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Catford’s Phonetics: An Essential Resource!

Posted on Monday, November 22, 2010 in Books, Conlanging, Library Additions

Catfor'd's Intro to Phonetics

Although J.C. Catford’s A Practical Introduction to Phonetics has been part of The Conlanger’s Library for some time, it was only recently that I sought it out in the library to take a look. I have a recent (Nov. 4, 2010) posting of a glowing recommendation of the book on the CONLANG listserv for bringing it back to my attention. Luckily, my day job is at a large public library, and it was on the shelf just waiting for me to pick up.

The brief biography on the cover of the book states simply that J.C. Catford is “widely regarded as the leading practical phonetician of our time.” According to his obituary posted online, he was also “famous for his amazing ability to repeat speech backwards” and recorded Jabberwocky in this way (backwards and forwards) for the BBC. In his retirement, Prof. Catford worked on Ubykh, “a language of 80 consonants and just two vowels!” So, maybe it’s no wonder that Amazon.com lists as one of the “Customers Who Bought This Item [i.e., A Practical Introduction to Phonetics] Also Bought” Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit.

His work itself is absolutely essential for conlangers who wish to include “exotic” (i.e., non-English) phonetics in their works. Catford takes the reader step-by-step through initiation, articulation, phonation, co-articulation, and much, much more. What is so valuable about the book is Catford’s Exercises (over 120 in all) throughout where he clearly shows how to pronounce every sound he discusses. I personally knew I may have to end up owning a copy of this when I found the following exercise clearly explaining how my own Drushek pronounce their “ejectives” (which I now know are actually pronounced by a velaric initiatory mechanism):

Say a velaric suction [|\ [in X-SAMPA, a dental click]]. Now immediately after the sucking movement of the tongue and the release of the tongue-tip contact, remake the contact and reverse the tongue-movement — that is, press instead of sucking — then release the tongue-tip contact again. The result should be a velaric pressure sound, for which there is no special symbol, so we shall represent it by [|\^ [again, in X-SAMPA]]. Continue to alternate velaric suction [|\] and velaric [|\^]: [|\], [|\^], [|\], [|\^] . . .

All this must be done without ever releasing the essential velaric (k-type) initiatory closure. We will now demonstrate that velaric initiation, whether of suction or pressure type, utilizes only the small amount of air trapped between the tongue-centre and an articulatory closure further forward in the mouth. To carry out this demonstration make a prolonged series of velaric sounds, for example [|\], [|\], [|\], and while continuing to do this, breathe in and out rather noisily through your nose. The experiment should be repeated with hum substituted for breath. Make a series of [|\] sounds while uninterruptedly humming through the nose. This proves that the velaric initiatory mechanism is completely independent of the pulmonic air-stream — it uses only the air trapped in the mouth in front of the velaric closure.

And this is just one of the exercises. I’m considering a voiced bilabial trill for one of my other languages and had never even considered a bidental fricative before now. Granted, one has to be careful to not make a kitchen-sink phonology, but a careful choice among the myriad sounds offered by Catford’s book can go a long way to giving one’s conlang any Sprachgefühl one wishes.

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