January 22, 2004

Skepticism about the SARS--phonology connection

I earlier reported on Dr. Sakae Inouye's hypothesis that aspiration in Chinese and English might be among the causes of the SARS outbreaks in areas in which these languages are dominant. Inouye's support for the hypothesis rests on a comparision with Japan: the Japanese have yet to suffer a SARS outbreak, and Japanese lacks aspiration.

My colleague John Kingston, who originally brought this item to my attention, has this to say in response to my report of Inouye's letter in The Lancet:

English, Chinese, and Japanese all share sounds that involve very high rates of air flow out of the mouth -- the sibilant fricatives. In fact, air flow continues at a very high rate for a very long time in these sounds relative to aspirates. More importantly, a Chinese speaking Japanese is most likely to substitute aspirated stops for Japanese voiceless unaspirated stops, while using unaspirated stops for the Japanese voiced ones. That is, even if Inouye's hypothesis about the languages shopkeepers use in talking to tourists is correct, there's no reason to expect that the Chinese speaker will actually pronounce the sounds of the foreign language in a way that accurately reflects the foreign language's phonetics rather than his own language's.
Posted by Christopher Potts at January 22, 2004 12:19 PM