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I as distinguishing of English
Is [Ä«] a most English sound?
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2013/03/10
3:38am
RobertB
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Is there some survey of vowels and diphthongs of how some might be the most distinguishing sounds of a language ?  For English, it must be the [Ä«] sound (as in five), even though it’s not even the most frequent.  Only a feeling.  Though the idea fits rather well with the ‘stiff upper lip’ attribution. 

2013/03/10
2:55pm
Ron Draney
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Scanning the chart of vowels and diphthongs quickly the ones that stick out as characteristically English are the “short a” as in cat, the short “oo” sound as in book, and the “aw” sound as in caught. On another forum where we talk a lot about pronunciation there’s a lot of haggling over the way vowels are pronounced in British vs American English, and one that’s always part of the argument is one of the long “ah” sounds of UK English that some claim doesn’t even occur in the American version.

Diphthongs like “ow” and “oi” seem to be as common in other languages as they are in English, so nothing to add from that category.

The most characteristic sounds of English may be the voiced and unvoiced “th” sounds, heard in then and thin respectively.

2013/03/10
8:53pm
larrfirr
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The most unique sound in English is the “r”.  It’s the one that speakers of other languages just can’t get exactly right. 

2013/03/10
10:42pm
RobertB
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Perhaps more so when r is deep inside,  modifies something before it and then blends into something else again, as in Charles,  gorge  ?  I bet there is whole science behind that.

2013/03/11
4:18am
Raffee
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To me, the ‘r’ and the flap t in American English are among the distinguishing factors of English. I like to mention ‘l’ as well, especially at the end of the words, and I think, just in American English. In an episode where Martha and Grant were talking about some (I think, old-fashioned) ‘names’, they mentioned ‘nyargle’. I would hear it as nyargoe until I looked it up. This is more tricky in Estuary English, where ‘milk’ is pronounced as mewk! 

The voiced and unvoiced th also happen in Arabic.

2013/03/12
10:44pm
RobertB
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What does English not have?
One is the ñ , when the tongue slides on the top of the throat- cognac.  Asian versions use the whole ceiling of the mouth.
Another is the k that is breathed  out of the throat while the tongue lays low, as common (though varied) in the Asian languages and those of the Persian Gulf.
No?
2013/03/13
12:35am
Ron Draney
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English doesn’t have:

  • The vowel sound spelled y in French and ü in German
  • A true dental (tip of tongue against upper teeth) t or d sound, as opposed to the alveolar (tongue against the gums behind the teeth)
  • A labiodental nasal, like the sound m but made between the upper teeth and lower lip rather than both lips together
  • Any of the “click” sounds found in languages like Xhosa

(Interestingly, I’ve found the first three of those four useful in my Japanese pronunciation which my first teacher described as “almost native”.)

There’s a combination of sounds that I find difficult to make in Japanese, which is the liquid cluster at the beginning of the syllables rya, ryu and ryo. The individual sounds (even those that are not exactly duplicated in English speech) come easy, it’s just putting them up against one another that’s a struggle.

2013/03/13
5:33am
Raffee
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Another one is r in French.

Arabic has a sound similar to r in French, and another one similar to it, but actually stronger, a stop, also ‘lacked’ in English. This is what you see as its equivalents gh and q, as in Qur’an (some write it with a k though, Koran). Its pronunciation is just a bit different.

I don’t think I have mentioned this here before:

Arabic has a special order for its letters of alphabet, called ‘Abjad’, used for gematria. Noticing the order in this, and in Persian alphabet (which ais taken from Arabic, with some differences, including its order), and in languages like English, something interesting catches they eye: in all of them, these sounds have a similar order: [k], [l], [m], [n]. Might be striking for linguistics lovers!

