Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Classifying 'Clicks' In African Languages To Clear Up 100-year-old Mystery

Date:
July 16, 2009
Source:
National Science Foundation
Summary:
A new way to classify sounds in some human languages may solve a problem that has plagued linguists for nearly 100 years -- how to accurately describe click sounds distinct to certain African languages.

New high-speed, ultrasound imaging of the human tongue potentially could change how linguists describe 'click languages' and help speech scientists understand the physics of speech production. Here, Ouma Hannie Koerant, a speaker of N|uu, a severely endangered click language spoken by fewer than 10 people in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, prepares to have her mouth and tongue imaged as she pronounces N|uu words. The ultrasound stabilization headset anchors an ultrasound probe in the same spot under her chin throughout the recording session.
Credit: Johanna Brugman, Cornell University, and Bonny Sands, Northern Arizona University.

A new way to classify sounds in some human languages may solve a problem that has plagued linguists for nearly 100 years--how to accurately describe click sounds distinct to certain African languages.

Cornell University professor Amanda Miller and her colleagues recently used new high-speed, ultrasound imaging of the human tongue to precisely categorize sounds produced by the N|uu language speakers of southern Africa's Kalahari Desert. The research potentially could change how linguists describe "click languages" and help speech scientists understand the physics of speech production.

The African languages studied by Miller use a series of consonants called "clicks" which are unlike most consonants in that they are produced with air going into the mouth rather than out. The N|uu clicks, produced using both the front and back of the tongue, are difficult to characterize.

"When we say 'k' or 't,' the sound is produced by air breathing out of our lungs," said Miller. "But click sounds are produced by breathing in and creating suction within a cavity formed between the front and back parts of the tongue. While linguists knew this, most didn't want to accept it was something people controlled." So they loosely classified these click consonants using imprecise groupings.

"For nearly a century, some of these sounds fell into an imprecise catch-all category that included every type of modification ever reported in a click language," said Miller. "The movements of the tongue at the front of the mouth were quite accurately classified. But tongue movements at the back part of the mouth were not classified properly."

The reason was that prior tools were either too large to carry to fieldwork situations in Southern Africa, or too unsafe. Ultrasound imaging changed that by allowing Miller's research team to use safer, faster, non-invasive technology in the field to view the back part of the tongue.

Early ultrasound tools captured images only at about 30 frames per second, and thus are not able to keep up with the tongue's speed in fast sounds like clicks. The new ultrasound imaging tool is capable of capturing more than 125 frames per second, producing clearer images.

Miller and her colleagues used the high-speed ultrasound imaging to group the clicks more accurately. Her colleagues included Johanna Brugman, Cornell University; Bonny Sands, Northern Arizona University; Levi Namaseb, The University of Namibia; Mats Exter, University of Cologne; and Chris Collins, New York University.

"We wanted to classify clicks in the same way we classify other consonants," said Miller, who was a visiting faculty member at the University of British Columbia during the 2008-2009 academic year. "We think we've been pretty successful in doing that."

N|uu is severely endangered with fewer than 10 remaining speakers, all of whom are more than 60 years of age. Linguists are working diligently to document the unique aspects of this language before it disappears.

She explains her findings in the online version of the Journal of the International Phonetic Association posted on July 10. The National Science Foundation supports the research.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by National Science Foundation. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

National Science Foundation. "Classifying 'Clicks' In African Languages To Clear Up 100-year-old Mystery." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 July 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090715131551.htm>.
National Science Foundation. (2009, July 16). Classifying 'Clicks' In African Languages To Clear Up 100-year-old Mystery. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 19, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090715131551.htm
National Science Foundation. "Classifying 'Clicks' In African Languages To Clear Up 100-year-old Mystery." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090715131551.htm (accessed April 19, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Study On Artists' Brain Shows They're 'Structurally Unique'

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) The brains of artists aren't really left-brain or right-brain, but rather have extra neural matter in visual and motor control areas. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Is Apathy A Sign Of A Shrinking Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 17, 2014) A recent study links apathetic feelings to a smaller brain. Researchers say the results indicate a need for apathy screening for at-risk seniors. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

Are School Dress Codes Too Strict?

AP (Apr. 16, 2014) Pushing the limits on style and self-expression is a rite of passage for teens and even younger kids. How far should schools go with their dress codes? The courts have sided with schools in an era when school safety is paramount. (April 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Could Even Casual Marijuana Use Alter Your Brain?

Newsy (Apr. 16, 2014) A new study conducted by researchers at Northwestern and Harvard suggests even casual marijuana use can alter your brain. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins