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The purpose of blogs vary. Many are simply personal ones, where they describe the workings of the author's life. Some are political, rallying for one side and decrying the other. The purpose of this blog is to post my internal musings about things I don't fully understand. There are few answers in this blog, but many questions. No post is a light read - I endeavour to make them long and deep. And I never give a tl;dr version. If I haven't scared you away yet, happy thinking. :D
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Phonotactics: Don't put that there!

Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:17 AM by Citrinin
Updated October 13th, 2009 at 01:56 AM by Citrinin

For those not familiar with the term, phonotactics is the linguistic phenomenon which controls which structures of words are acceptable.

Let's make up two words. Clestrath and Pkan. Try to pronounce them. Assuming you're an English monoglot, you probably found the first far easier to say than the second.

This is because the first complies with English phonotactics - even though it's longer, the two consonant clusters "cl" and "tr" are acceptable.

"Pkan", however, could not be a word in today's English. That's because the cluster "pk" is not allowed at the beginning of a word. It's allowed in the middle of a word, like in "napkin", but not at the start.

English actually has rather flexible phonotactics, as evidenced by the word "strength". At the beginning of the word, there's a cluster of three consonantal sounds, and at the end there are two. (Yes - there are four letters, but they only represent two sounds. A phonologist would probably find this cluster more interesting than a layman, with the massive difference between the velar nasal "ng" and voiceless interdental fricative "th". But I digress.)

Now, what does a language with very restrictive phonotactics look like? We'll have a look at Japanese, which has very restrictive phonotactics.

The syllable structure of a Japanese word is always (C)(y)V(V)(n), where C is a consonant, V is a vowel, y is the English "y" consonant, and n is a nasal consonant. The brackets, as you've probably guessed, mean that the component is optional.

So, "Sten" could not be a Japanese word because it fits a CCVn structure, which is invalid. Even though "s", "t", "e", and "n", are all valid Japanese sounds, "Sten" is not a valid hypothetical Japanese word. Just like "Pkan" is not a valid hypothetical English word.

Other other hypothetical words that are easy to pronounce for us but can't be in Japanese are "Kot", "Bomed", "Esta", and others.

(Some might note that ts is a valid cluster in Japanese, like in tsunami. Technically, "ts" is one consonant, and is treated as such by the language. If you're interested, it's a special type of "compound" consonant called an affricate.)

Conversely, Georgian has an even less restrictive phonotactical system than English. გვფრცქვნი (gvprckvni) is a real word, meaning "you peel us", in Georgian.

So, this begs the question: why did phonotactics develop? Did certain words become so entrenched in our mind that we lost our ability to string together other possible combinations with ease? But that would make it highly improbable that rigid systems like Japanese would arise, if it was only on the pattern of use. So, why?
Posted inLinguistics
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Comments

  1. Old Comment
    donavannj's Avatar
    I said it like so: "peh-can". :P
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:26 AM by donavannj donavannj is offline
  2. Old Comment
    donavannj's Avatar
    On a serious note: I did find that kind of interesting.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:27 AM by donavannj donavannj is offline
  3. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    Yeah - you had to insert an intermediary vowel. To say it as a "p" followed directly by a "k" is difficult for most English speakers, if in word-initial position.

    Thanks. ^^;
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:32 AM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  4. Old Comment
    donavannj's Avatar
    Now it's starting to bother me that no one developed an accepted phonetic sound for some consonant combinations.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:35 AM by donavannj donavannj is offline
  5. Old Comment
    Forever's Avatar
    This reminds me of learning to roll r's.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:37 AM by Forever Forever is offline
  6. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by donavannj
    Now it's starting to bother me that no one developed an accepted phonetic sound for some consonant combinations.
    All consonant clusters can be pronounced. A phonologist would have no trouble pronouncing "pkan". It wouldn't surprise me if some languages did have this cluster.

