Spreading sounds of joy

‘Tis the season for workshops.
Deck the walls with electropalatograms and nasal airflow measurements
These blazed out of powerpoints in the David Myer Building at La Trobe University, where about 25 or so people interested in the sounds of Australian languages gathered for a workshop organised by Marija Tabain.
Many of the papers were collaborative, often between descriptive linguists and phoneticians or phonologists, named as authors or in acknowledgments. The success demonstrated a point that Gavan Breen made (Reflecting on retroflexion):
“grammars, especially of languages that have been worked on by only one researcher are likely to have systematic errors in them, and they need checking”

Arandic languages (7 papers 7 linguists) and Warlpiri (3 papers 4 linguists) have been particularly well served by this. Its importance was taken up by John Ingram and Mary Laughren (Gradients of lenition in Warlpiri stops and rhotics). Their work is a collaboration between a linguist trained in phonetics who knows Warlpiri very well and so knows what people mean to say, and a phonetician trained as a phonological phantom-buster. You know those phantoms – those sounds we think are there because we know what someone means to say. Ingram and Laughren are interested in how one can know what a speaker meant to say, when the only traces of a consonant, say, are found on neighbouring vowels or consonants, or in the rhythm and stress of the language.
How sounds influence what follows them (carry-over coarticulation) and how they influence what precedes the (anticipatory coarticulation) was the main theme of many papers. A question is whether Australian languages, as Janet Fletcher discussed (Positional variation in consonant articulation in Warlpiri), have less anticipatory coarticulation, and more carryover coarticulation. This discussion ranged from the kind of non-contrastive phonetic processes that descriptive linguists are rarely alert to, to the well known phonetic alternations, to the stage when the alternations become distinctive, to the traces of coarticulation in historical change. Several speakers argued, following Andy Butcher, that a major constraint in many Indigenous languages is the need to keep cues for place of articulation clear, since there are so many contrastive places of articulation.
Nasalisation was a good example of this range. Hywel Stoakes showed how Bininj Gun-Wok contrasts with English in having little anticipatory nasalisation on vowels preceding nasals (Nasal co-articulation in Bininj Gun-Wok: an aero-dynamic study). This is a low-level alternation that most of us would not be aware of. But it may go some way to explaining the presence of prestopping of nasals – which he suggested helps keep cues for place of articulation. Prestopping is optional in some Central and southern Australian languages, but have become distinctive in others – such as Arrernte. However, Myf Turpin (Phonology of Kaytetye song) showed that perhaps it is not so deeply embedded, since speakers of the Arandic language Kaytetye who use the prestopped consonants in speech don’t prestop them in song (so neutralising the distinction between prestopped and non-prestopped consonants).
Coronals featured in several papers (Breen, Fletcher, Tabain An EPG study of apical harmony in Arrernte, Baker and Harvey Coronal place oppositions, and a paper by Andy Butcher, Bruce Birch, Nick Evans, and Janet Fletcher Stopped laterals (?) in Iwaidja) . Some wrestled with the apical assimilation and dissimilation that’s found in many central Australian languages, as well as the changes of retroflex apicals to alveolars following laminals. It is a great relief to many of us to realise that other people have trouble hearing retroflexion and that sometimes it just isn’t there…. On the other hand, now we have to work out the alternations. What gesture or spread of gesture or blocking of gesture could cause these? How does it fit in with timing?
The status of rounding was also a topic – Breen (What’s the matter with /u/? ) noted the striking absence of verb roots ending in /u/ in several languages, and the appearances in widely separated languages of consonant rounding (often associated with velars). What is it about Australian languages that makes them liable to this? Is it connected with the phonotactic constraints that are seen in some languages, blocking sequences *iCu? Myf Turpin also noted that rounding disappeared in songs, except on velars.
Quantitative analysis (sooooo time-consuming) of data was an important strand in the workshop, e.g. Kristine Rickard’s paper Rhythm, phrasing and boundary tones in two Arrernte narratives, and Simone Graetzer’s Vowel-to-vowel coarticulation in Arrernte VCV sequences .
I was particularly taken with Jeff Chapman’s paper on Warlpiri intonation. He showed the general intonation contours of Warlpiri clauses, with particular emphasis on the position of the auxiliary, but also showed very interesting examples of where the first part of a complex verb was bracketed intonationally with a preceding constituent. Strange but convincing.
Then… the traces of coarticulation in historical change. Butcher et al’s paper on Iwaidja discussed possible paths for a palatal stop to end up as a strange something – lateral flap? flapped lateral? prelateralised stops? stopped lateral? Christina Pentland (Phonotactic structure and word forms in Lamalama: an initial-dropping language of Cape York Peninsula) showed the extraordinary consonant inventory (including voiceless trill and several fricatives) which has resulted from long-distance coarticulation effects from dropped initial consonants or vowels.
And last, new languages. Andy Butcher gave a paper on the phonetics and phonology of Aboriginal English. Great stuff! He showed for example that one of the last features to stay in Aboriginal English is the clear post-vocalic /l/. And that the vowel space of Alice Springs Aboriginal English speakers is smaller and more centred in the total vowel space, thus sounding more like the vowel spaces of local Indigenous languages and less like the expanded vowel space of Standard Australian English.
Wonderful to have a workshop where there were so many good papers approaching similar topics and languages from different angles. Thanks Marija!

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