Linguistics Anonymous

20 April 2006

A Lateral Kick to the Shins: Part 6

So what is this mysterious phonetic evidence I've been hinting about? How can you possibly use phonetic evidence to examine a language that has been dead for over 2000 years, anyway?

Well, the short answer is that you can't. We don't know exactly how Akkadian was pronounced and we probably never will. Nonetheless, sound changes like this one and other indirect evidence can give us a pretty good idea of how most phonemes were realized, and we can then look for living languages that have those same sounds and examine recordings of them to try to find out about what Akkadian may have looked like acoustically.

The languages I have used here all have the two sounds involved in this sound change, [š] and [ɬ], although they have both of them as phonemes whereas the latter was only allophonic in Akkadian (according to my interpretation). This is a matter of abstract phonology, though, and shouldn't matter for acoustic phonetics. I should note that I was unable to find any examples of these phones in the most useful environment, in clusters before coronal obstruents, so the following spectral evidence will not quite be identical with how I'm picturing the sounds involved in the Akkadian change. I think the basic points are still valid, though.

We start with Kabardian, a Northwest Caucasian language spoken in the Russian Caucasus. This language has the sounds in question, and they are reflected in these spectrograms (from E. J. A. Henderson, "Acoustic features of certain consonants and consonant clusters in Kabardian," Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1970).

The top image is of the Kabardian word /šɨ/, and the bottom image is of the word /ɬɨ/. Note that the main difference is the frequency at which the high-intensity noise begins; in the top image this is around 1500 Hz, while in the bottom image it's more like 2500 Hz. Otherwise the two images are pretty similar. Both show high-intensity noise concentrated around 5000 Hz, as well as rather well-defined formant structure. This paper was published in 1970, so the technology used for the analysis was a far cry from the advanced digital methods we have now, but it still shows the similarities between these two sounds very well.

I was originally going to try to put all the phonetic evidence in this one post, but it's pretty late, so I'm going to just finish this post and leave the rest for another. Stay tuned, though, because the other evidence is even more exciting (if you can believe that).

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