March 26, 2005

Pharyngealization and annoyance

Heidi Harley at HeiDeas has a terrific list of linguistic Simpsons jokes, which she proposes as the basis for an introductory course. She also asks a phonetic question:

As I looked at a few Simpsons sites for this post, I noticed that the accepted orthography for Marge's trademark annoyed noise is mmm. This didn't seem adequate to me, and got me thinking about the difference between a regular prolonged bilabial nasal, [mmm] (the noise you make for yummy things), and Marge's annoyed noise. It seemed to me it might be an ATR minimal pair, with [mmm] being [+ATR] and Marge's noise being (aggressively) [-ATR]. Does that make sense to any phonologists out there?

"ATR" stands for Advanced Tongue Root: the root of the tongue, which is the front wall of the pharynx, can be pulled forward to make the pharyngeal cavity wider, or pulled back to make it smaller. The distinction was first named in the case of some distinctions among vowels in certain African languages, where vowels come in a +ATR and a -ATR set. Examples for Akan can be found here, including sound files and x-ray tracings. A similar articulatory gesture is used in English (and many other language) in voiced stops, where advancing the tongue root (and/or lowering the larynx) helps to permit voicing to continue despite the oral closure.

It has been argued that the tongue root can be actively retracted (pulled backwards, narrowing the pharynx) as well as advanced (pulled forward, widening the pharynx). So maybe Retracted Tongue Root (RTR) would be a better term than "aggressively [-ATR]". These changes are sometimes associated with other epiglottal and laryngeal maneuvers, resulting in voice quality differences: thus the enlarged pharynx is sometimes associated with breathy voice (as in Javanese), and the constricted pharynx can be associated with creaky voice. From memory, I'd say that Marge's "annoyed voice" (which I think she uses for more than just "mmm" noises) involves pharyngeal constriction and creaky voice.

Phoneticians of the world, can you advance (or retract) to Heidi's challenge?

For a start, we need a good corpus of annoyed and non-annoyed Marge Simpson vocalizations. Perhaps I need to buy the boxed set of DVDs for the phonetics lab. Meanwhile, I'll assemble any data that readers care to contribute.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 26, 2005 08:02 AM