2013/03/13
6:15am
Glenn
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This interesting chart gives example words for the IPA symbols where they exist in English, Italian, Latin, French, and German. OK, we should all probably ignore the Latin column.
IPA with exx. in English, Italian, French, and German

Using this to look for IPA sounds unique to English, there are only four left standing after comparison to only Italian, French, and German:
the vowels in cat (/æ/), first (/ɜ/), and cup (/ʌ/);
the th in three (/θ/).

The /θ/ appears in many languages. Based on the symbol used, perhaps it is not a surprise that Greek is among them (θάλασσα), along with Welsh (saith) and Castilian Spanish (cazar).
The /æ/ appears in loads of languages, including languages as widely spoken as Arabic (كتاب) and Hindi (बैल), but notably reported as one of the three primary vowels in Quechua.
The /ʌ/ appears also in Irish (Ulster), Korean (星 별), and Vietnamese (ân).

As it turns out /ɜ/ is one of the rarest vowels around! But still not quite completely unique. It seems it was recently documented in Paicî, one of the local languages spoken on New Caledonia.

As for sounds NOT found in English, there is one in virtually every other language! I venture that ASL is one of the few exceptions.

2013/03/13
10:44pm
RobertB
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Thank you for your terrific resources and comments.

I wonder if /ɜ/ (as in first) is at all distinguishable from /ə/(in enter).  From the survey below, 3 (highlighted) out of 7 sources seem to think they are the same.  How you think does /ɜ/ sound different from /ə/ , so to be listed by your source as uniquely English ?

first            fir          enter
/fəːst/      /fəː/     /ˈɛntə/      Oxford Dicti.
ˈfərst    ˈfər    ˈen-tər   Merriam-Webster
/fɜː(r)st/    /fɜr/        /ˈentər/        Macmillan Dicti.
/ˈfɜːst/      /ˈfɜːr /    /ˈen.tər /     Cambridge Dicti.
(fûrst)       (fûr)       (entər)         TheFreeDictionary
[fɜːst]       [fɜː]        [ˈɛntÉ™]         “
[fəːst]     [fəː]       [ˈentÉ™]       “

2013/03/14
4:00am
Raffee
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I think the schwa before ‘r’ tends to be somewhat longer, and dictionaries have different styles to show it: /’mɜːrdɜːr/ or /’mÉšdÉš/. I get this by matching the British pronunciation of words as shown in IPA and pronounced by a British speaker. British dictionaries show /’mɜːdÉ™(r)/. But the problem is that some dictionaries show it as /’mɜːrdÉš/. It’s a long time I have this problem. I don’t think they notice it as precisely as we do. Or the pronunciations are related to  delicate somewhat regional nuances- accents other than General American.

2013/03/14
7:19am
Glenn
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The sound /ɜ/ has a slightly lower place of articulation than /ə/. Here is a chart of the IPA vowels:
IPA overview

2013/03/16
12:56pm
Aldamans
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Ron Draney said
English doesn’t have:

  • A labiodental nasal, like the sound m but made between the upper teeth and lower lip rather than both lips together

Actually, English does have a labiodental nasal, in words like emphatic and anvil. Almost all languages assimilate a nasal to the point of articulation of a following consonant. What happens is that no language has been conclusively proven to have a phonemic labiodental nasal, distinguished from both bilabial and alveolar nasals.

I’d say that the most unique sound of English is the /ɹ/. It’s not an alveolar approximant, like the symbol implies; at least in my dialect, it’s a rounded retroflexed lateralized velar approximant, that in IPA would look like [ɰ˞ʷ].

2013/03/16
7:09pm
RobertB
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Ron, what foreign words have a leading consonant m that is ‘made between the upper teeth and lower lip’ ?
Aldamans, could you give some examples of /ɹ/ ?

2013/03/16
8:46pm
Aldamans
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RobertB said
Ron, what foreign words have a leading consonant m that is ‘made between the upper teeth and lower lip’ ?
Aldamans, could you give some examples of /ɹ/ ?

/ɹ/ is the English r-sound.

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