October 04, 2006

First Korean on the moon!

Korean /r/
Phonetician/Phonologist Lisa Davidson, of NYU, sent me some comments on the Armstrong story. (For previous coverage on Peter Shann Ford's reported discovery of the missing "a" in "one small step for (a) man", see: One small step backwards; One 75-millisecond step before a "man"; Armstrong's abbreviated article: the smoking gun?; and Armstrong's abbreviated article: notes from the expert.) Lisa makes some sophisticated points. But she also observes, amusingly, that Shann Ford illustrated his explanation of how Armstrong would have produced the /r/ of "for" with an image (shown right) of a Korean alveolar. (Alveolar = consonant produced with constriction between tongue and roof of mouth just about where you see on the pic.) As you can see if you follow the link that Shann Ford himself provided on the picture, the image is adapted from a guide to the Korean alphabet. And look: the tongue is actually touching the roof of the mouth (specifically, the alveolar ridge). Now, /r/ is an approximant, meaning the tongue doesn't completely close off the air stream, so you can tell this isn't an /r/ at all, and, as Lisa points out, Korean doesn't even have an English-like alveolar approximant. (Which takes my mind back a couple weeks... what do Korean pirates say?) So what you see is two pictures of a Korean guy saying e.g. /d/, /t/ or /n/, and then one of the same guy saying e.g. /m/, /p/, or /b/. And here is what all this tells you about the first words on the moon: zip. Below is Lisa's message, which casts yet more doubt on Shann Ford's conclusions, and also includes an invitation for Neil Armstrong: let him know about it if you see him!

Lisa writes:

Although it's perhaps a minor part of this whole issue, I wanted to weigh in on Ford's articulatory description of how /r/ is produced. Since ultrasound and MRI are very well suited for looking at /r/, many of us have done a number of studies on the shapes corresponding to /r/. Extensive work has been done by Mark Tiede at MIT and Suzanne Boyce at the University of Cincinnati, but also Jeff Mielke, Adam Baker and Diana Archangeli at Arizona, Bryan Gick at UBC, and I'm working on a project on /r/ acquisition by children.

While the retroflex shape shown on Ford's webpage is certainly one possible configuration for American English /r/ production, the fact is that there are at least 4 other tongue shapes ranging from a big bunch to a boring, undifferentiated lump in the mouth, that all correspond to /r/. I might also point out that the picture on Ford's website (http://www.controlbionics.com/Electronic%20Evidence%20and%20Physiological%20Reasoning.htm) is from a description of Korean alveolars, and Korean does not have the American English approximant /r/. In any case, given the variety possible, we have no idea what shape Armstrong produces (unless he's interested in coming in to one of our labs--I'd be happy to check it out for him!). It seemed from Ford's description that he considers the retroflex shape essential to the production of this supposed schwa, but in reality, we have no idea what Armstrong did. On the other hand, I'm not sure that his actual tongue shape is important for determining the presence or absence of schwa, so regardless of what Armstrong's canonical /r/ looks like, I think Ford's articulatory argument for the presence of schwa is incorrect.

Posted by David Beaver at October 4, 2006 04:48 PM