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Hakeen
    This reminds me of learning to roll r's.
    It's not quite the same thing. Rolled rs are another phoneme (unit of sound) entirely (the technical term being alveolar trill). Whereas the issue with phonotactics is that it means we have difficulty pronouncing a series of sounds, that individually, are easy to pronounce.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:50 AM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  7. Old Comment
    Forever's Avatar
    Yes... rolling r's is like that. :(

    LIKE TRYING TO SAY FOREVER AND ROLLING BOTH R'S.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:52 AM by Forever Forever is offline
  8. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    In that case (assuming you've incorporated the rolled r into the phonemic inventory) then you're right, it is. :P
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 03:55 AM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  9. Old Comment
    Forever's Avatar
    I don't know what that means but I know I'm right. XDD
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 04:03 AM by Forever Forever is offline
  10. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    XD; Well, that's the main thing. :P

    "Phonemic inventory" is the set of acceptable sounds in a language. For example, our "L" sound is not in the Japanese phonemic inventory. XD;
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 04:06 AM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  11. Old Comment
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    >:[ Stop trying to make me feel stupid. ;_; My position as linguistics-nerd is being compromised.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 12:20 PM by Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
  12. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    I don't set out to make you feel stupid. ;0;
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 04:07 PM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  13. Old Comment
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL j/k. Just stop using big words, mmkay? )_)
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 04:20 PM by Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
  14. Old Comment
    Ineffable~'s Avatar
    I pronounced like "kan". Greek for the win. ;P

    I think the Japanese just wanted a language that flowed, you know? It may give them a lot of homonyms in the future, but hey, they've got kanji to give them the meaning. ;>

    Remember they also have "ng" and anything that starts with an "n" as available consonant sounds. They can still be German with stuff like "antsukyangan", hypothetically. :D
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 05:04 PM by Ineffable~ Ineffable~ is offline
  15. Old Comment
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    The Japanese are remarkable when it comes to loanwords and translating foreign words. Negi Springfield, from Mahou Sensei Negima *is bricked for yet another MSN reference* is Nipponised as Negi Supuringufirudo. That's a mouthful if I ever saw one.

    Just had to throw that out there.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 05:47 PM by Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
  16. Old Comment
    Ineffable~'s Avatar
    I don't think it's that much of a mouthful. It is roughly pronounced "Springufieldo" due to the altered tempo, and is written 「スプリングフィルド」。 

    And wait, isn't it "nipponized"? :o

    I probably sound mean saying all this at you. x<
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 06:16 PM by Ineffable~ Ineffable~ is offline
  17. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Needle
    I think the Japanese just wanted a language that flowed, you know?
    it's possible, but that's the sort of thing that you'd expect from someone inventing a language, not a language evolving. :S

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Needle
    Remember they also have "ng" and anything that starts with an "n" as available consonant sounds.
    Yes - the (n) incorporates nasal consonants, of which "ng" is one. ^^

    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Needle
    And wait, isn't it "nipponized"? :o
    It's -ise in some parts of the world, so they're both correct.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 06:27 PM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
  18. Old Comment
    Misheard Whisper's Avatar
    No, it doesn't sound mean. I'm quite happy to be corrected, and as Citrinin said, we in NZ use the -ise ending.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 06:32 PM by Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
  19. Old Comment
    Yoshimi's Avatar
    It isn't that we created phonotactics, it's just that...it happened. Let us take Latin for example. If you isolate the Latin speaking groups over many centuries, their language will start to change. And it has, into Spanish, French, and German.

    Wow, I'm the only one who answered your question.
    Posted October 3rd, 2009 at 11:26 PM by Yoshimi Yoshimi is offline
  20. Old Comment
    Citrinin's Avatar
    XD; True. To a certain extent. I wasn't trying to ask why we "created" them (that doesn't usually happen in languages), but more why that feature of language evolved.
    Posted October 4th, 2009 at 01:07 AM by Citrinin Citrinin is offline
 

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