP phonemes. So, the NWS cannot be considered as a phonetically balanced text for BP. Only in terms of manner of articulation, the BP NWS transcription could be viewed as phonetically balanced.

For EP, statistical analysis revealed that there was no difference between the number of phonemes in the EP NWS transcription and the frequency of phonemes in the databases. Moreover, the NWS passage covers all phonemes and all phonotactic rules of EP. The NWS passage can therefore be used for EP speech and hearing research, and clinical assessment of patients with fluency or voice disorders.

Read the full article ‘ Is the Portuguese version of the passage ‘The North Wind and the Sun’ phonetically balanced?’ here.

Durational properties of emphatically lengthened consonants in Japanese

IPA Cover 2015Blog post written by Shigeto Kawahara based on an article in the latest issue of Journal of the International Phonetic Association

When sounds are “different”, such that swapping one sound for the other changes a word’s meaning  (for example, “pat” vs. “bat”), this difference is usually *binary*.  In other words, the sounds can easily be classified into *two* distinct categories, rather than belonging to a continuum from one sound to the other.

In the case of “pat” and “bat”, the first consonants of each word differ in terms of their “voicing”: whether or not the vocal cords are vibrating.  (Try it: if you put your hand on your throat, you can feel your vocal cords vibrate when you say “zzzzz”, but not when you say “ssssss”.)  The vocal cords vibrate during the <b> in “bat”, but don’t during the <p> in pat.

Interestingly, no language in the world makes distinctions based on the *degree* of vocal cord vibration.  Languages care whether the vocal cords are vibrating, or not—but never base distinctions on whether the vocal folds are vibrating *slightly* vs. *medium* vs. *vigorously* vs. *extremely vigorously*. In technical terms, the voicing distinction, like almost all phonological distinctions, is binary.

However, when we look at actual language use, the theoretical ideal of binarity breaks down. In English, for example, we can say: (a) “thank you so much”, or (b) “thank you sooo much” or even (c) “thank you sooooo much”.  The length of the vowel in “so” determines the degree to which we express our gratitude—(c) expresses a greater degree of gratitude than (a) or (b).

This study investigates a similar phenomenon of consonant lengthening found in Japanese, and shows that Japanese speakers can distinguish up to 6 different levels of consonant duration to express emphasis.  For example, “katai” means “hard”, “katttai” means “very hard”, and “katttttai” means “extremely hard”.

This result suggests that Japanese speakers do, in fact, have the articulatory ability to make many fine grained distinctions along a continuum of duration—going against the hypothesis that all distinctions should be binary.

Read the entire article ‘Durational properties of emphatically lengthened consonants in Japanese’ here.